Were the First Norwegian Kings Copying the Rus and the Romans?

One of the more preposterous plot points in “The Vikings” TV show is when the Rus invade Norway. This would have been geographically impossible without cutting through present-day Finland and Sweden first, quite apart from the fact that the Rus and the Scandinavians were generally on good terms.

It is fairly well established that the Scandinavians played a part in the founding of the Rus state, which leads back to modern day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But what about vice-versa? In his book The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire, Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson points out that both St. Olaf and Harald Hardrada, two of the kings most fundamental to the creation of the Norwegian state, had been in exile in the Rus for long periods of time. Harald even went further and served in the Varangian Guard of the Roman Emperor.

The Rus at the time had so many towns that the Scandinavians called it “Garðaríki,” sometimes translated as “the kingdom of cities” or “the realm of towns.” And the court of the East Roman Emperor in Constantinople was the greatest in all of Christendom. Were the Norwegian kings inspired by the Rus and the Byzantines when they set about creating a state in Norway? These and many other Rus-related questions will be answered in an upcoming podcast with Sverrir  Jakobsson on this very page.

Harald Hardrada window in Kirkwall Cathedral | Colin Smith / Harald Hardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0


Are the Mysterious Figurines Valkyries?

“Mysterious, ancient female figurines have been found by the dozens all over Denmark, and as far afield as England and Russia.” Thus begins an article in a recent issue of National Geographic Magazine. What are these mysterious figurines?

A find in Ribe, Denmark, which was a major trading port in the 9th century, may shed some light on the subject. Here, an “assembly line” of pedants was discovered in 2017. By making moulds out of clay, hundreds of pedants could be made at a time. These represent a variety of figurines similar to the ones seen on the tapestry found in the Oseberg ship, buried in a mound in Norway in 834 and discovered in 1904.

Some of the figurines portray women bearing swords and shields. These have usually been taken to be Valkyries, but a recent study by Pieterjan Deckers, archaeologist at the Free University of Brussels, suggests otherwise. He claims that these represent actual women fulfilling ceremonial roles, as they are wearing dresses that would be highly impractical in combat. Hence, the women are wilfully shown taking on male attributes. Similarly, other figurines show a man tearing at his hair, which is a traditionally feminine gesture.

Leszek Gardela, archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, says: “They steer away from a simplistic interpretation of women and weapons, where they’re all Valkyries and warriors, and argue for something else. It’s good to remember there’s no one fixed way of interpreting this material.”


Valkyrie - Wikipedia

The World’s Only Viking Helmet (and Other Objects)

Still ongoing in Oslo is the “Vikingr” exhibition at the Museum of Cultural History. On display is the most extensive collection of Viking swank assembled in Norway, including the world’s only intact Viking helmet (sans horns, if there was still any doubt).

Of particular interest to us is silver hoard from the 10th Century, found on the Teisen farm in Oslo in 1844. Among the items here are several Arabian and Persian coins from present day Iran and Iraq. There are also armrings, probably made from melted-down silver coins, which could both be worn and used as currency, sort of like a portable mini-bank. Finally, there are cut-down pieces of silver which must also have been used to buy stuff with and weighed according to price.

As if this wasn’t enough proof that 10th Century Norway was interconnected with large parts of the world, the next display case shows a treasure unearthed at a farm in Buskerud in 1834. While the Vikings mainly used silver, usually originating in the Caliphate, as currency, this hoard contains gold rings including one from England, multi-coloured pearls, Roman jewellery repurposed in the Viking Age, Frankish ornaments, as well as the omnipresent Arabian coins.

At the exhibit there are also finds from a female grave, which includes weapons. This could indicate that the roughly 19-year-old girl was a warrior, but little is known for sure. The still-intact skull will soon be DNA analysed, which may yield further information.

The museum is connected to the Viking Ship House on Bygdö Island, a short ferry trip away. A ticket for one is a ticket for both and can be used on different days. However, the Viking Ship Museum will soon be closed for renovation and will only reopen, vastly expanded, in 2025. Vikingr will run for a few more years. Even if you are not passing through Oslo Norway, you can take a virtual tour here:


There is also an introductory video with English subtitles here:


Bildet kan inneholde: lokk, personlig verneutstyr, sirkel, skrift, metall.

Visiting the Gjellestad site

The dig at Gjellestad, the most significant Viking find in Norway for over a century, is proceeding apace. The buried Viking ship was discovered two years ago and the excavation is expected to be completed this summer.

As I arrive, there is already a French documentary crew in place. Most Viking ship remains are found at the bottom of the sea, but this is a rare case of burial remains which makes it that much more interesting. Head archaeologist Camilla Wenn tells me that bones have been found belonging to animals, and possibly to humans, but this will have to be verified with DNA.

