Most of the artifacts we encounter online and in history books focus on war: swords, shields, helmets, and other artifacts of warfare. Less focus is placed on everyday items, such as, interestingly enough, tweezers. Yet, everyday items offer us a far better glimpse into life in Viking Age Scandinavia than their weapons. The breadth of tools and items the Vikings used that mirror today is astounding. As far as we think we have progressed in 1,000 years, many things, such as telling our children not to run with scissors, have not changed. Here are 10 Viking artifacts you never knew existed.
Trade was an essential part of Scandinavian civilization during the Viking Age. Objects from all over the world made their way back to Scandinavia, including this bronze statue of Buddha discovered in Sweden. Archeologists have dated the figure to the 6th century and believe it came from northern India.
Viking Age artifact found in Sweden of a Buddha statue from India. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
Glass Pearl Necklaces
Personal style took a central role among Viking Age Scandinavians. Particularly in regards to jewelry, Viking Age finds have revealed a myriad of valuable objects, including this glass pearl necklace found in Gotland, Sweden. Glass was not readily made in Scandinavia at the time, and so the beads to make the necklace were likely imported.
Glass pearl necklace found in Gotland, Sweden. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
With so many valuable objects, Viking Age Scandinavians devised many ways to protect their wealth. Locks and keys were common, and often resembled this key, found in Sweden. The key is made of bronze, a sturdy metal that does not rust like iron or steel.
Viking Age Bronze key displayed at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne exhibit. Photo credit: C.J. Adrien.
With so many keys and no locksmiths a phone call away, Viking Age Scandinavians made keychains to organize and store their keys. Pictured here is a keychain attached to a brooch, which would have been worn by the head of the household. Women ran the home, and so they held all the keys.
Bronze keychain attacked to brooch. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
Keys must open something. Pictured here is a jewelry box found in Gotland, Sweden. What makes this jewelry box so interesting is that it combines several motifs, including a combination of pre-Christian and Christian iconography. The box dates to the latter part of the Viking Age.
Viking Age jewelry box with Christian and pre-Christian motifs. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
Iron Neck Collars
Slavery was central to Viking Age Scandinavian society. Proof of the use of slaves abounds, including this iron neck collar thought to have been used to keep a slave. Slaves were captured from all over the world and sold at markets across Scandinavia to allow farmstead owners to boost their labor supply.
Viking Age Iron Neck Collar as displayed at the exhibit at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes, France. Photo credit: C.J. Adrien.
Funeral practices in Viking Age Scandinavia crucially differed from their Christian neighbors: where Christians buried their dead, Scandinavians cremated them. Except for the super-wealthy elite who could afford a ship burial, most of the dead were cremated and their remains stored in urns. Pictured below is an urn found in Sweden in which the ashes have (partially) remained preserved.
Viking Age Urn and Ashes. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
Ships harnessed the wind to sail the seas, and no tool has helped sailors more over the centuries than weathervanes. Weathervanes help sailors determine the direction of the wind to help them set the sail correctly. Pictured is a bronze weathervane that would have been placed atop the mast of a longship. The weathervane shows Viking Age Scandinavian motifs and was likely made somewhere in Sweden.
Viking Age Bronze Weather Vane found in Sweden. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
A crucial part of the Viking Age was trading, and part of the trade was currency. Most people are familiar with the more popular artifacts of Viking Age trade, such as Arabic coins, hack silver, and buried hordes. Wealth, however, had to be measured, and like other civilizations of the time, precious metals held their value by their weight. Pictured is a scale (without its plates) used to weight silver and gold.
A Viking Age scale (without its plates) used to weight silver and gold. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.
Making clothes meant utilizing the various tools of the textile industry. Scissors were essential to cut fabric and to work over a variety of materials. Pictured are scissors found in Sweden and displayed at the recent exhibit at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes.
Viking Age Scissors as displayed at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France. Photo Credit: C.J. Adrien.
Bonus item: Grooming Kit
Grooming was paramount to Viking Age Scandinavians, and among all the things they used for personal care – combs, brushes, scissors, etc. – they also had tweezers for plucking unwanted hair and ear scoops to clean their ears. Pictured is a personal care display featuring many items from the Viking Age, including a pair of tweezers that are similar to those we use today (lower left), an ear scoop (lower right), and a few other items you might expect, such as a bronze bowl, combs, a brooch, and a makeup container.
