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Viking Travel

+ Tell me where the Vikings came from?

The Vikings came from Scandinavia. Those who came to Scotland, including Shetland, were mainly from the west coast of what is now modern Norway. The Vikings who went to England were predominantly from what today is Denmark. Vikings from modern day Sweden travelled south and east, following rivers deep into the heart of Europe. Their homeland was largely rural; in Norway, people lived in farms along the fjords. There were few towns, although as travel and trade expanded, so trading centres grew and developed and towns were born. Harold Finehair managed to create a united kingdom of Scandinavia before he died in about 930 AD.

+ Tell me about famous Viking ships

A number of famous Viking ships are mentioned by name in the Norse Sagas.

"Trana" Built c995 AD for King Olav Tryggvason of Norway (973 - 1000 AD) at Nidaros, Trondheim, Norway.

"Ormen Skamme" or "Ormen Korte" Built c990 AD for the chieftain Raud den Ramme in Salten, Hålogaland, northern Norway. It was decorated with golden dragonheads.

"Ormen Lange" Built c996 AD for the Norwegian King Olav Tryggvason at Ladehammaren in Trondheim, Norway. It became legendary for its size and extraordinary finish when it was in use and then later in the sagas about Olav Tryggvason.

"Barden" Built c980-990 AD for Earl Eirik of Norway. It was large, designed for attack at sea, and was equipped with some kind of a ram made of iron.

"Visund" Built c1020 for King Olav Haraldsson (St. Olav) of Norway. It was a large ship, perhaps of the same size as "Ormen Lange”.

"Ormen" Built c1060 AD for of King Harald Sigurdsson Hårdråde of Norway (1015 - 1066) in Nidaros (Trondheim), Norway. The ship has the same name as the earlier "Ormen Lange", which was probably was the model for this ship.

+ Tell me how Vikings navigated the oceans:

Viking mariners largely navigated by a mix of their senses and practical knowledge. This gave them an intuitive sense of where they were on their mental map. Using their senses, Vikings would note navigation marks such as the highest hills or an unusually shaped rock. They could see whales feeding in certain currents. Experienced mariners could hear birds calling and waves breaking on shore or rocks. They could taste if fresh water was flowing into the sea. Even modern experienced sailors can smell land in a sea breeze, and feel the prevailing wind on their skin. By looking at birds and the colour of the sea, they could tell if land was close. When the night sky was clear they used the stars and constellations. The Vikings probably also used a sun compass. A sun compass always shows the correct direction. This comprises a vertical pointer on a horizontal surface, on which the shadow of the pointer is drawn through the day. This shadow curve is different at different latitudes and at different times of the year, so in order to use it for navigation, a series of curves is necessary. When the sun is obscured by clouds even the sun compass has its limits, but we have from the sagas knowledge of so-called “sun stones”, which could determine the direction of the sun even under cloud cover. These stones could be a particular mineral, which polarises light.

+ Why did the Vikings come to Shetland?

There were several contributing factors as to why the Vikings left their homelands: a desire to find wealth to trade or steal, which was linked to the aim of using what they gained to become more powerful at home; a desire to find new lands to settle as the population grew; the fact that the seas were calmer and the technology for boats and navigation were developing which made travel possible.

Shetland was only 180 nautical miles from the west coast of Norway – perhaps 2 days sailing. It was also right at the heart of the Viking seaways, whether the traveller was heading south to Orkney and down into Scotland and the Western Isles, Man and Ireland, or north to Faroe, Iceland or Greenland or even north-west to Newfoundland. It was a key staging point where fresh water and supplies could be obtained, where there was much flatter land to farm and where crafts were flourishing. Shetland also had supplies of soapstone, a soft rock which the Vikings used for making bowls, lamps, spindle whorls, and fishing weights out of. To the Vikings, Shetland was a gentler version of home.

+ Tell me about soapstone working

Vikings did not make much pottery. Instead they used natural materials – wood for plates, bone and horn for cups and soapstone (also known in Shetland as kleber) for cooking pots and later, for baking plates, as well as smaller objects: loom and fishing weights, lamps, spindle whorls, etc. Soapstone, as its name suggests, is soft when fresh and easy to work, but it hardens up when placed in a fire.

The Vikings would have felt at home in Shetland since they encountered large outcrops at Catpund, Cunningsburgh in the south, and Clibberswick, Unst to the north. In addition therewere many other smaller outcrops, some of which have been completely worked out. Excavation suggests that local outcrops were important to the economy of some upland farms.

