What You Don’t Know About the Vikings

Yes, they were brutal. They also had women leaders, coveted luxury, and encountered more than 50 cultures from Afghanistan to Canada.

This story appears in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

A cold drizzle falls as we shiver in the streets, waiting for the Viking lord and his band of raiders to appear. It’s a raw January night in the old Shetland town of Lerwick, but there’s euphoria in the air.

Beside me, a man with two young children laughs as he spots a red smoky haze rising behind the town hall. “Looks like they torched the whole building,” he shouts, to grins all around. Fire, after all, is why we are here. It’s Up Helly Aa, the great incendiary celebration of the Viking past in Shetland. Like everyone else, I’ve come to see a Viking ship burn.

As the lord’s squad and dozens of others pour into the street, fire seethes from hundreds of torches. A roar of delight goes up from the crowd as it catches sight of the sleek longship the raiders tow. The Vikings first landed on these rocky shores north of the Scottish mainland some 1,200 years ago, crushing the local resistance and taking the land. For nearly seven centuries Norwegian lords ruled Shetland, until they finally pawned the islands to a Scottish king. Today the old Norse dialect—Norn—is all but forgotten in Shetland, but the islanders remain intensely proud of their Viking past. Each year they prepare obsessively for Up Helly Aa, assembling, plank by plank, a replica of a Viking ship.

Now, as the crowd belts out old songs of sea kings and dragon ships, the torchbearers tow the vessel into a walled field. As the lord gives the signal, a hail of torches sets the ship ablaze. Fire races up the mast, and embers fly into the night sky. On the sidewalk, children stomp their feet and dance, nearly delirious with excitement.

Later that evening, as revelers kick up their heels at parties, I marvel at the power the Vikings still hold over our imaginations. Dead and gone for centuries, these medieval seafarers and warriors live on in the invented worlds of filmmakers, novelists, and comic book artists. Today most of us can reel off details of these imagined Vikings—how they fought and feasted, where they lived, how they died. But how much do we really know about the Vikings? Who were they, how did they see the world, and what were their lives truly like?

Now, with advanced technology—from satellite imagery to DNA studies and isotope analysis—archaeologists and other scientists are coming up with many surprising new answers. In Estonia, scientists are poring over two buried ships filled with slain warriors, shedding new light on the violent origins of the Vikings. In Sweden, researchers are studying the remains of a female Viking commander, illuminating the role of women in warfare. And in Russia, archaeologists and historians are tracing the routes of Viking slave traders, revealing the importance of slavery to the Viking economy. For archaeologists the doors are starting to swing open on a world that was far more complex and compelling than once thought. “These are heady times in Viking research,” says Jimmy Moncrieff, a historian at the Shetland Amenity Trust in Lerwick.

Taken together, the new studies reveal a fresh picture of the ambitions and cultural impact of these daring seafarers. From the shores of their Scandinavian homeland, between the Baltic and North Seas, Viking fortune seekers took to the world stage in the mid-eighth century, exploring much of Europe over the next 300 years and traveling farther than earlier researchers ever suspected. With sleek sailing ships and expert knowledge of rivers and seas, they journeyed to what are now 37 or more countries, from Afghanistan to Canada, according to archaeologist Neil Price of Uppsala University in Sweden. En route they chanced upon more than 50 cultures and traded avidly for luxuries. They donned Eurasian caftans, dressed in silk from China, and pocketed heaps of Islamic silver coins. They built thriving cities at York and Kiev, colonized large swaths of Great Britain, Iceland, and France, and established outposts in Greenland and North America. No other European seafarers of the day ventured so fearlessly and so far from their homeland. “It’s only the people from Scandinavia who do this,” says Price. “Just the Vikings.”

But exploration and trade weren’t the only roads to wealth. Viking raiders prowled the coasts of Britain and Europe, striking with sudden, shocking brutality. In northern France they sailed up and down the Seine and other rivers, attacking at leisure and filling their ships with plunder. Spreading terror far and wide, they extorted nearly 14 percent of the entire economy of western Europe’s Carolingian Empire in exchange for empty promises of peace. Across the channel in England, sporadic raids expanded into total warfare, as a Viking army invaded and conquered three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, leaving bodies to rot in the fields.