In 1880, two young men Sandefjord, Norway set out on an expedition on the family farm armed with a couple of shovels and an old family legend. They had heard a king had been buried with his ship under a mound near the farm, and they wanted to know if the legend was true. Though historians had theorized the existence of the mythical longship, and some picture stones in Sweden depicted them, no one in Norway, or the world for that matter, had ever seen one.
It did not take much digging for the two men to strike proverbial gold. They uncovered the mast of a mysterious ship and soon alerted the authorities. The President of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments, Nicolay Nicolaysen, caught wind of the find and demanded the amateurs cease digging lest they destroy the ancient artifact. Nicolaysen organized a team and an official excavation started the following month.
What Nicolaysen and his team uncovered confirmed what historians and archeologists had suspected for decades: longships had been real, and not an invention of contemporary chroniclers. The vessel in question, a warship measuring 75 feet in length with a keelson capable of carrying a mast close to 45 feet in height and a sail close to 800 square feet, was named the Gokstad Ship after the farm on which it was found.
The find sparked over 100 years of study of the development and use of the longship in the Viking Age, and more finds along the way have helped to piece together how Viking Age Scandinavians came to build the most advanced naval technology of their day. How did the longship come to be? Here I explore some of the evidence that tells the ages-long story of the longship.
The Hjortspring Boat and Early Boat Building (400-300 B.C.)
The longship was the culmination of centuries of seafaring innovation that is thought to have started as early as the third century B.C. A chance find on the island of Als, in Denmark, called the Hjortspring Boat (after the bog in which it was found) has helped to inform the beginnings of the longship’s evolution. Dating to 400-300 B.C., the Hjortspring Boat was long and thin and resembles the later Scandinavian ships in shape. It does not appear to have ever had a sail, and based on associated petroglyphs, archeologists believe the vessel was propelled by paddles.
The Hjortspring Boat appears to have been a variation on the Celtic shipbuilding tradition attested by the Romans, with an original spin. Where the Celtic skin boats were built by constructing the ribs off of a central hull and covering them in skins, the Hjortspring Boat also had fastening planks that appear to be an early iteration of the later lapstrake style. It also features a pronounced bow and aft, and its length indicates it may have specialized in carrying people, not cargo, across the fjords and islands of Scandinavia. Given a variety of Celtic artifacts discovered with the vessel, the Celtic influence in shipbuilding in the early days is clear, as is the original adaptation to the local geography.
The Nydam Ship and Roman Influence (300-400 A.D.)
The next step in shipbuilding appears to have occurred as a result of Roman influence. Provincial merchants of Celtic and Germanic origins visited the Scandinavian world in the later Roman period, and their ships may have inspired the next leap in Scandinavian shipbuilding. The Nydam ship, dated to the mid-4th century, shows signs of a variety of shipbuilding techniques similar to the Hjortspring Boat but would have been propelled with oars rather than paddles. While the Nydam ship, in particular, does not show evidence of having had a sail, many historians argue sails were developed to a certain extent during this period, but most place the development of the sail mere decades before the Viking Age alongside the development of the keel.
I argue sails were developed early on, but not by Scandinavians. At the outset of the Migration Period, the Romans who withdrew from the British Isles settled in the Roman province of Armorica, and there they built what historian Jean-Christophe Cassard coined as the First Atlantic Wall. The coast of France was plagued by raids from a vicious seafaring people called the Franks, and they sailed fast ships propelled by sails. If we stick to the stricter definition of the word, these were perhaps the first Vikings.
The Franks later abandoned their seafaring tradition in favor of continental conquest, but their innovations, which allowed them to sail from the Baltic to the coasts of England and France, would have helped to shape later developments in Scandinavia. Chiefly, I argue, they developed the first sails the Scandinavians would later use to propel their longships, albeit smaller, less effective versions. It also explains how finds similar to the Nydam ship, such as the Sutton Hoo ship in England and the Kvalsund ship in Norway, have been found so far from one another. We should not, however, rule out that determined humans could have rowed that far.
The Keel and the Mast (~700 A.D.)
