The slave markets of the Viking world: comparative perspectives on an ‘invisible archaeology’
By Ben Raffield
Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies
Abstract: Slaving was a prominent activity among raiding and mercantile groups operating across the early medieval world during the Viking Age (c. 750–1050 CE). Historical sources provide explicit descriptions of widespread raiding and slave taking by Viking raiders, as well as a substantial trade in captive peoples.
Archaeologists, however, have long-struggled to identify evidence for the transportation and sale of captives in the material record. In order to begin addressing this issue, this study explores the comparative archaeologies and histories of slave markets in order to examine the potential form and function of these sites, and how they might have operated as part of the wider, interconnected Viking world.
Introduction: In 821, the early-medieval Irish chronicle, The Annals of Ulster, states that ‘Étar was plundered by the heathens, and they carried off a great number of women into captivity’. This was just one of a number of recorded attacks by Viking raiders on communities living in northern and western Europe during the eighth-eleventh centuries – the period commonly known as the Viking Age, in which captives were taken. Historical sources indicate that over the course of the period, thousands of people were driven to raiders’ ships and taken away to be enslaved and subsequently exploited in various roles across Scandinavia, the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic, or among societies inhabiting lands that lay even further afield.
Top Image: Iron Fetters – Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland Sweden. – image from Swedish History Museum / Flickr