Vikings have made the headlines this week across the globe after a surprising announcement from scholars at the University of York, in the U.K. Researchers claim they have found evidence that the Viking Age may have begun long before the academically accepted date of 793—the sack of Lindisfarne. According to researchers, they have found deer antlers fashioned into various tools, most notably a comb, which date to as early as 725 A.D. These artifacts were uncovered in the port town of Ribe, in Denmark, and indicate strong trade ties between the Danes and the Norwegians far earlier than previously thought.
Will this discovery rewrite history? It will certainly alter previous notions of the development of the seafaring culture in Scandinavia. But the demarkation of the start of the Viking Age is not likely to change. While trade was an important factor in the launch of the Viking Age, scholars have used the attack on Lindisfarne as the official start of the period because of its proximity to several concurring events, as well as its importance to the Christian world at the time. Setting a date for the start if the Viking Age is difficult precisely because if one only looks at a singular cause, such as violence, trade, climate change, politics, among others, the dates will vary tremendously. The first attack on Christendom was not in fact Lindisfarne. Another raid, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tells of an unfortunate encounter a few years prior to Lindisfarne in which a local official in Britain was murdered for insisting on imposing a tax on Scandinavian traders. Raids in Frisia (modern day Netherlands) began as early as the 770’s, as noted by one of Charlemagne’s scholars, Alcuin. Now we have evidence that the Vikings had begun traveling for trade as early as the 720’s. What makes Lindisfarne the best candidate for the start of the Viking Age is that it was the singular most powerful event that brought the Scandinavian raids into the public consciousness of the world at the time. Monarchs, and the people they ruled, became cognizant of the threat posed by the raids most keenly after 793 A.D.
With technicalities aside, the news of the finds in Ribe are of course tremendously exciting for scholars in the field of Scandinavian studies. The finds raise more questions than they answer, but at least we have now confirmed what scholars have theorized for several decades: the Vikings were traveling the world as merchants long before they began to raid. This reinforces several leading theories on why the Viking Age began. Traditionally, scholars blamed a rising population and a changing climate for the exodus of the young male population from the North. However, competing theories have suggested that the massacre on the Elbe (read about it HERE) and the closing of ports to non-Christians by Charlemagne may have contributed to the increasing violence carried out by the Vikings. If they had been trading with the South as early as 725, it now stands to reason that the Danes and Norwegians had grown dependent on foreign trade for much of their livelihood, and closing off trade would have brought about immediate economic woes and later…very well known history.
Ribe, the location where the Reindeer Antler was found, is one of the oldest towns in Europe, thought to have been founded in the early 9th Century. The finds are much more a rewriting of their history than anything else, as they indicate the town had its beginnings much earlier than previously thought. Today it is the sight of an extraordinary Viking museum. You can visit their official page HERE.
In my Kindred of the Sea series, my protagonist Abriel visits Ribe in the first two installments. He participates in the civil war of Jutland in the 810’s on behalf of Horik I, and later he returns to Ribe to collect on an old debt and fights a rogue band of Vikings who attempt to pillage the town. Ribe was an important and wealthy trade center in the Viking Age, and as such was occasionally the victim of the same raids which had enriched it.