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Whetstones lead to new theory on why the Viking Age began

There have been many theories on what prompted the beginning of Viking raids into the British Isles and continental Europe, including the paucity of females in Scandinavia, the Norse fighting back against Christianization efforts, and even the desire for fame and glory. A new theory has just been published which has been born out of research on whetstones discovered in Denmark.

A team of scholars from the universities of Bergen and Oslo, as well as the Geological Survey of Norway, examined the remains of over 400 whetstones recovered from archaeological in and around Ribe, now in southern Denmark, which was an important trading centre in the Early Middle Ages. Whetstones were a common tool in the medieval world, used to sharpen blades such as swords and axes. By using microscopic analysis, the researchers found that these whetstones at Ribe, which date back to the early eighth-century, had been quarried from sites near Trondheim, Norway, over 1100 kilometres away.

Because of the large numbers of whetstones they found, the researchers believe that these distant quarry sites were major suppliers to Ribe. Moreover, if that was so, then a very stable trading network must have been established in the areas of Norway and Denmark to allow for traders to sail the hundreds of kilometres. They also note that other evidence from the ninth-century shows that long-distance trading was taking place in Scandinavia for goods such as furs and reindeer antlers.

Whetstones from Norway – photo by Bitjungle / Wikimedia Commons

For such a trading network to be successful, the various kings and rulers in these parts of Scandinavia must have been able to offer adequate protection, and during the eighth century they would have prevented local pirates – the Vikings – from attacking traders. While some of these Vikings would have entered royal service, others would realized that if they wanted to continue their raiding and piracy, it had to be done outside of Scandinavia.

The authors explain:

Once rising royal power put the damper on raiding close to home, warriors and ship commanders in southern and western Scandinavia would have looked overseas for alternative hunting grounds. Through several generations’ recurring trade ventures in the southern North Sea zone, Scandinavians would have collected knowledge from traders and sailors of lands and waters in all the areas affected by the earliest raids — details would have been extracted from captives taken en route.

The early years of Viking activity – from the end of eighth century to about 830, saw the raiders go after easy targets such as monasteries and lands like Ireland and Scotland, which were poorly defended and not important to key trading routes. However, the authors believe that as the Vikings began larger attacks against European towns, the Scandinavian kings would have been made stronger efforts to stop them in order to protect their trade routes. This led to the Vikings going even further overseas and using overwintering to keep beyond the reach of Norse kings.

The authors note:

The Viking phenomenon is varied and complex and the onset of Viking raiding cannot be captured within a single explanatory framework no matter how extensive and detailed. Still, the current steady flow of new evidence regarding the provenance of materials and the movements of people will undoubtedly continue to remodel, extend and refine the understanding of this transformative period in Northern Europe.

The article, “The Beginning of the Viking Age in the West,” by Irene Baug, Dagfinn Skre, Tom Heldal and Øystein J. Jansen, appeared earlier this year in Journal of Maritime Archaeology. Click here to read the article through Springer.

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