The innovation of the keel revolutionized shipbuilding in Scandinavia. It appears to have been an original invention, and not one taken from elsewhere. Laying a keel allowed ships to support a larger mast, allowing for a larger sail, and by extension, sailors could harness more wind. Although little of the Kvalsund ship has been found, it is thought to be one of the early iterations of a keeled ship. Unfortunately, not enough of it survived to today, and so most conclusions about it remain dubious at best. Still, it offers us a glimpse into the accelerating pace of innovation in shipbuilding in 8th century Scandinavia.
With a keel rather than a hull as the backbone of the ship, the development of the clinker style, where the hull is made from overlapping strakes (also called lapstrakes), completely replaced the Celtic and Roman building influences. Not long after, the sail took on a whole new form. With more support from a keel, sails grew in size exponentially. Estimates for the sail of the Gokstad ship, a warship found in Norway, put the sail at almost 800 square feet!
Types of Longships and their Uses
The invention of the keel and the mast did not translate solely to warships. Several styles of Viking Age ships have been found over the years, and nowhere have more been found than in the Sjaelland region of Denmark. Beginning in 1962, five ships were discovered near the town
of Skuldelev. These ships are thought to have been sunk in the 11th century to block the bay and prevent warships from attacking the Danish capital of Roskilde. Today, Roskilde is home to the Viking Ship Museum where both originals and reconstructions are on display. The styles include an ocean-going trader, called a Knarr, a coastal trader of the Knarr type, two classic longships, and a small fishing vessel. You can learn more about each at the Viking Ship Museum’s website: https://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/the-five-viking-ships
Modern portrayals of the Vikings seem to be obsessed with horns, particularly in regards to those worn on the head (as part of the helmet) and those used for drinking. While the former has been proven false time and again – the Vikings did not wear horns – the second use, drinking from a horn, is a different story. A quick search on the internet might lead someone to believe the Vikings had a pseudo-monopoly on horns as drinkware, and that it was their preferred way to drink. While the use of drinking horns is not in question, the prevalence of such use is. Fictional portrayals seem to put drinking horns in the hands of every Scandinavian of the day. How Often did the Vikings Drink from Drinking Horns? I explore this question below.
What did the Vikings use to drink?
Drinking horns have been found scattered across the Viking Age archaeological record, from grave finds to pictorial evidence. No evidence is more compelling than the depiction of a drinking party, painted on a stone in Gotland in the 8th century, and which depicts every attendee of the party holding a drinking horn.
Does this mean all Vikings drank exclusively from drinking horns? No. We must remember that the artist was likely paid by a chieftain who was much concerned about his enduring reputation, and therefore he would have asked the artist to make it look like the best party ever.
The reality is that the Vikings would have used whatever was available to them to drink their ale. The most primitive vessels may have been small cones made of rolled birch or rowan bark. Bowls and goblets would have been the most commonly used vessels to drink, made from whatever material the owner of it could afford. Some wealthy chieftains could afford silver chalices from England and France, or even more expensive glass beakers (pictured below), though these would have been extremely expensive and rare.
What place did drinking horns have in Viking Age Scandinavian society?
Drinking horns, historians believe, may have been a luxury item used almost exclusively for special occasions and rituals. Horns were difficult to procure, mainly since animals were expensive to raise in Viking Age Scandinavia. Hence, they likely held tremendous value, and only a wealthy chieftain or his family could have afforded one.
This does not mean less wealthy folk did not also enjoy the occasional drink from a horn. Viking Age Scandinavian culture demanded largesse from chieftains and kings. Leaders recruited and retained the loyalty of their warriors by showering them with gifts. A polished, decorated drinking horn would have made any warrior of the day extremely happy, and more importantly, loyal.
Were drinking horns invented by the Vikings?
No. Drinking horns were nothing new by the time the first Vikings set sail for Lindisfarne. In fact, drinking horns have a long history dating back to antiquity. The Greek historian Xenophon described drinking horns as central to Thracian culture, as an example. Julius Caesar, famed emperor of Rome, observed the use of drinking horns by the Gauls, a confederacy of Celtic tribes that lived in roughly the area of modern France (the term Gaul is somewhat controversial to those specialized on the subject, but I’ll avoid that can of worms here). He described their use in his book, De Bello Gallico:
“The Gaulish horns in size, shape, and kind are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rim fitted with silver, and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels.”
In no uncertain terms, the use of drinking horns far predates the Viking Age, but Viking Age Scandinavians, and by extension those who roved abroad, did drink from horns. It may not, however, have been a cultural norm to drink from them outside of special occasions.
