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]

Back to the trenches: Bannockburn and battlefield archaeology on the BBC

This evening BBC Scotlandwill be airing the first part of a new series investigating the Bannockburn battlefield. The series is obviously timed to coincide with interest in the battle arising from the Scottish independence debate and coming referendum, but work to precisely locate the site has been ongoing for some time. The series promises to shine a welcome spotlight on a still emerging branch of archaeology and the challenges associated with locating (and protecting) locations that have a powerful resonance in modern political engagement with the past. If the site of Bannockburn can be identified with  security (and archaeological proof) then it will join the tiny corpus of pre-Civil War battelfields in Britain that can be identified archaeologically, alongside Bosworth (1485) and Towton (1461). The series is presented by Neil Oliver and Dr. Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. The latter’s involvement should ensure that the series is sensible and insightful, and recalls the days when the pair presented the battlefield archaeology programme Two Men in A Trench before Neil Oliver’s ascent to the dizzy pinnacle of archaeo-presenting megastardom.

The website has lots of content, and several entertaining clips of people hitting each other with authentic looking fourteenth century hardware. Excellent.


The Battle of Wesenberg/Rakvere: medieval warfare in the far north

(c) Milek Jakubiec/Medieval Warfare Magazine

I have just recently had another article published in Medieval Warfare magazine, this time – in a bit of a departure from my usual sphere of study – on a battle that took place in the context of the northern crusades that pitched the forces of Catholic western Europe and Scandinavia against the Pagans and Orthodox Christians of the eastern Baltic and beyond. In this case the belligerents comprised the armies of the Russian city states of Novgorod and Pskov (and elsewhere) pitched against a combined army of Danes, Teutonic Knights, Estonians and other crusading forces – perhaps from Germany.

The article is triumphantly illustrated by Milek Jakubiec. The scene depicts the single combat supposedly fought between the Lithunian-Russian Prince Dovmont (Daumantas) of Pskov, and the Master of the Livonian Branch of the Teutonic Knights, Otto von Lutterberg, during the rout of part of the Catholic army. This may or may not have happened, but it certainly makes for an exciting scene to illustrate the battle.

The magazine is full of interesting material relating to the life and times of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod and hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film that depicted the Teutonic Knights as proto-Nazi invaders. Absolute propagandist bosh of course, but stirring stuff nonetheless!

Heroic Russians ...

Heroic Russians …

... wicked Germans

… wicked Germans


The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.


Medieval Warfare III.5


Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).