I’ve been meaning to share this for a while now, but something or other was always supposedly more important or interesting. No more! 🙂
The Viking Age Sigtuna, Sweden, was formally founded around 980 AD, and it was a much more cosmopolitan city than thought before. According to new DNA analysis, approximately half of city’s population were immigrants.
The study looked at the remnants of 38 individuals who lived and died in Sigtuna between the 900s and 1100s CE, and included other scientific approaches as well (like analysing the strontium isotope contents of the residents’ teeth).
Roughly half of the population grew up in the near-by region Mälardalen (the Mälaren Valley, or Stockholm-Mälaren Region). The other half arrived either from southern Scandinavia (including Norway and Denmark) or further away. The long-distance immigrants came from the British Isles, Ukraine, Lithuania, northern Germany, and other parts of central Europe, and were more likely to be women than men (approx. 70 percent of women vs. 44 percent of the men).
When we think of ancient architecture, we tend to think of stone and brick: the pyramids of Egypt, the amphitheatres of Rome, the Great Wall of China, the temples of the Aztecs and Maya. These are structures that have endured. We have many fewer models of wooden architecture from the distant past, even though wood—cheaper, lighter, and easier to work that stone or brick—was what most people built with in many parts of the world. Wooden buildings burn, rot, or just fall down if not maintained. Good examples of wooden buildings from more than a few centuries ago are very hard to find. One set of buildings that help fill that gap are the stave churches of Norway.
A team of archaeologists has unearthed a potential new Viking site in Newfoundland, Canada with the help of satellites. Dr. Sarah H. Parcak, an archaeologist, space archaeologist, and Egyptologist, lead the effort to take infrared images from space to find new archaeological sites.
According to The New York Times, while searching the coastlines from Baffin Island (in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, west of Greenland) to Massachusetts, she found
“hundreds of potential ‘hot spots’ that high-resolution aerial photography narrowed to a handful and then one particularly promising candidate — ‘a dark stain’ with buried rectilinear features.
“Magnetometer readings later taken at the remote site […] showed elevated iron readings. And trenches that were then dug exposed Viking-style turf walls along with ash residue, roasted ore called bog iron and a fire-cracked boulder — signs of metallurgy not associated with native people of the region.
“In addition, radiocarbon tests dating the materials to the Norse era, and the absence of historical objects pointing to any other cultures, helped persuade scientists involved in the project and outside experts of the site’s promise.”
Point Rosee is approximately 700 km (approximately 400 miles) away from L’Anse aux Meadows, the only currently confirmed Viking site in North America. The Norsemen staying at L’Anse must have traveled further south, though, because butternuts and worked pieces of butternut wood – which are not native to Newfoundland – were found among the Norse objects at the settlement.
CBC News reports that evidence of a Norse-like hearth and 8 kilograms (approx. 16 pounds) of bog iron was found at Point Rosee during a dig in 2015. It isn’t yet known for sure whether the site was a temporary base camp or a settlement, or whether it even was associated with Vikings. If confirmed, Point Rosee would be the second known Viking site in North America.
The evidence is still clearly on the scant side. Digging at Point Rosee is to resume this summer, so maybe they’ll find more.
As a sidenote, isn’t it so cool that we now have space archaeologists?!
In 2011’s Thor, Idris Elba, despite not looking typically Norse, plays the Norse god Heimdall. In 2016’s Gods of Egypt, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, despite not looking typically Egyptian, plays the Egyptian god Horus. The casting of Elba as Heimdall surprised me the first time I saw the movie, but it has never bothered me as a fan or as a historian. Coster-Waldau as Horus really bothers me and I think it’s worth taking a minute to explain why.
I have nothing against Coster-Waldau as an actor. I haven’t seen Gods of Egypt and don’t plan to, so I have nothing to say about his performance in this particular role, but he’s not the problem here. The problem is in the casting of the movie as a whole.
Gift exchange is part of festive celebrations for many people in the modern world, including many traditions whose gift-giving season has just passed. In the pre-modern world, though, gift exchange was often a vital part of social, political, and economic life.
The essential principle of gift exchange is reciprocity. Giving someone a gift obliges them to return a gift of equal value. In the modern market economy in which every item can be assigned a monetary value, this is cause for anxiety (and comedy) over gift-giving, but in earlier societies value was measured in other ways. The value of a gift often depended on the prestige of the person giving it. Since gifts were reciprocal, they created a relationship, of which the gift acted as tangible proof. The modern taboo against asking the price of a gift (“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”) attempts to reinforce this kind of value in a monetized world.
As a historian, I wanted to note that this is an excellent illustration of an important but tricky historiographical principle: many weak but different arguments can sometimes add up to a strong argument. As Gear and Gear note, every individual piece of evidence for Viking warrior women is problematic:
Sagas are works of fiction, or at least fictionalized history. Many of the warrior women who appear in saga literature are clearly mythical.
Ethnographic commentary by outsiders, especially by outsiders with an explicit cultural agenda, is highly suspect.
Artistic representations of women bearing arms might represent the fictional Valkyries rather than actual warrior women.
Bioarchaeological evidence may not be able to distinguish the bones of a woman who routinely wielded a sword from those of a woman who routinely chopped firewood or cut grain.
Weapon burials do not necessarily indicate warriors, because weapons were status markers that might be put in the graves of people who had never used them in life.
The important thing is that all of these pieces of evidence are from different sources that were unlikely to have influenced each other. While each one on its own is equivocal, put together they add up to a convincing argument that at least some individual women in the Viking world armed and fought as warriors.
The tricky thing with this kind of argument is to make sure that the individual pieces are actually separate. If, for example, we could show that artwork, burial customs, and outsiders’ perceptions were all influenced by fictional saga stories of warrior women, then the argument would be much weaker. The wide separation of the various pieces of evidence in time and space, however, makes them more convincing. When 10th-century Swedish burials, 11-century German ethnography, and 14th-century Icelandic sagas all point in the same direction, we can be fairly confident that they’re showing us something meaningful.
* Note: There is an ongoing debate as to whether the word “Viking” should be capitalized or not. I have no dog in that fight. I have capitalized it here because it makes sense to me to do so, but I have no interest in arguing the point.
Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.