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If modern movies and TV shows were any guides, they would have us believe the Vikings were some kind of leather-clad biker gang. Costume designers, thankfully, are not authoritative on the subject of medieval arms and armor. Their goal is flair, and to draw the eye. This begs the question: what did the Vikings really wear?
The Three Phases of Viking Expansion
When considering the real Vikings, i.e. those who roved across Europe over 1,000 years ago, it is first important to understand that the Viking Age lasted over three centuries, during which styles and clothing changed. Early raids in the 8th century were carried out by small war-bands, or drott, whose purpose was to pillage and acquire wealth. One hundred years later, the war-bands evolved into bonafide armies to suit the ambitions of increasingly powerful warlords. Repurposing their warriors for invasion required a refitting of their arms and armor to adapt to the conditions of larger confrontations.
It is clear from the evidence that once the Viking Age had started, raiding efforts ratcheted up with each passing year. The historian Lucien Musset, known for his work on the Norse incursions in France, identified three distinct phases in the Scandinavians’ westerly expansion into Christian Europe. In the first phase, ships appeared spontaneously and sought purely to raid; they progressively worked their way from coastlines to rivers, and eventually pillaged hundreds of kilometers inland, away from the sea. The second phase began when the Vikings struck at the heart of organized states. They leveraged their violent reputation not to raid but to persuade local populations and their governments to pay them off to keep the peace. The payments received the name Danegeld, or money paid to the Danes. Lastly, the third and most devastating phase involved the establishment of direct control over ravaged regions whose governments had grown too defunct to pay a Danegeld. The Vikings installed indigenous puppet autocrats who helped to legitimize their seizure of land and the wealth it produced.
Looking more closely at specific regions, Musset’s three phases took varying forms depending on the societies the Vikings encountered. In Ireland, Scandinavians attempted invasions and colonization attempts almost immediately after the first raids. England, in contrast, was raided for several decades before more organized armies landed ashore. Further south, in France, Norse raiders struggled to mirror their successes in the British Isles until fractures within the Carolingian empire opened the door for them to launch bolder incursions upriver. The region of Bretagne, in particular, experienced the full breadth of each phase perhaps more than any other region in Western Europe outside of England. Sporadic raids plagued its coastlines for three decades before transitioning to four decades more of paying Danegeld. By the end of the 9th century, the Vikings had established direct control over nearly the entire region and they had occupied its largest city, Nantes, which they had seized from the Carolingians and called Nambørg.
Each phase of expansion required a different set of tools. Sporadic raids needed to be quick, and so heavy armor would have made little sense to wear. By the second phase, a war-band’s leader, or drottin, might have accumulated enough wealth to buy his men better arms and armor, in case the locals decided to fight back during a demand for Danegeld. Once they had made the transition to the third phase, the Vikings took on the look of a more organized army, funded by a stronger, wealthier, and more established monarch.
They wore what they could afford
A passage from the Heimskringla relates to us the attire of Olaf Haraldsson’s warriors on the eve of the battle of Nesjar, which took place in the early 11th century: “King Olaf had in his ship 100 men armed in coats of ring-mail, and in foreign helmets.”
The passage is telling insofar as it demonstrates Olaf’s largesse, or generosity of wealth. To afford maille and helmets for 100 men would have cost a fortune. It also tells us foreign arms and armor had the reputation of better quality, else Olaf would have purchased Norse equipment. We know from the earliest sources on the Viking Age that a massive black market for Carolingian arms and armor existed in Scandinavia, and the rulers of the Carolingian empire made numerous attempts to stem the flow of equipment north. Nothing irked Charlemagne more than having to fight a battle against his own weapons and armor.
For most of the Viking Age, it seems, foreign arms and armor were the coveted jewels of the Vikings. Carolingian equipment seems to have been particularly in fashion. The brunia and Carolingian sword were explicitly banned from trade in the capitulary of Boulogne, which states:
“It has been decreed that no bishop or abbot or abbess or any rector or custodian of a church is to presume to give or to sell a brunia or a sword to any outsider without our permission; he may bestow these only on his own vassals. And should it happen that there are more bruniae in a particular church or holy place than are needed for the people of the said church’s rector, then let the said rector of the church inquire of the prince what ought to be done with them.”
