Viking city: excavation reveals urban pioneers not violent raiders

The discoveries at Ribe defy the popular image of Vikings as mainly raiders.
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Viking city: excavation reveals urban pioneers not violent raiders:

Unearthings in Ribe, Denmark demonstrate that Viking society depended on advanced generation and exchange. Is their severe notoriety uncalled for?

In an extraordinary moment captured on film this summer, the tuning pegs and neck of a lyre, a harplike stringed instrument, were deliberately priced out of the dirt of Ribe, a beautiful town on Denmark’s south-west drift.

The similar excavation also found the remains of wooden homes; molds for fashioning ornaments from gold, silver, and brass; intricate combs made from reindeer antler (the Viking equivalent of ivory); and amber jewelry dating to the early 700.

 Ribe confounds history. What we have here defies the opinion that all the Viking did was to raid and to rape

Even more extraordinary, however, was the discovery that these artifact were not for home consumption by farmer, let alone itinerant raiders. Instead, the Viking who made them lived in a settled, urban community of craftsmens, seafarers, tradesmen and, it seems, musician.

The find at Ribe suggests mass production, high levels of specialization and a division of labor – all characteristic of a settled urban society rather than a nomadic one based on pillaging.

“We can see in Ribe that Vikings society was based on sophisticated production and trade,” Hodges says. “It is a paradox: they made these beautiful things, they had gorgeous cloth, wonderful artifact, but at the same time they are known to history for their brutality.”

European history has been written from the perspective of Christian chroniclers who wanted to tell us that Vikings were barbarians, Hodges notes.

The evidence suggest that over the decades before launching their infamous raids on Britain with the attack on Lindisfarne in AD793, the Viking created one of the 1st post-Roman Scandinavian urban bases for world trade and exploration.

The culture was based on craftsmanship and trade and helped create the basis for sweeping change in economic life over the ensuing millennium.

Speeding through the autumn countryside on one of his frequent journeys to Ribe, Søren Sindbæk, archaeologists from Aarhus University, keeps up a constant stream of thought about the site’s broader historical significance.

“A transformation took place in northern Europe between the end of the Roman time– when this was the dark side of the continent – and the Middle Ages, when it became a bustling region with great cities, cathedral and commercial shipping,” says Sindbæk.

“That change, leading eventually to the European age of explorations and world trade hegemony, begins here on the North Sea coast, where urban Viking was a catalyst.”

Another discovery is a tiny silver coin the size of a fingernail, preserved so well it could have been minted yesterday. Coinage is evidence of a stable trading community, says Morten Søvsø, chief archaeologists.

Ribe has long been known as an early trading settlement, but the latest finds demonstrate how stable the community was
Ribe has long been known as an early trading settlement, but the latest finds demonstrate how stable the community was

“Looking at Ribe we can see there was a monopoly coin system already from the 8th century,” Søvsø says. “It’s all about trade and tax, and about keeping the peace – so people could rely on a return from their trade.”

Ribe has long been known as an early trading settlement. The question posed by the latest finds is about the relationship between these urban Vikings and the period of raids that followed the attack on Lindisfarne – Britain’s 9/11 moment, as Sindbæk puts it.

“The fact we can see this trading system was already in place before the Viking raids started in the British Isles makes it likely that the two things have something in common,” he says, adjusting the broad-brimmed Indiana Jones hat he keeps in the boot of his car for rainy days.

“It could be that the raid was actually the tip of an iceberg of trade – there is proof of a trading relationship with Scandinavia, but we haven’t heard about the peaceful side.”

The site in Ribe is unique because it enables precise dating of the finds, thanks to deposits that have lain undisturbed in the sandy, worm-free soil.

Lasers have been scanning the site as each layer of history is peeled away, creating a 3D model of the 8th century so samples can be precisely located in the archaeological record.

 This method has revealed that the bead-makers of Viking Ribe were early victims of globalization. Mass-produced beads from towns such as Raqqa in present-day Syria started arriving in bulk around AD780, undercutting the local trade.

The Danish archaeologist has applied another technique for squeezing every last drop of knowledge out of the site at Ribe. Blocks of soil no larger than a cigarette packet are impregnated with resin so they can be sliced into thin sections, which can then be analyzed under a microscope.

The dig, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and carried out by Aarhus University with the Museum of Southwest Jutland, began in 2017 and is now complete; the 100 sq meter site has returned to public use. Many discovery lie ahead, Sindbæk says, as he and his colleague study the data and materials they have assembled.

Glass beads found at Ribe. Dating techniques suggest that the the bead-makers of Viking Ribe were early victims of globalisation.
Glass beads found at Ribe. Dating techniques suggest that the the bead-makers of Viking Ribe were early victims of globalisation.

In a corrugated hut outside the warehouse where all the finds are kept, Sara Hee and Jane Sif Hansen are engaged in the less high Tech business of sifting through bags of mud.

He describes how the finds are upending prior theories that the Vikings were marauders rather than traders.

A few days earlier, she says, she plucked a perfect tiny amulet from the muddy soup, marked with a Christian cross – a “huge adrenaline rush” – suggesting Christian currents were present here long before King Harald Bluetooths declaration on the Jelling runestone circa AD965 that he had brought the religion to the Danes.

“Some written sources have presented the Viking as barbarians in order to make themselves look good,” Hee says. “So we cannot completely trust people writing at the time: are they describing what they saw or imposing their own understanding on it?”


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Jessica Saraceni has been a part of Histecho Since 2018, drawn to the site for its quirky character and through Articles about the Mysteries of earth and human behavior. previously, she was an assistant editor and Research fellow at Archaeology magazine, where she gained an appreciation for the field work. A master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental science from the Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio. She enjoys all forms of exercise; reading works by her favorite author, Haruki Murakami; and playing with her sons.