A lot of the ancient civilisations that have left us the most remarkable artefacts are found in the Mediterranean and in Asia. Not only was this area the ‘birthplace of civilisation’ but drier conditions allowed items to be beautifully preserved for millennia. However, there’s another well-known civilisation slightly closer to Pax Romana’s London home. Characterised for their violent invasions and pillaging, the Vikings were a Scandinavian people who have long intrigued people all over the world. In this article we’ll run you through who these invaders were and what Viking Artefacts you can collect.
When and Where are the Vikings from?
Originating in the rural villages of Scandinavia (mainly Norway, Sweden and Denmark), the Vikings were a pastoral people who start to emerge in the 7th and 8th Centuries. They start to appear in annals and chronicles as they begin invading the surround areas that consist of modern-day England, Ireland, France and Belgium. For example, their first raid of Britain was at Lindasfarne in 793 AD. Following this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records 851 AD. was the first year ‘heathen men stayed through the winter on Thanet’ in south east England.
They quickly settled in the British Isles and Northern Europe, bringing with them great wealth and funding urban centres. As historian G. Astill notes, there was significant urbanisation in Northern England and the Midlands compared to the South in the 9th and 10th Centuries that was almost certainly because of Viking wealth. The most famous Viking town is the old capital of Jorvik, or modern-day York. It was developed off of an old Roman military settlement and developed into a cosmopolitan hub. In the archaeology we can see clear evidence of far-flung trade and visitors; examples include African cowrie shells, Baltic amber and Middle Eastern silk. This extensive trade is also cited in literature, in the life of St Oswald York in 1000 is described as being: ‘filled with the treasure of merchants, principally Danes’.
Traditionally, the Viking era is said to have ended with the defeat of Harald Hardrada in 1066. However, especially in Eastern Europe this end is harder to quantify and define.
No, they didn’t have Horns on their Helmets.
The Vikings have often been characterised down to the ‘heathens’ recorded by the monks in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Drawn with flowing hair, horned helmets and their axes held aloft they’ve become a much-repeated motif. However, as with most history the reality is more nuanced.
It is true they invaded much of Northern Europe in a way that was particularly bloody. However, why they did this is not agreed upon by historians. It could have been due to overpopulation in their home lands, meaning the land could not support its people. Other theories involve political instability encouraging them to find new land, and others simply site greed and desire for riches.
Aside from their invasions of northern Europe, they engaged in lots of trade and had complex social structures and religious practices. They had their Nordic pantheon of gods – often reflected in jewellery – but in some places embraced Christianity. In Britain, historian Lesley Abrams believes they quickly converted to Christianity in order to easily assimilate into the local communities. In general, they took lots of inspiration from the communities they settled into and collected habits and materials from across Europe.
What Viking Artefacts can you collect?
When buying Viking pieces at Pax Romana, we do not have a specific category, like we do for say ‘Egyptian Antiquities’, because all the Viking pieces we sell are either weaponry or jewellery. Therefore, we’ll run you through what you might like to purchase from either of these two categories and what they tell us about Ancient Viking society.
Probably the most iconic Viking weapon is the axe, and specifically the bearded axe. When the first typography of Viking Axes was made at the beginning of the 20th Century, there were 12 distinct styles of axe identified. It’s likely that the axe had different purposes, some for everyday chores such as chopping wood and meat, but some were clearly battle axes intended for conflict. Axes are one of the most numerous artefacts found in Viking Graves and were used by people of all ranks and status. However, there is specific evidence of them being used by higher ranks, as examples are found with inlaid gold and silver detailing.
Unlike axes, swords were used by only the most elite Viking warriors. They were expensive and hard to make. These swords were normally made of iron with iron and copper pommels. The most typical size is around 90cm and many of them are characterised by the groove down the swords centre to decrease its weight. We also have lots of evidence of the scabbards that these swords were held in. They were normally made of a piece of wood that had been split down the middle. The inspiration for using these swords was from their Merovingian predecessors in Frankish territories further south. Even as the Vikings started to forge their own, they often continued to used traded swords to show off their international status.
Some of the rarest and most expensive weapons from this period are Viking helmets. Often made from several pieces of rivetted iron, they are uncommon finds in burial grounds. The style of helmet was derivative from earlier Roman cavalry helmets; however, it had some stand out features. The main distinctive element is the nose guard that comes down onto the face. Additionally, the Vikings were keen users of chainmail on helmets, principally to protect blows to the back of the neck.
Viking era brooches are found plentifully across Scandinavian archaeology. There is lots of early evidence of Oval brooches being worn by women in pairs in order to secure the top layer of clothing – one on each shoulder. However, by the late 10th Century this is changing, and we see a greater diversity of brooches used for different periods. Silver brooches would have shown status and the thick pins could have been used to secure multiple layers. It is worth noting that brooches were not just for women, and men also used them to secure their clothes. One of the most famous illustrations of this is in a portrait of Cnut in the Stowe Manuscript. He is depicted with a brooch securing his clothes on his left shoulder.
Some of the most popular Viking jewellery we sell are pendants. Made of silver or iron they were likely held on metal or twine strings that are have since been lost. They were worn mainly by Viking women and remained an important part of their dress until way into the 11th Century. They often show animals or mythical figures. One of the most common pendants found is of Thor’s Hammer – or mjölnir. This hammer was both a devastating weapon and also used for the granting of blessings. Therefore, it was a symbol of not only religion and identity, but it also functioned as an amulet to ask for protection.
Last but not least, some of the most wearable Viking Artefacts you can collect are rings. Ranging from fairly inexpensive silver pieces to highly decorated gold rings with gemstones, there’s something for all levels of collectors. Some of the rarest designs are those that involve intricate punch work, depicting constellations or creatures. Other complex styles include twisted gold bands and coiled gold rings to represent the Jörmungandr. This was a mythical snake in Viking folkore that inhabited the sea and was related to the end of the world.