Charlemagne made numerous attempts to stem the flow of arms and armor into Scandinavia for fear his soldiers might have to face equally well-equipped enemies. That such explicit attempts to prevent brunia and swords from falling into Viking hands tells us the demand for such goods in Scandinavia may have been quite high.
If imported arms and armor were the norm, then wealth played a crucial role in what a Viking would have worn. Olaf may have bought expensive arms and armor for his closest lendirrmen, but the rest of his army would have been expected to furnish their own. Particularly in the early Viking Age, most Vikings likely left home with little more than a hand-made shield and a spear or wood-cutting ax, and he would have worn thick wool clothing. Thick wool can soften the blow of a weapon, protect against slashing (to a certain extent), and it served the double purpose of keeping the wearer warm at sea. Wool insulates even when wet. Perhaps the leader of the war-band wore a helmet or brunia (a maille shirt made in the Carolingian Empire) he bought at a market, but he would have been the only one so well-equipped.
Later in the Viking Age, as warlords increased their wealth, worthy warriors would have received gifts in the form of expensive arms and armor, in addition to their share of the spoils of raids and conquest. With the men who proved themselves the most to their leader improving the quality of their armor, we might expect there to have been a sort of meritocracy of arms and armor, where the most lethal, most loyal men wore the best equipment.
They adapted to the lands they roved
Arms and armor are generally adapted to the conditions of warfare in a given region. Since the Vikings roved all across Europe, it is no surprise their arms and armor differed in style and utility based on where they preferred to conduct business. The ship burial on the island of Groix, off the coast of France, gives us some indication of the lengths to which the Vikings went to adapt their equipment to the fighting styles of their enemy.
The Bretagne region of France had remained culturally and ethnically Celtic since the withdrawal of the Romans and fought with a semi-Roman style they had inherited from their Roman-Briton ancestors. They used javelins with soft tips that, when penetrating an enemy shield, bent with the weight of the shaft to render the defender’s shield useless. The ship burial at Groix revealed an array of shield bosses unlike any other in the Viking world. Side by side with shield bosses more typical of the ones found in Scandinavia, archeologists found unique designs, which they believe were attempts to adapt their arms and armor to the fighting conditions in Brittany.
Far in the East, we see a similar pattern in the evidence. As more warriors from Sweden, called the Rus, joined the Varangian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers who answered directly to the Byzantine Emperor, their arms and armor adapted to the fighting conditions of the Middle East. An illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle shows the Varangian Guardsmen as wearing what appears to be Lamellar armor, a type of interlaced scale armor not woven to the undergarment.Nine pieces of lamellar, or scales, were found in a grave in Sweden, likely an import from someone who either purchased or received the armor as a gift in Constantinople. That so few lamellar pieces have ever been found in Scandinavia is also telling—it seems the Rus did not see value in bringing that style of armor home, perhaps preferring the brunia when fighting their kin.
What did arms and armor did the Vikings wear?
When approaching the question of what arms and armor the Vikings wore, we must look at four main factors: who, in particular, are we talking about; where did they rove; what was their business in the places they roved (i.e. what phase of expansion are we talking about); and when are we talking about. Only when we consider all four of these factors can we say anything about what a Viking or group of Vikings may have worn. All we can say more broadly is that the evidence tells us the Vikings wore what they needed to wear, or what they or their patron chieftain could afford.
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Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking Age appears to have shared a common culture, as shown by the archeological record, but it later diverged into several distinct groups. As I discussed in my previous blog about the difference between the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings, we know the most about the Danes and Norwegians because of the breadth of primary sources written about them by contemporary Christian Chroniclers. We have far less information on their Swedish cousins called the Rus who, despite how little we know about them at the outset of the Viking Age, left an incredible legacy behind in Eastern Europe. Here I will briefly overview what we know about the Swedish Vikings who were called the Rus (and Varangians), and their early activities across the river systems of what are today Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Turkey.
