Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Viking raids – how did it all start?

Neil Price and colleague John Ljungkvist in Gamla Uppsala, an important burial site during the Viking Age.

Everyone is familiar with the Viking raids that took place in Europe from AD 700–1000, when warlike Scandinavians headed out with hundreds of ships on plundering expeditions in Europe. But how did it start, exactly? Excavations of burial sites in Uppsala and Estonia may provide new answers.

“The image of the Viking Age and the Vikings is full of clichés, but at the core of it is the Viking raids and the attacks on monasteries and kingdoms,” says Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology. “This emerges slowly during the 8th century and then escalates until there are thousands of Vikings heading out en masse. That is what we want to investigate.”

Price leads the extensive project “The Viking Phenomenon”, which will spend 10 years exploring the critical period between the Viking Age and the era that came before, the Vendel Period.

Archaeological collections have been made available to assist the researchers. These include burial finds from 6th to 10th century Valsgärde in Gamla Uppsala, which was excavated from the 1920s to 1950s, as well as new finds from a 2008-2012 excavation on Saaremaa in Estonia. There are two boat graves there dating back to circa 750 A.D.

Reconstruction of the boat grave Salme I in Estonia. Illustration:Þórhallur Þráinsson

“It appears to be remnants of a Viking raid from Sweden against the Estonians that went badly, with a lot of people dead,” says Price. “The Vikings seem to have come from central Sweden – there may even have been people from Valsgärde involved. Even if they were not from Valsgärde, they were at least from the same culture, which gives us the opportunity to study them both at home and abroad.” 

One of the biggest questions for the researchers is how the Viking Age was organised. In the 8th and 9th centuries, there were not yet any nation states in Scandinavia. However, there were lots of small kingdoms, tribes and political groups in Scandinavia and one of these was organised around Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde and Vendel.

“It is these small groups that slowly grow, fight one other and absorb each other during the 300-year Viking Age,” says Price. “It is they who slowly become Norway and Denmark.”

The Viking Age is often described as a masculine culture, but this study focuses not only on the male Vikings, but on the entire society.

“It was mainly the men who went out and wreaked havoc,” says Price, “but we are studying this as a social process – something that encompassed the entire society. By using this link between Valsgärde and Estonia, we can focus on such a device and use it as a case study.”

The logistics behind the Viking raids

Another part of the project is to delve deeper into the economics and logistics behind the Viking raids. What did they eat and where did they get their food? How were the ships built and how long did it take?

“In the beginning,” says Price, “ we think it was only a few ships, but by around the year 840, several sources put that number at 200, 300 or even 400. If there were hundreds of ships, that means that thousands of people sailed out on them.”

“One idea we’re playing with is that these Viking fleets were small, moving societies. That they weren’t a fixed group of people, but instead very organic, with people coming and going. It’s difficult for us to grasp, and it was obviously also difficult for their adversaries – that’s why they were so successful.” 

Neil Price is very engaged in popularisation.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

One of the project’s cornerstones is that it is not possible to study the Viking Age without also being very aware of how the image of the Vikings persists today.

“More than most ancient cultures, the Vikings continue to live on today, even in more problematic contexts,” says Price. “This is not something we can just ignore – we have to discuss it.”

The popular History Channel drama series Vikings, for example, has lots of viewers around the world. Price and his fellow researchers have had contact with the film team behind the television series and collaborated with them. 

“More people are brought into contact with the Vikings through such a series than we as academics could ever accomplish,” says Price. “So I absolutely think that we should devote ourselves to popularisation and get engaged. This public part of the project is a very important component.”

Adding nuances to the image of the Vikings

As a researcher and teacher, Price wants to address people’s expectations, while at the same time adding nuances to the image of the Vikings. They’re perhaps not quite as we imagine them.

“The Viking Age is a very multifaceted part of the history – there is no ‘Viking’ or ‘Viking Woman’. There are people, all sorts of people living their lives.”

It is clear that the Viking Age was an outward-bound period, a time of foreign relations and trade. People travelled a lot, some even more than we do today. There was a network that stretched not only throughout all of Europe, but also into Asia and the Middle East.

“It is not only things and people that travel, it’s also ideas. You can trace ideas in events and in the remnants of events, in graves and in burial sites.”

He and his colleagues look for patterns and variations in all sorts of materials, evidence and written records. The image that emerges is that of a dynamic time, a time of change.

“It is in the Viking Age that what would become Sweden steps forward – and Norway and Denmark,” says Price. “Even if this is a cliché that has benefited the tourism industry since the turn of the century, there is some truth in it. It would be interesting to see how far back this started to take shape.”

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Facts/The Viking Phenomenon

  • A 10-year research project in the Swedish Research Council’s Grants for Distinguished Professor programme, 2016-2025.
  • Studying the first Viking raiders, why they did what they did, what sort of society shaped them, and why their violent expansion into other parts of the world started at this specific time. 
  • The project includes a full analysis of the Valsgärde burial grounds in Uppsala, which were excavated from the 1920s to the 1950s. These are supplemented by new finds from the island of Saaremaa in Estonia. Two boat graves, with the remains of participants in a central Swedish Viking raid at the beginning of the Viking Age. 

2017-03-21