Viking Ireland

The earliest raids in Ireland fell in 795 on Rathlin Island, Co.Antrim. This was followed by attacks on St Patrick’s Isle (Co. Dublin) in 798 and at Inishmurray (Co. Sligo) in 798 and 807. By the 820s and 830s, this predation had become epidemic: In 821 came the ‘plundering of Etar by heathens’ and ‘from there they carried off a great number of women’. In 831, ‘heathens won a battle in Aignecha against the community of Armagh, so that very many were taken prisoner by them’. In 836 came ‘the first plunder taken from Southern Brega by the heathens […] and they slew many and took off very many captive’. No one should be under any romantic illusion about what this meant for the people wrenched from their homes. The reality of Viking thraldom was hell: transportation, degradation, rape and murder.[1]

In time, the Vikings who targeted Ireland came to make of it a base of operations. Winter camps, known in Ireland as longphuirt (singular longphort) developed over time into permanent settlements, the origins of Ireland’s first towns: Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, Cork. By far the greatest, however, was Dublin. Excavations at Wood Quay revealed the range of commodities that came through the port-town, drawing in wealth and settlers: silk from the east, amber from the Baltic, slaves from everywhere the Vikings sailed. And it was Dublin that became the lynchpin of political power around the Irish Sea. Scions of its ruling elite – the house of Ivar (the Ui Imair) – played decisive roles in the fate of numerous northern British realms. They fought each other, they fought the old Irish dynasts, they fought the English and the Picts; they were expelled from Dublin (in 902) and they took it back (in 917), and all the while a new identity was being forged: the Gallgoídil – the ‘foreign-Irish’ – a people apart from the native population, but who no longer shared a simple kinship with their ancestors in Scandinavia.[2]

The last great Viking king of Dublin was Sihtric ‘Silkbeard’(r.995-1036), a Christian who undertook pilgrimage to Rome and an inveterate plunderer of churches. It was during his reign that the first Irish coins were minted. Simple copies of English coins at first, they later developed into striking new designs, a conical helmet on a front-facing head, beady eyes peering over luxuriant moustachios. It was also in Sihtric’s reign that the iconic battle of Clontarf (1014) was fought – the clash of Brian Boru’s Munster-led alliance with a Dublin-Leinster faction and its Norse allies from Orkney and the Isle of Man. The significance for Irish history and the Ireland’s Viking Age has been thoroughly investigated. Although Sihtric remained King of Dublin, Norse influence in Ireland was undoubtedly on the wane. But it may be true to say that, whatever the impact of the battle, the old distinctions were eroding to the point of invisibility: dynastic and regional identities displacing the power of older heritage.[3]

In many ways, Ireland’s history encapsulates the Viking paradox. Without question, the appearance of Scandinavians in Ireland and around the Irish Sea was a harrowing experience for the coastal communities they targeted –the pitiless slave-raids, the women and children ripped from their homes, the church treasures stripped from their communities, the manuscripts left to burn. But by the eleventh century, Ireland had become home to a thriving urban economy, linked to a global network of trade and communication. As in Britain, it was the Vikings who were at the heart of these transformations, even if – in the end – they left themselves behind.

[1]  T. Charles-Edwards (ed. and trans.), The Chronicles of Ireland (2006, Liverpool University Press)

[2] D. Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea (2010, Oxbow)

[3] S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin XVI: proceedings of Clontarf 1014–2014: national conference marking the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf (2017, Four Courts Press)

[Image: silver penny minted in Dublin for Sihtric Anlafsson Silkiskegg (Silkbeard), British Museum; click here for more info]

Iceland: legends of the north

 

NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

Silver, swords and wool

© Trustees of the British Museum.

10th century penannular ‘thistle’ brooch from Fluskew Pike near Penrith, Cumbria (© Trustees of the British Museum)

 

Silver and gold, weapons and slaves, shields and long-ships: these, we might imagine, are the proper accoutrements of the sea-borne rover… wool not so much.

But unless we are foolish enough to believe in the sword & sorcery stereotype of the barbarian-in-naught-but-furry-loin-cloth, a hard life on the north-sea margins demanded proper clothes. And, whilst furs were an important part of Viking dress (and an important trading commodity), it was woollen cloth that was essential to many aspects of Viking life: sartorial, social and nautical.

Continue reading

Vikings in Russia

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in February 2014]

The Vikings are coming …

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in January 2014]