Earliest Mentions of the Rus
Primary sources for the early societal structure, culture, and activities of the Rus are practically non-existent. They did not leave any writings behind for us to find other than disparate runes carved into wood planks or stones. The Annals of St. Bertin tell us of a diplomatic delegation from Constantinople that visited Louis I in Aachen in 834, and among the delegation were several Rus. The Rus were, as far as we can tell, as active in raiding and foreign trading as the Danes, if not more, and earlier. The people they attacked—chiefly those in Finland, then Slavs further east—were not literate like those the Danes terrorized, which might further explain why sources are so sparse about their early activities. The Rus’ arrival in Louis’ court was marred by the fact that the missionary Anskar, the future bishop of the archbishopric of Hamburg, had already visited and returned from Birka, in Sweden, and his testimony about the Swedes led the emperor to distrust his unexpected guests. In the annals, it is said that Louis learned the Rus were, in fact, “people of the Swedes.” He detained the group to verify their claim that they only wished to travel peacefully, and from there the annals cease to mention what happened next.
We do not know if the Rus were allowed to return home, or worse, executed. While we are left in permanent suspense about the fate of these Rus, what this account tells us is that the Swedish Vikings had, by the mid-9th century, traveled far enough to the east to have established relations with the Byzantines. How, or why, or how long it took to arrive at this point is still not well understood, but a treasure trove of silver coins from the Muslim world found at Lake Ladoga gives us some idea of when contacts began. As a standard practice in the Muslim world, the date the coins were minted was imprinted on them, and the coins at Ladoga appear to date back to the 780s. Combined with further archeological evidence of early colonies on the eastern shores of the Baltic, it is likely trade contacts between Sweden and the Middle East began several decades before the Danes and Norwegians launched their first raids against Europe.
The mission of Anskar to Birka is the closest thing to a contemporary source as we have on the Rus, and his story is related to us by his biographer Rimbert. His mission in Birka lasted six months, with the permission of a Swedish king, and when he returned he devoted the rest of his life to turning the archbishopric of Hamburg into the center for the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity. His account of the Swedes must be treated with caution for two reasons: first, he and his fellows had a clear bias against the pagan religions of Scandinavia; second, the testimony given about his mission contains extraordinary elements that undermine the credibility of the author.
Adam of Bremen, a later bishop of Hamburg, carried out a second mission to Birka and reported similar extraordinary elements as Anskar. Most controversially, both men claim to have witnessed human sacrifices. Historians have long discounted the testimony of such practices as propaganda against the pagans. Still, evidence of human sacrifice permeates the archeological record, and additional testimony from the Arab chronicler Ibn-Fadlan almost a century later on the shores of the Volga river lends further credence to the practice. Some elements of Anskar and Adam of Bremen’s testimonies, therefore, may be true. The challenge is splitting apart fact from fiction, and thus we cannot rely on their writings to inform much us on the Rus.
We encounter similar problems with the testimony of an Arab chronicler named Ibn-Fadlan who spent time with the Rus on the shores of the Volga river. His story, called the Risala, is useful insofar as it gives us some good information about the Rus. Unfortunately, numerous inaccuracies and Ibn Fadlan’s prejudices have slanted the account, making the work of historians all the harder. Still, the Risala is a fascinating document that, when combined with other sources, gives us some idea of who the Rus were.
How the Rus Got Their Name
How the Rus got their name is also somewhat of an enigma. Like the word Viking, the name Rus has several possible sources. In the Annals of Saint Bertin, and indeed in several other sources, they are referred to as the “Rhos” which has led historians to hypothesize a connection with their tribal home of Roslagen. Others think the name was given to them by the Finns, who today still call the Swedes Ruotsi, a word borrowed from Old Norse meaning, “those who row.” While the origins of the name remain opaque, it is the name they would give to one of the most powerful nations in modern history, Russia. If the second origin theory of the name Rus is correct—the theory tying it to the Finnish word Ruotsi—the name Russia may actually mean “the land of those who row.”
There are also Arabic sources which chronicled embassies by eastern scholars to visit the Rus, and who refer to them as such. They also referred to them as Majus, but this was a name they tended to use in the West, in Al-Andalus (Spain). The sources are used sparingly and carefully where the Rus are concerned because academics are not entirely certain that they were referring to the Rus. What makes their writings somewhat unreliable are observations that were made that are not consistent with what we know about Viking Age Scandinavians from both written and archeological sources. But, even if there is a kernel of truth in the Arabic writings, it underscores an easy and prevalent awareness of the Rus in the east, as well as proof of enduring contact.
