By Timothy Carlisle
MPhil Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2013
Abstract: It is often assumed that blacksmiths and ironworkers in Viking Age occupied important roles in their communities. However, the nature and source of this social role and the significance attributed to it is seldom explored or questioned. These assumptions are questioned by examining the social role and status of smiths, the archaeological expressions of those social aspects, and the cultural pressures which influenced the position of ironworkers in the Viking Age.
This thesis begins by exploring the literary expressions of smiths in Viking Age myths, legends, and sagas. These sources provide information about the contemporary social perspectives connected to smiths and their role, and provide a basis for how best to examine smithing through theoretical perspectives such as status, material expressions of status, value and technology in value ascription. The use of such theoretical terminology provides a way to examine the material culture associated with ironworking, and means of explaining the social relationships which acted upon and reacted with Viking Age material culture. Applying the theories of value and value ascription through technological processes to the current archaeological understanding of Viking Age smelting and smithing technologies imparts a practical understanding of the processes and technological actors which produced iron and iron objects as socially valuable objects. The interaction between symbolically charged iron objects and the social interactions in which they played a role suggests that examining the consumption patterns associated with iron objects is a route to examine those social meanings and test the research questions.
This work contains a comparison between two case studies, the Viking Age cemetery in Luistari, Finland and the Viking Age urban centre at Kaupang, Norway. The comparison between evidence of these sites provides complementary information for examining the general trends surrounding iron object use in differing regional contexts. Discussing these trends with supplementary examples of smithing material culture from the wider Viking world extends the ideas of smiths being valuable, venerated members of Early Medieval Scandinavian societies to the wider Viking Age sphere.
Examining the evidence from the case studies and supplementary information with respect to the theoretical applications of the terminology suggests that the smiths of the Viking Age were valued as the producers of valuable, symbolically charged objects. This appears to have been true for the producers of simple farm-tools as well as the producers of highly prized weapons. This important social role, and the role of the smith within the technological processes which were responsible for value and symbolic ascription, would have enhanced the prestige of the smith as a member of Viking Age societies in which they lived.