To quarry the soapstone, the Vikings cut circular and rectangular blocks from the rock by chiselling the shape into the rock. They worked the hillside in steps so that there was always one side that was already exposed – often by previous working. Once they had chiselled the outline down to the required depth, they drove wedges under the base and so prised the block off. (Having experimented with this a few times, we eventually managed to do it in an hour.) Sometimes the blocks broke, particularly along lines of oxidisation. The Vikings often tried to retrieve the situation by reshaping the block into something smaller (a lamp or loomweights). The basic shape (both inside and out) was made on the hillside – presumably to make the blocks lighter to carry and so that breakages happened before they put effort into transporting them. Bowls and bake plates were finished and smaller objects created, away from the quarries. So far the only finishing site which we know of is the longhouse at Belmont. Once the object was made, the surface could be polished with pumice to get a good finish and make it look pretty.

+ Tell me if the Vikings really did discover America?

They certainly got to the North of Canada. Both the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders report that parties of Vikings went to Vinland. There are impressive remains of a Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, at the north of Newfoundland, which dates to c.1100AD, about the same time as the Sagas record the discovery of Vinland. There is also evidence of contact between Vikings and the native Dorset people of Baffin Island, found in at least 4 different locations by Patricia Sutherland. Sarah Parcak, a researcher using satellite imagery, thinks she may have found evidence for Viking bog iron extraction in Point Rosee, Newfoundland. Tests are in progress but this may have been a natural feature.

+ Tell me what happened to the Vikings?

The Vikings who came to Shetland settled. They farmed, built houses, churches and byres and made their home in the islands. Some of those who settled in Unst farmed land which today looks quite unsuitable for farming, but archaeological evidence shows that the Vikings could produce a good crop of barley at some of the upland sites, such as Hamar. At some point their longhouses, which were generally aligned down the hillslope turned through 180 degrees, and were built along the hillside, affording them greater protection from the Shetland weather. Their way of life changed slowly, and in spite of the increasing Scottish influence and the official pledging of Shetland to Scotland in 1469, the Vikings stayed, turning into Shetlanders. Their influence is still evident: in the dialect, place-names and even the laws.

+ Tell me when the Vikings arrived in Shetland?

This is a question which archaeologists are still trying to answer. Given the prime position of Shetland it seems probable that they arrived at the end of the 8 th century (late 700s AD),however archaeologists are struggling to find any evidence for that. The earliest evidence at the moment comes from broch sites, where Vikings appear around the late 800s. The first settlements are likely to have been on the coast, now lost due to coastal erosion. Other early settlement may have taken place in fertile areas which later became the heart of townships, and so may have been built over. The abundance of longhouses in Shetland, particularly in Unst, the most northerly island, date from the 11th century.

+ Tell me about Viking place names in Finland

The name Rosala (Rodzala 1540) is a typical ancient place name in the sense that it can beinterpreted in many different ways. The element -ala can mean ‘a sacred place’, or ‘a farm, or a hamlet’. The element Rod(s)- also has multiple meanings, but the most common inplace names are ‘a naval military unit’, ‘a clearing, a settlement’, and ‘a sand or gravel ridge’. Other possibilities are ‘a wooden cross’, ’a sea mark’ and ‘a border’. It is not possible to choose one of these alternatives and state with certainty that the village was named after it.

+ Tell me about Viking place names in the Iberian Peninsula

Place names are sometimes the only evidence to explain who lived in a particular geographical area. In the province of León (Spain) there is a small village called Lordemanos, which could refer to a place inhabited in the past by Normans or their descendants. The Vikings, who arrived for the first time on the Iberian coasts in the ninth century, are called nortmanni or nordomanni, but also lormanni or lordomani in the Hispanic-Latin sources. This could be the origin of the name Lordemanos and suggest that the people who lived near there saw a new group of people as different to them and gave them this name.

+ Tell me about Vikings and Russia

A legend tells that in the 9th century Slavic peoples, who were often in conflict with each other, sent a delegation to Rus, their word for Sweden, to ask for help. They wanted someone from Rus to come and rule over them. A Swedish chieftain called Rurik went there and became their ruler. This was the beginning of Rusland, that is Russia. Vikings who went eastwards were called Rus and sometimes also Varangians (varjager). A group of Varangians later became famous as Household Guards for the Emperors in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Emperors did not trust soldiers from nearby countries, but relied fully on the Varangian soldiers. After working in the Guard many of the soldiers returned to Sweden as very rich men.

+ Tell me about Vikings and the Baltic.