Looking for the Rus in the Sagas
Snorri Sturluson in his work titled Ynglingasaga, which recounts at a broad level the history of the kings of Sweden (it also recounts the history of the kings of Norway), gives us some insight into the early activities of the Rus on the Baltic. It is widely accepted that Snorri’s works are semi-legendary because he wrote them several centuries after the fact and drawing mostly from oral tradition. Again, we are faced with the difficult task of separating fact from fiction, and we must proceed with caution.
There are certain aspects to Snorri’s accounts that have proven useful insofar as they have spurred archeologists to search for evidence to support broad story themes in his work. In 1929, for example, the archeologist Birger Nerman discovered the remnants of a colony in Latvia of Swedish origin. His conclusions were that the colony had existed since the mid 7th century and likely had formed as a result of the expulsion of one-third of the inhabitants of Gotland due to famine, a story related to us in Snorri’s Gutasaga. The discovery was the Viking equivalent of the discovery of the city of Troy, whose existence belonged to mythology until its discovery by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870.
Digging Up the Rus
Birger’s discovery has indeed proved paramount in helping to piece together the narrative of the early activities of the Rus in the east. The colony he discovered, known as the Grobin Colony, uncovered significant evidence in the form of burial mounds directly linking the inhabitants there to the Swedes of Gotland. Among the artifacts were picture stones in the shape and style of the Gotland stones. Further artifacts found within the burials were also of the style and construction known to have been common in Gotland. What is most interesting about the site is the progression of types of burials the colonists left behind. The oldest burials contained women, indicating that the settlement had begun as a colony. The younger burials, dating to the late 8th century, contained men with the typical weaponry of the day, indicating a change in the settlement’s demographics where the ambitions of the Rus shifted toward traveling east for raids and trade rather than to settle the Eastern Baltic to escape political turmoil in Sweden. Grobin is not an isolated archeological find. Distinctly Scandinavian artifacts have also been found in Ladoga, which date back to the mid-8th century.
There is no doubt that the achievements of the Rus in the east were among the most impressive of their day. From the establishment of their first colonies on the shores of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga, they established trade routes that made use of the complex interweave of river networks to dominate the eastern steppes and established trade with the Byzantines. Among the goods they brought were honey, wax, amber, blubber, furs, walrus tusks, and most importantly, slaves. They traded these goods for silver, and from an Arabic coin minted in 786 (it says so on the coin) at Ladoga, we understand that trade between the Rus and the East was already well established by the end of the 8th century. This stands in contrast to the Danes and Norwegians whose exploits had barely begun by this period.
Massive hordes of Arabic silver coins found in Sweden and Gotland over the years are evidence of how extensive their trade was. These hordes contained silver coins numbering in the tens of thousands in some cases, a massive fortune even by today’s standards. The sheer volume attests to a long term relationship between Sweden and the Byzantines, and one which endured several centuries.
Throughout the Viking Age, the Rus imposed themselves over the people they encountered, chiefly the Slavs. After an attempted raid on Constantinople, some enlisted in an elite cohort of warriors called the Varangian Guard, who served the Byzantine emperor (at his invitation). Evidence of their presence in Constantinople abounds, including a few recent finds, such as a Viking sword found in Patarka, Turkey, and runes carved into the walls of an old prison under Istanbul that read, “Sven was here.”
From Rus to Russian
From here, the story of the Rus shifts focus. The Russian Primary Chronicle, which tells of the early foundations of the modern country of Russia, tells of an event whereby the Slavs invited the Rus to rule over them. According to the account, the Slavs admitted to being unable to rule themselves, and so resorted to asking the Rus–considered strong leaders–to establish law and order. Similar to Snorri’s account, the Russian Primary Chronicle is considered semi-legendary. Therefore, the event commonly dubbed “The Invitation of the Rus” may not have ever actually happened. Instead, it may be an allegorical account to describe a process of usurpation that took much longer.
Whatever the true story, the Rus went on from this event to establish the principalities of Kyiv and Novgorod, at which point they ceased to act in a manner we would today associate with Vikings. They took on the role of autocrats rather than raiders, and established dominion over the Slavs, and assimilated into Slavic culture. The Rus’ conflicts with the Byzantines, as related through the Russian Primary Chronicle, and their conversion to the Christian Orthodox Church, all became part of the narrative of the founding of the Muscovy state, which would become Russia. And so as far as the “Viking” history of the Swedes and their eastern exploits are concerned, the story more or less ends there. Anything that came after is the subject of the early history of Russia.
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