The Viking age, says Price, “is not for the squeamish.” But how, ask researchers today, did all this mayhem begin? How and why did medieval farmers in Scandinavia become the scourge of the European continent?

In the nearly three centuries before the raids on foreign shores began around A.D. 750, Scandinavia was wracked by turmoil, Price says. More than three dozen petty kingdoms arose during this period, throwing up chains of hill forts and vying for power and territory. In the midst of these troubled times, catastrophe struck. A vast cloud of dust, likely blasted into the atmosphere by a combination of cataclysms—comets or meteorites smashing into Earth, as well as the eruption of at least one large volcano—darkened the sun beginning in A.D. 536, lowering summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere for the next 14 years. The extended cold and darkness brought death and ruin to Scandinavia, lying as it did along the northern edge of medieval agriculture. In Sweden’s Uppland region, for example, nearly 75 percent of villages were abandoned, as residents succumbed to starvation and fighting.

So dire was this disaster that it seems to have given birth to one of the darkest of all world myths—the Nordic legend of Ragnarök, the end of creation and the final battle, in which all gods, all supernatural beings, and all humans and other living creatures die. Ragnarök was said to begin with Fimbulwinter, a deadly time when the sun turns black and the weather turns bitter and treacherous—events that eerily parallel the dust veil that began in 536, Price says.

When summer at last returned to the north and populations rebounded, Scandinavian society assumed a new, more truculent form. Leaders surrounded themselves with heavily armed war bands and began seizing and defending abandoned territory. In this real-life Game of Thrones, a militarized society arose in which men and women alike celebrated the virtues of warfare—fearlessness, aggression, cunning, strength under fire. On the Swedish island of Gotland, where archaeologists have found many intact graves from this period, “almost every second man seems to be buried with weapons,” notes John Ljungkvist, an archaeologist at Uppsala University.

As this weaponized society was gradually taking shape, a new technology began revolutionizing Scandinavian seafaring in the seventh century—the sail. Skilled carpenters began constructing sleek, wind-powered vessels capable of carrying bands of armed fighters farther and faster than ever before. Aboard these ships, northern lords and their restless followers could voyage across the Baltic and North Seas, exploring new lands, sacking towns and villages, and enslaving inhabitants. And men with few marriage prospects at home could take female captives as wives by persuasion or force.

All of this—centuries of kingly ambition, a seeming abundance of wifeless young warriors, and a new type of ship—created a perfect storm. The stage was set for the Vikings to pour out of the north, setting much of Europe on fire with their brand of violence.

Around 750 a band of early Viking warriors dragged two ships onto a sandy headland on the island of Saaremaa, just off the coast of Estonia. Far from their homes in the forests near Uppsala, Sweden, the men were the bloodied survivors of a costly raid. Inside their ships lay the tangled corpses of more than 40 Viking men, including one who may have been a king. All were in their youth or prime of life—tall, muscular, strapping men—and many had seen savage fighting. Some had been stabbed or hacked to death, others decapitated. One man died after a sword took off the top of his head.

On the sandy headland the survivors began the gruesome task of reassembling severed body parts and arranging most of the dead men in the hull of the largest ship. Then they covered the bodies with cloth and raised a low, makeshift burial mound by placing their wood and iron war shields over their slain comrades.

In 2008 a work crew laying an electrical cable discovered human bones and bits of a corroded sword, and local authorities called in archaeologists. Today, sitting in his office at Uppsala University, Price marvels at the discovery. “This is the first time that archaeologists have ever been able to excavate what is clearly a Viking raid,” he says. More remarkable: The warriors laid to rest at Salme, Estonia, died nearly 50 years before Scandinavian raiders descended on the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, long thought to have been the first Viking attack.

Today the ship burials at Salme are creating a stir among Viking specialists. “What I find amazing is all the swords,” Price says. Most researchers had long assumed that early Viking raiding parties consisted of a few elite warriors armed with swords and other costly war gear, as well as a few dozen poor farm boys furnished with cheap spears or longbows. But that’s clearly not the case at Salme. The burials there contained more swords than men, confirming that at least some early expeditions consisted of many warriors of high status.

