The Viking Phenomenon project – an introduction

The Viking Age (c. 750–1050 CE) has long been a touchstone of identity in the Nordic countries, not least in Sweden. Today the Vikings enjoy a popular recognition common to few other ancient cultures. Their name appears on brands of all kinds, exhibitions of their archaeological remains regularly tour the great cities of the world, and in the Vikings TV show they now fill our screens on a regular basis. However, their history has also been reinvented, used and abused to suit the needs of successive generations, in a process that continues today. It would be easy to believe that there's not much left to know about the Vikings, but it seems that in fact the opposite is the case - we've only just begun to scratch the surface of their lives. Despite an exciting expansion in research in the last few decades, one arena of Viking activity remains substantially unexplored, and it concerns the very beginnings of this historical trajectory.

Under the direction of Professor Neil Price, researchers at Uppsala University and the Swedish History Museum are investigating the origins of the Viking Age across a wide range of proxies, based in the Baltic but extending across the developing diaspora. 

Research grant

In December 2015, the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) made an unprecedented investment in early medieval research, one of the largest grants ever awarded to an archaeological project. Professor Neil Price of Uppsala University was awarded 50 million Swedish kronor (c. $6m USD) for a ten-year initiative entitled "The Viking Phenomenon", establishing a new centre of excellence for the study of this crucial period in European history.

The project will run until 2025, and is designed as an umbrella programme that shelters several sub-strands of research. It brings together an international team of archaeological researchers, each of whom will make targeted contributions to their areas of expertise, but the key focus of their attention is on the critical century of 750 to 850 CE, and the decades either side: the time during which the foundations of the early Viking Age were laid. The project will seek to address several core questions:

  • Who really were the first Viking raiders, in a specific sense?
  • Why did they do what they do?
  • What kind of societies produced them, and why did they start to expand so violently into the world at precisely this time?
  • In short, what were the origins of the Viking phenomenon?

Among the key issues that we want to consider are those relating to raiding, military ideologies, and the nature of long-distance, international contacts and trade as they developed during the Late Iron Age. The development and exploitation of mercantile networks has long been considered as a defining characteristic of the Viking Age, but to what extent were these connections built on earlier interactions? Clear evidence for links with the East, including as far away as the Asian steppe and Tang China can already be found in graves from the preceding Vendel period (c. 550 – 750 CE), but the nature of those contacts has never been adequately explored.

The project is split into two major research clusters, each of which is developing and exploring its own research agendas with the aim of addressing these questions from various perspectives:

It is important to understand that the project will not provide 'the Answer' to 'the Question' of the Viking Age, but rather a particular set of responses to the questions that we think to ask. Other scholars might choose quite different lines of approach, and this is to be welcomed. Our project is a living one, situated in our own times, as it must be.

With a new understanding of the Viking phenomenon as its objective, we hope that this project will create Sweden's leading centre for the study of this critical time period in the nation's history. The Vikings are still today the most visible signal of Scandinavian heritage, and this research programme will be deeply embedded with contemporary concerns, presenting the exploration of this long-lasting legacy for the widest possible public.