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How and why did the Viking Age begin?

By Minjie Su

The question of how the Viking Age started has been much debated by historians. One of the leading scholars in the field, Neil Price, is looking to address this fundamental question with his latest project – The Viking Phenomenon.

Photo by Martin Jacquet /Flickr

Professor Price, currently chair of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, spoke earlier this month at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology about his latest project, which began in 2015. It is a collaborative effort between Uppsala University and Tallinn and Tartu Universities in Estonia. Acknowledging the breadth and width of the recent research into the Viking Age (circa AD 750-1050), this ten-year project means to travel even further back in understanding how and why the Viking Age began.

Five principal points are singled out as requiring special (re)consideration. First, the very concept of the Viking Age. Is it merely a Victorian invention? Or is it just a part of what was happening in Europe at large? Professor Price is not content with either. The Viking diaspora is marked by interaction with a huge variety of cultural groups. It simply cannot be something that ‘just happened’; it is an issue of complexity that needs to be examined in its own right.

Second, Professor Price believes that stereotypes should not be dismissed. Instead, they must be ‘honestly confronted, challenged, and elucidated, not least where it may contain some truth’.

Third, it may be time to critically dismantle some boundaries such as those between the Vendel Period (circa AD 550-790) and Viking Age. Fourth, the project will make conscious effort to remove the ‘ghettoization’ of gender. Instead of eye-catching notions such as ‘Women of the Viking Age’, Professor Price emphasizes on ‘People of the Viking Age’, which includes also the unfree, the enslaved population.

Last but not the least, having worked with History Channel’s Vikings, Professor Price points out the importance of engaging contemporary culture and mass media. It would be impossible to effectively study the Viking Age without understanding how and why the Viking imagery is represented and/or misrepresented in modern popular culture. Besides, it will be a useful tool for scholars to reach a wider audience, and their research to achieve greater influence.

Despite its breadth in scope, the project is composed of two main branches – the boat grave culture and Viking economics. At the core of the first branch lies the archaeological sites of Valsgärde (Sweden) and Salme (Estonia). Located near the famed Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde is one of Sweden’s greatest archaeological treasures and certainly the biggest cemetery of boat burials. The site was already excavated between the 1920s and the 1950s. Fifteen (presumably) male boat graves are found, together with over sixty cremations and burial chambers, mostly of women. The site is dated to from the 6th century to the 11th century AD, with the boats buried once per year. Therefore, it provides a valuable and rare opportunity not only to look at the transition between the Vendel and the Viking Age, but also the activities of a small area over a long period of time.

Located on the coastal area in Estonia, the site of Salme, dated to ca. AD 750 (thus the very beginning of the Viking Age), was excavated between 2008 and 2012. Two boat graves are found, aligned parallel with the shore, respectively containing seven and thirty-four bodies. Apparently, complex rituals have been performed here: a mound of shields has been found, with swords standing vertically on the shields; birds, fish, and dogs have been killed and buried along. Archaeologists also discovered gaming pieces, deliberately arranged in certain patterns around the corpses. One of them – buried in the centre – was perhaps a king, for a single gaming piece – the king – is found in his mouth. He must have died a gruesome death: his body has been cut into pieces and reassembled for burial; a sword was put in his hand.

Isotope analyses show that the Samle men were from Mälar Valley; this would put them in close affinity with the Valsgärde people – in fact, some war gears prove to have been cast in the same mould. They may even be the same people. Together, Valsgärde and Salme indicate early maritime contact. They provide the lens to see the beginning of the raiding activities and, above all, the society that produced them.

The second branch of the project develops around Viking economics – economics, not the economic system, Professor Price emphasizes. As the term indicates, this branch focuses on the network that gave rises to the early raiding activities. This is also where the unfree, enslaved population come in, for raiding, slaving, and trading form a triangle that should not be considered and discussed in separate terms; within the socio-political context that generated and supported raiding, everyone is implicated.

It will not be hard to imagine, that the project will lead to a double number of conferences, lectures, workshops, and publications in the foreseeable future. They will be mostly devoted to five sub-projects: Viking ideologies, Viking dynamics, Viking slavery, Viking infrastructure, Viking economics. Keen on its public engagement, publications – including excavation reports of the archaeological sites – born from this project are to be made accessible online. A geolocated digital reconstruction app is in the making, meant to be used on the sites of Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde, and Salme. The communities that used to live there will be brought back to life once again and, as a visitor, you shall also be a part.

Click here to learn The Viking Phenomenon

See also this talk by Neil Price on The Children of Ash: Cosmology and the Viking Universe

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