On a January morning in a quiet industrial park south of Edinburgh, Scotland, researchers lead the way through locked doors to a small conservation lab. For more than a year, scientists here have been unpacking the riches that one Viking leader amassed from raiding and ransacking in foreign lands. Buried some 1,100 years ago in southwest Scotland, the Galloway hoard is a collection of strange and beautiful things, from a solid-gold ingot to pieces of silk samite cloth from the Byzantine or Islamic world to an enameled Christian cross. Olwyn Owen, an independent archaeologist who specializes in the Viking age, says she’s never seen anything quite like it. “It’s an incredible find,” she says, “just incredible.”

Today a conservator has laid out some of the rarities from the hoard. On the table there’s a slender gold pin shaped like a bird. It resembles an aestel, a small pointer that bishops and other members of the clergy once used to read sacred texts. Nearby is a gold filigree pendant, possibly designed to hold a small relic of a saint. And, at the end of the table, Owen gazes at nine silver brooches, some bearing swirling tendrils and mythical creatures, others strange humanlike faces. All but one, says Owen, were designed for Anglo-Saxon wearers. “In other words,” she concludes, “some Anglo-Saxon monastery or settlement had a very bad day.”

The Viking leader who carried off these treasures had a weakness for beautiful things. Rather than melting down all the plunder into bullion, this Viking lord set aside several pieces for his personal collection of exotic, foreign art. The Vikings, says archaeologist Steve Ashby with the University of York, had a taste for finer things from foreign cultures, and some elites took pleasure in owning and using these status symbols. “The top men, they were dandies,” says Ashby. “It’s a society in which conspicuous consumption is important.”

More Johnny Depp than Vin Diesel, Viking leaders painted their eyes, pulled on flashy colored clothing, and donned heavy jewelry—neck rings, dress pins, armbands, and finger rings. But this dress for excess had a serious purpose: Each object told a story of foreign adventure, of recklessness and courage rewarded. Fitted out in the spoils of war, a Viking was a living recruitment poster for the raiding life, beckoning young men to take an oath of loyalty in return for a share of booty. “Viking leaders couldn’t be bashful about what they achieved, if they wanted to maintain a power base,” Ashby says.

At the start of the Viking age, these raiders targeted mainly coastal or island monasteries—armed, it seems, with advance intelligence. Scandinavian traders were already plying the coasts of Britain and Europe, and they quickly discovered that the markets typically were held next to monasteries. Strolling past stalls and sizing up the goods, some would have spotted the silver chalices and gold altar furniture adorning monastic chapels. “I don’t think it requires mental leaping to think there’s someone who finally says, ‘Guys, why don’t we just nick the stuff?’ ” says Price.

Early raiding parties planned their attacks for the summer months, and they often set out with just a few ships and perhaps a hundred fighters. Bristling with iron weaponry, the raiders struck rapidly and went about the carnage swiftly, setting sail before locals could mount a defense. In France, in the ninth century alone, Viking raiders stormed more than 120 settlements, massacring monks and local inhabitants, stripping churches of their treasures, and enslaving the survivors. “If you lived in northwest France in the late ninth century,” Price says, “you must have thought your world was ending.”

In the old Viking city of Gnezdovo in Russia, an inhabitant buried these beads and silver Islamic coins for safekeeping and failed to return for them. Viking traders frequently sold slaves in eastern bazaars for such coins, known as dirhams.
In the old Viking city of Gnezdovo in Russia, an inhabitant buried these beads and silver Islamic coins for safekeeping and failed to return for them. Viking traders frequently sold slaves in eastern bazaars for such coins, known as dirhams.
Photograph by ROBERT CLARK

As rivers of precious metals flowed back to Scandinavia, young men flocked to the great halls of Viking leaders, eager to swear their loyalty. What began as small raiding forays of two or three ships gradually evolved into fleets of 30 vessels, then many more. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary annal, hundreds of Viking ships arrived along the east coast of England in 865, carrying a ravenous host that the Chronicle writers called micel here, the great army. Pushing inland along England’s rivers and roads, these invaders began smashing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and seizing large swaths of land to colonize.

Just outside the modern city of Lincoln, archaeologist Julian D. Richards from the University of York is studying one of the winter camps of the great army. The encampment, known as Torksey today, was large enough to accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 people, but discoveries there indicate that the great army was more than a fighting force. Metalsmiths melted down plunder, and merchants conducted trade. Children raced through the muddy fields, and women went about their work—which may have included leading men in battle in some parts of the Viking world.