Contacts between Swedish and Finnish territories started already before the Viking age, with trade across the Baltic Sea. The contacts intensified when the “Vikings Way East” became an important trading route. This happened after the Arabs had conquered Spain in the 8th century and taken control of the Straits of Gibraltar, which made it difficult to reach the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The northern routes to the Mediterranean Sea, through the Baltic Sea and along the Russian rivers, became an important alternative to the route through Gibraltar. One of the northern routes went along the South coast of Finland and harbours and trading places were founded along this coast.

+Tell me where the Vikings travelled to in the East

The Vikings in the eastern parts of the Nordic countries travelled mostly “i österviking”, that is to the East. Their trading route “Austrvegr” (the Eastern way) was very important during the Viking age. Trade with Novgorod, Kiev, Constantinople and Baghdad brought wealth and prosperity to all the Nordic countries. Altogether more than 600 000 Arabic silver coins have been found in Nordic Countries. Merchants and mercenaries from the North were not called Vikings by the people in the East. They were called Rus and Varangians. The kingdom of Russia (Rusland) was founded by Swedish rulers, who established trading places along the rivers and inland seas. Their capital was Könugård (the King´s town), now called Kiev.

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Appearance

+ Tell me about Viking hairstyles

Evidence for the way Viking women styled their hair can be seen in pictures on runic stones, on amulets and pendants and on the Oseberg tapestry. The most typical hairstyle is a knot at the back of the head, with hair hanging down from the knot like a ponytail. An 8th century grave find from Kent in England shows this type of hairstyle. Another example is a Viking age grave find from Hollola in Finland. In this case the hair itself with its knot was exceptionally well preserved, and it has been possible to reconstruct the hairstyle. This hairstyle requires very long hair.

+ Tell me how Vikings coloured their cloth

Vikings used to dye their fabrics using natural sources. Green, yellow and brown are easily obtained from for leaves, bark and roots. Vikings primarily coloured wool and very seldom linen using Woad, Madder, and Birch leaves. Walnut husks are also used. Natural colours are not as resistant to use, washing and sunlight as modern dyes but using a mordant like Alum has historically made the colours stick to the fabric better and last longer. However, a selection of wool from different sheep can give you a range from white to brown and almost black without having to colour it or worry about fading!

+ Tell me what Vikings wore on their feet

Evidence, from archaeological excavation, shows that Vikings wore soft leather shoes and boots. The leather used is mainly calf and cattle skin although later during the 11th century pig and sheep skin were also used. Some early shoes were made from a single piece of leather sown together with either thin strips of leather or waxed sheep’s wool. Surviving examples from York show ankle boots, some of which were fastened with a toggle or metal buckle at the side. The Vikings also wore woollen socks and these would have been constructed from woven cloth (wadmal). Later, by the 14th century, we find woollen socks made by nalbinding, an early form of knitting. Some spectacular examples of socks survive in Iceland.

+ Tell me what Viking men wore

Viking men wore trousers, tunics and cloaks made from wool and linen. Animal skins were also used as outer garments to keep them warm in the winter. Clothing rarely survives in the archaeological record but examples of jewellery have been uncovered (mostly from graves). These can offer us an insight into what they wore and how this was fastened. Clothing would have been secured with bone or metal pins, large penannular brooches and leather belts. A rare example of a fragment of a thick woollen glove or mitten has been recovered from a peatbog in Shetland. Made from woven cloth, it has been radiocarbon dated to AD970 ± 30, calibrated to AD1010-1160.

+ Tell me what Viking women wore

We know a great deal about what women wore in the Viking period because there have been many archaeological finds of women’s clothing in Viking age graves in Finland. The dresses are well preserved and many of them have been reconstructed. They consist of a long underdress, with long sleeves and a sleeveless tube shaped apron or mantle dress. Many of them also have a small separate apron and a shawl. They are made of linen or wool, and parts of the cloth are dyed with red, green, yellow and other colours. They also contain bronze spiral ornaments and were fixed with belts, pins and brooches.

+ Tell me if the Vikings had horns on their helmets

Horns on Viking helmets is what we might call “fake history”. In the 19th century, when people in the Nordic countries began to tell stories about the Vikings, they pictured them with horned helmets but these tales were very romantic and not based on evidence. The origin of the myth goes much further back in history. It started as “fake news” told by Christian priests and monks in the Viking age. The clergy could not understand how it was possible, that pagan peoples from the North could be victorious in attacking churches and monasteries. Their Christian God, to them the only real and almighty God, ought to be able to protect his sacred places against worshippers of pagan gods. The explanation had to be that the pagans were not humans but devils, and to convince their fellow Christians of this fact, they pictured raiding Vikings with horned helmets, and sometimes even with tails.

