The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings

Natasha sheldon - April 17, 2017

The Vikings were Scandinavians adventurers from modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They took their name from the term for a person seeking adventure, “Vikingr”, or the practice of traveling in search of adventure – to go a Viking.

Mention the name, and most people think of savage raiders of the English coast, ‘heathen men” as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe them, or as adventurers who discovered Greenland and Iceland – and, according to legend, North America.

There are many places associated with the Vikings. Here are five that are not so well known, which flesh out the fables with archaeological fact, and in some cases shed light on the lesser-known history of these Norse adventurers.

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings
Viking ships. Wikimedia Commons.

Saaremaa, Estonia: The Beginning of the Viking Era

Historians date the beginning of the Viking age to June 8, 793 AD, when the church and monastery on the island of Lindisfarne were destroyed by Vikings in search of rich pickings. But evidence from a small Estonian island suggests that Norsemen were raiding and trading much sooner than this.

In 2008, archaeologists on the island of Saaremaa were surprised to discover an ancient boat containing the bodies of seven men, aged between 18-45-years-old. Old wound marks on the bones suggested some were seasoned warriors. Even though the wooden hull had mostly rotted away, archaeologists were able to reconstruct the boat from nails and rivets. The vessel was a warship, measuring 38 feet long. Narrow and light, it was without a sail, meaning its crew would have had to row it through short stretches of sea, hugging the coast and skipping between islands. Radiocarbon dating of the remaining wood dated the craft to between 650-700 AD.

Two years later, a second boat was discovered. Larger at 55 feet long and 10 meters wide, this one was 50 years younger than the first craft. A cluster of wood, iron and fragments of cloth suggest a mast and sail, meaning its crew could sail longer distances. This boat also contained burials. Over 30 were found carefully arranged, stacked in four rows. Their weapons and belongings accompanied them, including four dogs and a hawk. Each man had been carefully covered with his shield.

Despite the difference in ages and styles, both boats were part of the same event. Whether trading or raiding, they were involved in a conflict and the surviving comrades buried the dead. Isotopic analysis of bones has established the fallen warriors as Scandinavian in origin. This, plus the style and design of weapons and the dead mens’ grave goods identifies them as Vikings 50-100 years before the Viking era supposedly began. The Saaremaa boats are the oldest Viking boats in the world. The marked differences in the style of the boats show that the Vikings’ nautical technology moved quickly in the years intervening years between each boat’s construction.

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings
Odin Figure from Staraia Ladoga. Google Images

Staraia Ladoga: The Foundation of Russia

On the shores of Lake Ladoga is a settlement that is a key and little-known part of Viking and Russian history. In the 8th century AD, the Slavic site of Staraia Ladoga became the Norse settlement of Aldeigjuborg, as Swedish Vikings took advantage of the settlement’s natural harbor to make it a base for trading and raiding. Ladoga was one of the earliest Viking settlements in Russia and a stepping stone towards the foundation of Russia as a nation.

The Heimskringla and other Norse sources tell how the local, warring Slavic tribes, impressed by the organization and fighting skills of Scandinavian invaders, invited the Vikings to rule over them. A Swedish Viking named Rurik obliged, making Staraia Ladoga his initial base before he and his successors moved onto Novgorod, just south of St. Petersburg and Kiev.

Archaeology on the site shows a sudden appearance of Scandinavian artifacts in Ladoga. Tools, amulets of Odin, and other finds, as well as distinct Scandinavian style Kurgan burials, usually found in Sweden and Denmark, were found dating to the 7th and 8th centuries.

As time progressed, the distinction between these Scandinavian and the local Slavic burials blurred, showing a merging between the two groups. But it was the Vikings who gave their name to the emerging nation. For the Swedish Vikings were known to the Slavs as the Rus-from the Finnish word for Swedes- Ruotsi – that in itself derives from the Swedish word Roor – the term for a crew of oarsmen.