One famous early Irish text records how a woman known as Inghen Ruaidh—or Red Girl, after the color of her hair—led a fleet of Viking ships to Ireland in the 10th century. Bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström of Stockholm University recently reanalyzed the skeletal remains of a Viking fighter found in the old trading center of Birka, in Sweden. Mourners had furnished the grave with an arsenal of deadly weapons, and for decades archaeologists assumed that the elite fighter was male. But while studying the warrior’s pelvic bones and mandible, Kjellström discovered that the man was in fact a woman.

This nameless Viking woman seems to have commanded the respect of many Viking warriors. “On her lap she had gaming pieces,” says archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University. “This suggests that she was the one planning the tactics and that she was a leader.”

The fleets that carried death and destruction to western Europe also transported slaves and commodities to markets scattered from Turkey to western Russia, and possibly Iran. Medieval Arab and Byzantine officials described convoys of armed Viking slavers and merchants known as the Rus who regularly voyaged along river routes to the Black and Caspian Seas. “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs,” observed Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab soldier and diplomat from Baghdad. “Every one of them carries an ax, a sword, and a dagger.”

To shed light on this southern trade, archaeologists are now excavating sites along the routes to the Byzantine and Muslim worlds. On a late June morning some 230 miles southwest of Moscow, Veronika Murasheva, an archaeologist at the State Historical Museum in Moscow, walks the bank of the Dnieper River where a small medieval city once stood. Founded by Viking explorers more than 1,100 years ago, Gnezdovo lay along two major trade routes—the Dnieper, which flows into the Black Sea, and a skein of streams that sweeps into the Volga River, whose waters empty into the Caspian Sea. Gnezdovo clearly profited from this geography, flourishing and eventually sprawling over an area the size of 30 city blocks.

Today Gnezdovo is mantled in forest and grassland, but over the past century and a half, Russian archaeologists have uncovered hill forts, hoards, caches, workshops, a harbor, and nearly 1,200 burial mounds that have produced rich artifacts. Gnezdovo, they discovered, was home to a wealthy Viking elite who collected tribute from the local Slavic population and who likely managed aspects of the southern commerce. Each year, after the spring thaw, Viking traders set off from Gnezdovo in ships laden with luxury goods—furs, honey, beeswax, chunks of amber, walrus ivory—and cargoes of human slaves. Many, says Murasheva, were bound for the Black Sea and Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and a city of more than 800,000 people at the time. In the heat and dust Viking traders wandered the markets, striking deals for their cargo and buying prized commodities: amphorae filled with wine and olive oil, fine glassware, colorful glazed plates, swatches of silk and other rare textiles.

Other Viking traders ventured farther east from Gnezdovo, following streams that wended across western Russia into the Volga. In bazaars along the river and around the Caspian Sea, Muslim buyers paid handsomely for foreign slaves, since the Quran forbade believers from owning freeborn Muslims. The eastern buyers settled their bills with heaps of silver coins known as dirhams, a key source of wealth in the Viking world.

By searching archaeological reports and databases, Marek Jankowiak, a medieval historian at Oxford University, has found records of more than a thousand hoards of dirhams that Viking traders and others buried across Europe. Based on an initial analysis, Jankowiak estimates that Viking slavers could have sold tens of thousands of eastern European, mostly Slavic, captives into bondage in the 10th century alone, earning millions of silver dirhams—an immense fortune at the time. In the Viking world, where lords regularly rewarded their fighting men with gifts of silver, the road south was the road to power.

In the firelit halls of the Norse lords, storytellers also described early voyages to the west. Gazing around at those assembled, they told the tale of a trader, Bjarni Herjólfsson, who lost his way in thick fog while sailing from Iceland to Greenland. When the mist finally lifted, Herjólfsson and his men spied a new land that bore little resemblance to Greenland. It was blanketed in forest, but Herjólfsson had little interest in exploring it, so he angled his ship out to sea. The lost Viking had reached the New World by accident—the first European, it seems, to lay eyes on its shores. It was the beginning of Viking voyages to North America.

