Art History Lab

Beyond the Raiders: The Fascinating Artifacts and Legacy of the Vikings

Vikings are often depicted as ruthless marauders, raiding and plundering their way throughout Europe during the 8th to 11th centuries. This narrative, however, oversimplifies their complex culture and history.

In this article, we will explore two main topics related to the Vikings: their reasons for travel and plundering, and the relics and artifacts they left behind. Although these subjects are quite distinct, they are both interconnected and provide insight into the Viking way of life.

Reasons for Viking Travel and Plundering

The Vikings, also known as Norsemen, emerged from Scandinavia during the Viking Age (793-1066 AD). They were skilled sailors and navigators, using their ships to explore and trade in far-flung places.

However, they were also prone to raiding and conquering, which they saw as a means of gaining riches, glory and power. Several factors contributed to Viking expansionism and aggression.

Agricultural Limitations and Population Growth

The Scandinavian landscape was largely unsuited for agriculture due to its rocky terrain, harsh winters and short growing season. As a result, their population was limited to small communities that had to rely on hunting, fishing and some farming for survival.

When the population outgrew this subsistence-based economy, some groups turned to raiding and conquest as a way to acquire resources and territory.

Tribal Conflicts and Territorial Dominance

The Viking Age was marked by political instability, with frequent tribal conflicts and power struggles. The concept of “might makes right” was prevalent, and ambitious leaders sought to expand their influence and control over neighboring regions.

Raiding, looting and conquest were often seen as legitimate means of achieving this end.

Stories of Western Riches and Fortune

Viking sagas and stories often glorified traveling to far-off lands to seek adventure, fame and fortune. Tales of wealthy kingdoms such as England and the Frankish Empire, with their abundant treasures and defenses that the Vikings viewed as inadequate, were a particularly irresistible draw.

Viking Relics and Artifacts

The Vikings left behind a rich legacy of art, craftsmanship, and unique artifacts that provide insight into their culture, values and aesthetics. Some of the most notable relics and artifacts are discussed below.

The Spillings Hoard (c. 675 AD)

The Spillings Hoard is a collection of Viking Age coins found in Gotland, Sweden.

The coins were minted in the Byzantine Empire, and their presence in Scandinavia is evidence of the Vikings’ extensive trade networks and long-distance connections. Hunterston Brooch (c.

700 AD)

The Hunterston Brooch is a silver-gilt brooch with intricate Celtic patterns that attest to the skill of Viking craftsmen in metalworking and jewelry-making. The brooch was discovered in Scotland, where Vikings established a presence during the 9th century.

Valkyrie from Hrby (c. 800 AD)

The Valkyrie from Hrby is a wooden female figurine depicting the feminine spirits that the Vikings believed guided slain warriors to the afterlife.

This artifact offers insight into Viking beliefs and mythology. The Repton Warrior (c.

860 AD)

The Repton Warrior is a burial mound containing the remains of a Viking warrior believed to be part of the Viking Great Army that invaded England in the 9th century. The artifacts found in the burial mound, including jewelry and weaponry, attest to the wealth and status of the Viking elite.

The Watlington Hoard (878 AD)

The Watlington Hoard is a collection of Viking silver found in Oxfordshire, England. The hoard includes arm rings, ingots and coins, underscoring the importance of silver as a currency and symbol of power in Viking society.

Gokstad Ship (c. 890 AD)

The Gokstad Ship is a Viking longship discovered in Norway, a masterpiece of Viking shipbuilding that demonstrates their advanced knowledge of sailing and navigation.

Ulfberht Viking Sword (c. early 9th century)

The Ulfberht Viking Sword is a rare and highly prized example of Norse craftsmanship, with the inscription “Ulfberht” on the blade.

These swords were made using a technique from the Middle East, indicating the far-reaching trade networks of the Vikings. Oseberg Heads (c.

9th century)

The Oseberg Heads are intricately carved wooden figurines featuring animal and human motifs. They were discovered in a Viking ship burial in Norway and provide insight into Viking art and aesthetics.

Coppergate Excavation (c. 9th century)

The Coppergate Excavation in York, England, yielded a treasure trove of artifacts, including pottery, jewelry, and clothing.

The excavation provided valuable insights into Viking daily life and material culture. The Harrogate Hoard (c.

900 AD)

The Harrogate Hoard is a Viking hoard that was discovered in North Yorkshire, England. The hoard includes coins, jewelry, and other valuable items that attest to the Vikings’ wealth and power in this region.

Cuerdale Hoard (905 AD)

The Cuerdale Hoard is the largest Viking hoard ever discovered in England, containing more than 8,500 items. The hoard includes silver ingots, jewelry, and hack-silver, offering a glimpse into the scale and nature of Viking trade and commerce.

Hiddensee Hoard (c. 10th century)

The Hiddensee Hoard is a collection of gold pendants and brooches found on the island of Hiddensee in Germany.

The hoard attests to the wealth and status of Viking women who wore these elaborate ornaments. The Gjermundbu Helmet (c.

10th century)

The Gjermundbu Helmet is a well-preserved Viking helmet made from iron and bronze. It provides insight into Viking warfare and the types of armor they used.

Ardnamurchan Burial (c. early 10th century)

The Ardnamurchan Burial is a Viking burial boat discovered in Scotland.

The boat contained the remains of an individual buried along with an array of grave goods including weapons and household items. Hogback Tombstone (c.

10th century)

The Hogback Tombstone is a type of Scandinavian stone sculpture that takes the form of a roofed building. These tombstones are unique to Viking Age England and serve as evidence of the Vikings’ lasting cultural influence in this region.

Roskilde 6 (1025)

Roskilde 6 is the world’s longest Viking ship, discovered in Denmark. The ship is 37 meters long and is considered a masterpiece of Viking shipbuilding technology.

Winchester Manuscript (1031)

The Winchester Manuscript is a codex commissioned by Cnut the Great, the Viking king of Denmark, Norway, and England. The manuscript contains synoptic versions of several works, including laws, and provides insight into Viking social and political structure.

The Lewis Chess Pieces (c. 1150 AD)

The Lewis Chess Pieces are a set of ornate ivory chess pieces discovered on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.

These pieces represent one of the most iconic examples of Viking art and are prized for their aesthetic and cultural value. Weighing Scales (c.

1000)

Weighing scales were important tools for Viking traders, who relied on precise measurements to conduct transactions. These scales were often made from bronze and decorated with intricate designs.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Vikings were a complex and multifaceted society that cannot be reduced to simple stereotypes. Their reasons for raiding and traveling were shaped by various forces, including population growth, political instability, and adventure-seeking.

The artifacts and relics they left behind are evidence of their artistic and technological achievements, spanning a wide range of materials and forms. By studying these objects, we can gain a deeper understanding of Viking culture and history.

In summary, the Vikings were skilled sailors and navigators who explored and traded in far-flung places. However, they were also prone to raiding and conquering, which they saw as a means of gaining riches, glory and power.

This article discussed the factors that contributed to Viking expansionism and aggression, including population growth, political instability, and adventure-seeking. Additionally, we explored the relics and artifacts left behind by the Vikings, which provide valuable insights into their culture, values and aesthetics.

These objects showcase their artistic and technological achievements, spanning a wide range of materials and forms. By studying these artifacts, we can gain a deeper understanding of Viking culture and history, and appreciate their lasting impact on the world.

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