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings
Ring with Arabic inscription found at Birk, Sweden. Google Images.

Birka, Sweden: Muslim Vikings?

Viking settlements in Russia were not an end in themselves. Rather, they were stepping-stones to the Middle East and Constantinople where the real riches lay. Trading rather than raiding was the key contact between the two cultures. The Swedish Vikings were after eastern gold and silver. For themselves, the Arabs found the North men could supply them with honey, iron, amber, slaves, and furs such as that of the coveted black fox.

But more than goods were exchanged. In 2015, an unguilded silver ring was found in the 9th century grave of a woman who lived at the Viking trade center of Birka in Sweden. The ring, which was set with a large violet stone was also inscribed with the words “il-la-lah” which has been interpreted as meaning ‘for/to Allah’.

The lettering of the inscription is an Arabic-style script developed in the Arab world in the 7th century AD and was popularly used for two centuries afterward. Unlike coins that show signs of wear and tear suggesting a convoluted route to their last resting place, this ring is relatively unmarked, meaning it came straight from the caliphate to Sweden.

The ring could be evidence of cultural as well as material exchange. Accounts exist of Vikings converting to Islam. In 921 AD, Caliph Al Muqtadir sent a series of delegates from Bagdad to the upper reaches of the Volga to aid its Viking king who had recently converted to Islam. This ring could be the first evidence that substantiates these accounts.

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings
Viking Runic Inscription in Hagia Sophia. Google Images

Constantinople: Bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor

Viking prowess and strength were a marvel throughout the east. The Arab traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan marveled at the Viking physique and prowess, commenting how he had “never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand.”

Byzantine chroniclers recognized their worth too, noting that they were: “frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds”. This reputation for strength and ferocity probably explains how Viking warriors found themselves in Constantinople fighting for the Byzantine Empire rather than against it.

In 874 AD, 6,000 Viking men were sent to the court of King Basil II in Byzantium as part of a peace treaty between the Emperor and the Kiev Vikings who converted to Christianity. They found the basis of the Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguards of the Eastern Roman emperor. The Varangian guards soon became a profitable tour of duty for Vikings. In fact, they left in such numbers and so many stayed that laws were passed in Sweden to prevent them from inheriting in the country of their birth will serving in Constantinople.

These elite Viking guards left evidence of themselves behind in the former Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In the late 20th century, runic inscriptions were found randomly carved into the western gallery of the former church. “Halfdan made these runes” read one, while the other simply read “Arni”.

The Nordic Warriors: 5 Places that Reveal the Secret History of the Vikings
Recreation of the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. Wikimedia Commons

L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland: Vikings in North America

Legends have always suggested the Vikings made it to America before Columbus. Actual evidence exists in Newfoundland to substantiate this, as at the tip of the most northerly peninsula, there are the remains of an 11th century Viking settlement.

The site, at L’Anse aux Meadows, was unearthed in the 1960s. It consists of eight houses, one forge and four workshops, made out of cutting peat turf buildings exactly like Viking structures in Iceland and Greenland. Viking finds on the site, which includes everyday objects such as a stone oil lamp and a birch bark case, match the style of those found in 11th century Norway.

It seems that the site may have been a stopping point for the maintenance and repair of boats. A forge was discovered with 50 iron objects around it, such as late Norwegian style belt buckles and nails and rivets, all made from the local source of bog iron.

Perhaps the site at L’Anse aux Meadows was a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of colonization of mainland North America. Whatever its ultimate purpose, the site was short-lived as it was only occupied for a few years, suggesting any such attempt was doomed to failure. But once again, archaeology substantiates the Saga’s claims that the Vikings did indeed reach North America, making them the first Europeans to do so.

Sources For Further Reading:

Life in Norway: Why Did The Viking Age Start?

The National News – When The Arabs Met The Vikings: New Discovery Suggests Ancient Links

Hubpages – The Viking Diet and the Viking Physique

History Channel – Globetrotting Vikings: The Quest for Constantinople