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Viking Life

+ Tell me what Viking houses looked like?

Before the Vikings came, Shetlanders lived in oval or round stone built houses. Viking houses were very different: they were roughly rectangular and around15 - 22m long and 5m wide at the widest point. Throughout Scotland, longhouses tend to have one straight wall and one which is slightly boat shaped. The long-walls usually had doors opposite one another and frequently, these were one side of an internal subdivision and a change in the floor level. Some houses had side rooms or annexes attached.

As in western Norway, the outer walls might be of stone or turf, but inside was lined with timber. This may have been brought with them since there was little available in Shetland. Longhouses were often constructed on hillsides and were usually aligned down the slope. Some had animals at the lower end, but in other houses the lower end was a long-hall for feasting and entertaining. Benches along the walls could be used both as seats and, as the evening wore on, as beds for guests. There was a long-hearth in the centre of the hall, with a chimney above. It was often raised up from the ground, which would prevent people from accidentally tripping into it.

+ Tell me about what the Vikings ate

The Vikings enjoyed a healthy and varied diet of fish, meat and cereal grain. Archaeological evidence from sites excavated in Shetland highlights an increase in deep-sea fish, including cod and ling, at this time in addition to the freshwater varieties. Animal remains from excavations include cattle, pigs and sheep/goats and wild fowl; their eggs may also have supplemented the Viking’s protein intake. There is evidence of oats and barley being processed. Gruel was most likely a daily staple and the Vikings brought to Shetland a new culinary tradition, evident from the large steatite baking plates on which flat bread or flatbrød was baked over hot embers.

Analysis of food residue found on steatite vessels from a longhouse on the Shetland island of Unst shows evidence for dairy and marine fats, sometimes both from the same pot, suggesting the residents were enjoying fish soup with their flatbrøds! The consumption of dairy produce is suggested by the find of a sheepskin bag containing 4gms of butter retrieved from a Shetland peatbog, although this may have been used to pay the rent rather than to be spread on their bread! It was recently radiocarbon dated to AD975 ± 30, calibrated to AD1010-1160.

+ Tell me about the evidence for the first Christian Vikings in Shetland

Shetland officially became Christian in 997AD when Sigurd, the Earl of Orkney (and Shetland) met Olaf Tryggvason, the King of Norway off the coast of Orkney. The Orkneyinga Saga says that Olaf forced Sigurd and his crew to convert to Christianity on pain of death. There were Christian priests, the “papar”, in Shetland before the Vikings came. The Existence of “papa” place-names suggests that the Vikings respected the places where the priests were. The Vikings would have no objections to an additional god. The evidence of pagan burial in Shetland is limited, perhaps to a generation (but like the evidence for early settlement, more could have been lost to the sea).

There is limited evidence for Viking Christianity but at St Ninian’s Isle an Iron Age cist was divided into 6 compartments with six babies underneath, with small stones with carved crosses at the heads. Three of these were radiocarbon dated to between the late 7 th and late 10 th centuries; the other three were later, and all six could have been 10 th century, but the burials were not all buried at the same time and could represent several generations. The combination of the Iron Age style cists and the Christian headstones in a previously Iron Age graveyard, which subsequently became Christian might suggest that these date to the cusp of conversion. Corner posts from early Christian shrines and four later Norse carved crosses were also found at the site. The continuity, the fact that the first excavations took place in the late 1950s, and the lack of dating evidence, means that there is no straightforward answer to what was evidence of Pictish and what was evidence of Viking Christianity at the site. (The site is best known for the collection of Pictish silver found on the site in 1958).

Later, most head farms had their own chapel. In Unst there are 25 possible chapels.

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Viking Crafting

+ Tell me about bone working

Bone and antler are durable materials that were readily available in the Viking period in both rural and more developed areas not the least as waste from food production. Craftsmen used different animals and parts of their skeletons to make a range of practical and often beautiful objects. Needle cases for example can be made from bird’s bones as they are naturally hollow. Needles also were made from both bone and antler. Flutes could be made from a sheep’s front leg. Besides being practical, bone and antler are soft enough when fresh to allow the craftsman to decorate the object by drilling, cutting, filing and scraping.

+ Tell me about pottery production

Most pottery made during the Viking age was simple and limited to vessels used for cooking, eating and storage. Domestic pottery was most often made locally but there is evidence for finer products being exported from the Rhineland to the Nordic countries. The pottery was made from tempered clay by building up layers which were then shaped and smoothed (coiling). Later in the Viking age, craftsmen started using turning tables or kick wheels. To fire the pottery it was simply put in a pit with a fire on top rather than an elaborate kiln. The lack of oxygen in the pit during this process makes the pottery black or greyish.