Today few feats of Viking seafarers are so cloaked in mystery and controversy as their exploration of the New World. According to the Norse sagas, Viking mariners sailed westward from Greenland in four major expeditions, searching for timber and other resources. Scouting along the northeast coast of Canada as early as 985, they wintered in small base camps, cut timber, picked wild grapes in a place they called Vinland, gave birth, and traded and fought with the indigenous people.

In 1960 a famous Norwegian explorer, Helge Ingstad, went looking for these Viking camps. Along Newfoundland’s northern tip, at a place known as L’Anse aux Meadows, a local landowner led him to several hills whose contours resembled longhouses. Nearby lay a peat bog that contained bog iron, a source of iron ore prized by Vikings. Excavations revealed three large Viking halls, some huts, a furnace for processing bog iron, and butternuts from a type of tree that grows hundreds of miles farther south. Taken together, the discoveries and saga clues strongly suggested that Viking explorers not only had landed in Newfoundland but also had ventured farther south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

More recently a Canadian archaeologist turned up traces of Viking traders in the Canadian Arctic. Patricia Sutherland, an adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, was searching through old collections at the Canadian Museum of History near Ottawa when she discovered pieces of Viking yarn. Spun by skilled weavers, the yarn came from sites inhabited by the Dorset, a Paleo-Eskimo people who lived in the Arctic until the 15th century. “I thought it just can’t be,” Sutherland says, so she expanded her museum search and discovered a trove of Viking artifacts, from whetstones for sharpening metal knives to tally sticks for tracking trade transactions.

The most intriguing find was a small stone vessel that looked like a crucible for melting metal. Sutherland and a small team recently took a closer look using a scanning electron microscope. Along the inner surface they detected traces of bronze, as well as tiny glass spheres that form when minerals are melted at high temperatures—tantalizing evidence of Viking-style metalworking. Sutherland thinks that Viking seafarers from Greenland voyaged to the Canadian Arctic to trade with indigenous hunters, exchanging metal knives and hones for thick arctic-fox furs and walrus ivory—luxury goods for European markets.

Tracking down other Viking expeditions mentioned in the sagas, however, remains a big challenge. To locate potential sites, archaeologists must comb thousands of miles of remote coastline. So three years ago archaeologist Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham decided to try a new approach.

Parcak, a National Geographic fellow, specializes in using imagery from orbiting satellites to detect potential archaeological sites. In a test run in Iceland, she and her colleagues detected what appeared to be turf walls. When archaeologist Douglas Bolender of the University of Massachusetts Boston went to investigate the area, he discovered buried remnants of turf buildings and a turf wall only six inches tall—exactly where Parcak suggested. “This is astounding,” he marvels, “the tiny remains of a buried turf wall identified from 770 kilometers in space.”

Buoyed by this success, Parcak and her team began poring over satellite imagery of Atlantic Canada. In southwestern Newfoundland they spotted clusters of what looked like turf walls on a promontory known as Point Rosee. Overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Point Rosee lies along a sea route to lands of butternut trees and wild grapes. And like L’Anse aux Meadows, it adjoins a large peat bog where Viking seafarers could have collected iron ore.

During a small excavation in 2015, Parcak and her colleagues found what looked like a turf wall, as well as a large hollow where someone seemed to have collected bog ore for roasting—the first step in producing iron. But a larger excavation last summer cast serious doubt on those interpretations, suggesting that the turf wall and accumulation of bog ore were the results of natural processes. Today Parcak is waiting for additional test results to clarify the picture.

Parcak thinks, however, that she and her team are developing a scientifically rigorous way to seek Viking sites in North America. Her colleague Karen Milek, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen, agrees. “Looking for the Norse here is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Milek says. Satellite imagery is one of the best ways to go, she adds, “and Sarah is defining that best approach.”

On a blustery winter day, I catch a cab to Shetland’s Sumburgh Airport. It’s the morning after Up Helly Aa, and few Shetlanders are awake after the long night of revelry. The swords and helmets are put away, and the children are sleeping, dreaming of sea kings. The wooden longship, the pride of the lord, is now ashes in the field.

But the idea of the Vikings, the romance of these intrepid northerners who built great ships and sailed ice-choked seas to a new world and winding rivers to the bazaars of the East, never grows old, never grows tired. It lives on here and across their northern realm, a message from a long-dead world, an enduring spirit of an age.

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