+ Tell me about soapstone working

Vikings did not make much pottery. Instead they used natural materials – wood for plates, bone and horn for cups, and soapstone (also known in Shetland as kleber) for cooking pots and later, for baking plates, as well as smaller objects: loom and fishing weights, lamps, spindle whorls, etc. Soapstone, as its name suggests, is soft when fresh and easy to work, but it hardens up when placed in a fire. The Vikings would have felt at home in Shetland since they encountered large outcrops at Catpund, Cunningsburgh in the south, and Clibberswick, Unst to the north. In addition there were many other smaller outcrops, some of which have been completely worked out. Excavation suggests that local outcrops were important to the economy of some upland farms. To quarry the soapstone, the Vikings cut circular and rectangular blocks from the rock by chiselling the shape into the rock. They worked the hillside in steps so that there was always one side that was already exposed – often by previous working. Once they had chiselled the outline down to the required depth, they drove wedges under the base and so prised the block off. (Having experimented with this a few times, archaeologists from the Shetland Amenity Trust eventually managed to do it in an hour.) Sometimes the blocks broke, particularly along lines of oxidisation. The Vikings often tried to retrieve the situation by reshaping the block into something smaller (a lamp or loomweights). The basic shape (both inside and out) was made on the hillside – presumably to make the blocks lighter to carry and so that breakages happened before they put effort into transporting them. Bowls and bake plates were finished and smaller objects created, away from the quarries. So far the only finishing site which we know of in Shetland is the longhouse at Belmont. Once the object was made, the surface could be polished with pumice to get a good finish and make it look attractive.

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Famous Vikings

+ Tell me about Harald Hardrada

Harald Hardrada, sometimes called the last Viking king, was the half brother of the Norwegian king Olav Haraldson, later called St Olav. Harald took part in the battle at Stiklastad 1030 AD, where Olav was killed. After the battle Harald fled to Sweden and from there to Russia. He enlisted as a warrior in the army of Jaroslav I the Wise, and from there he continued to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and became commander of the Varangian Guard. He became rich and later returned to Norway to help the Norwegian king Magnusfight the Danes. Harald became known as a terrible and ruthless soldier, and got the nickname Hardrada, ’the ruthless’. After the death of Magnus he became the king of Norway in 1045. In 1066 he went to conquer England, but he died in the battle at Stamford Bridge defeated by Harold Godwinson who in turn lost his life at the battle of Hastings a few weeks later – effectively ending the Viking Age in England.

+ Tell me about Ingvar the Far-Travelled

Ingvar the Far-Travelled (Ingvar Vittfarne in Swedish), was one of the most famous Viking warriors in Sweden. Twenty-six runestones, mainly in the region of Uppland, refer to warriors who took part in Ingvar’s expedition to the east in 1036-1042. They initially fought with King Jaroslav I in Russia, and then continued to the Black Sea and ”the Land of the Saracens” (now Georgia). Ultimately the expedition was unsuccessful and most of those who took part died. A runestone in memory of Ingvar’s brother says that he went east for gold but died in Saracen land (Särkland).

+ Tell me about Ingegerd Olofsdotter

Ingegerd was the daughter of the Christian Swedish King Olof Skötkonung. She was born in 1001 in Sigtuna and she died 1050 in Russia. In 1019 she was married to the Russian king Jaroslav I the Wise and became Grand Princess of Kiev. She had ten children, of which three became queens. With her husband she started to build the St Sophia Cathedrals in Kiev and in Novgorod. After her death she was declared a saint called Anna. She is still worshipped as St Anna in Russia. Her hymn starts with the words: ”O joy of the Swedish people, thou didst gladden the Russian realm, filling it with grace and purity, adorning its throne with majesty, lustrous in piety like a priceless gem set in a splendid royal crown”.

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Vikings Today

+ Tell me about famous excavations in Finland that revealed the Viking age

The first, and to this date only, excavation in Finland that revealed a Viking age harbour took place from 1992-1996 at the strait between the islands Rosala and Hitis in the Southwest archipelago. The ancient name of this strait was Örsund, which is mentioned in a 13th century itinerary found in a document belonging to the Danish king Valdemar I. The itinerary describes harbours along Austrvegr, the Eastern Route.The modern excavation, which was a great sensation at the time, unearthed many finds typical of a harbour and trading place, including weapons, jewellery, Arabic silver coins and weights for measuring silver.