It’s hard to draw any conclusions at this point, but it seems that the Gjellestad ship did not have a mast. This may indicate that the ship is from before the the time when the old Norse started using sails. It could also just be a different design, or development, a coastal ship perhaps. No one knows.

But it does seem that Östfold, on the eastern side of the Oslo fjord, may have been more equal in power and wealth to Vestfold on the western side. The famous Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship are both from Vestfold. However, the sandy terrain there does not lend itself well to preservation, so further finds are unlikely. The clay ground in Ostfold has preserved artefacts far better. Among the objects found at Gjellestad are a part of the stem and a large amber bulb. The latter may indicate contact with the eastern Baltic, but amber is quite often found in Viking graves so trade was conducted between the areas in any case.

Here you can see the finds in 3D at the University of Oslo.

Kulturhistorisk museum: 3D-modeller (uiocloud.no)

Viking Fashion. What Did They Wear?

With the days now longer than the nights, it’s time to start wondering what this year’s spring fashions will bring. Of course, no one will ever be as fashionable as the Vikings, as is obvious from the website of the Danish National Museum.

It may come as little surprise that your average Viking gentleman would wear a simple tunic and trousers combo, while the ladies would go for strap dresses worn over undergarments. The materials used would depend on what was available, usually wool and flax. However, the more stylish (and probably more wealthy) Viking would be seen sporting the latest fashion from that hub of haute couture, the Eastern Roman Empire.

While the riff-raff might be reduced to simple wool, for the better off silk was everything. After all, weren’t the routes that moved product from the Mandarins to the Mediterranean known as Silk Roads? Justinian the Great of Byzantium had used it to display his power in the mid-6th century and the Byzantines would maintain a monopoly on Silk production in Europe for the next 600 years.

But not all silk was equal. Particularly sought after were bright blue and red, as these were seen to signal wealth and power. In Denmark, no one (at least no one we know of) was more stylish than the Mammen man. Discovered by a farmer in 1868 in a mound in Mammen dating back to ca. 971, the man was discovered with the following:

“The buried man lay upon a bed of down cushions in a coffin placed in a wooden chamber – a so-called chamber-grave. At his feet lay two axes. On the coffin lid a bronze bucket, two wooden buckets and a large wax candle had been placed. The man wore costly clothing decorated with purple and red silk, as well as embroideries in red and blue. It is not known whether the deceased was Christian or pagan. The motifs on the one axe can be interpreted as both of these, but the large candle is probably a Christian symbol. The fine quality of the furnishings shows that the deceased presumably belonged to the circle around King Harald Bluetooth.”

Now who wouldn’t want to be seen with such a Ma(mme)n?

The grave from Mammen (natmus.dk)

Clothes and jewellery (natmus.dk)

Clothes and jewellery

A Real Shield-Maiden?

A Viking grave discovered in Birka in 19th century Sweden continues to generate attention. In the 1970s, it was suggested that the grave, bedecked with weapons and other warrior garb, may in fact have belonged to a woman. A DNA test from 2017 revealed this to be the case.

While the person in question was most decidedly female and was certainly armed to the teeth, being buried with a sheathed sword, an ax, a fighting knife, two spears, two shields, a quiver of 25 armour-piercing arrows and a small iron knife. many questions persist. Does this prove that she was, in fact, a warrior or were the items in some way ceremonial? Might it even suggest gender fluidity among Vikings, with roles in some cases being chosen irrespective of sex?

Scholars, of course, disagree, although surely we all like the idea of shield-maidens. Less celebrated, however, are the eastern aspects of the grave. Was the woman even Viking at all? And if so, in what sense? Her clothing seems to be of a more eastern design, even coming all the way from Central Asia. This may indicate that she had been there, certainly had access to goods from there, or may even have been from there.

A new short BBC video shows what her headgear may have looked like in full colour:

Hidden Histories – BBC Reel

Meanwhile, you can read more about the 2019 study, led by Neil Price, here:

Yes, That Viking Warrior Buried with Weapons Really Was a Woman | Live Science

A Treasure Trove of Viking Stuff Discovered

Climate change is terrible news for just about everyone but one upshoot is that it’s doing wonders for archaeology. The Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen national park has been melting at a terrifying rate and now measures just 30 percent of what it was 30 years ago. A decade ago, the area caused a sensation among archaeologists when a 4th century wool tunic was discovered, largely intact. This may have been removed by some poor soul at the moment of freezing to death, when paradoxically the body feels very warm.

Since then, a treasure trove of finds have been made. These span the period from the 3rd century to the end of the Middle Ages, peaking at around the year 1000 at the height of the Viking Age. The artefacts are assumed to be from a mountain pass which connected various parts of Norway and perhaps places further afield. The Cambridge Review of World Archaeology says:

“That the dates cluster in the Viking Age, particularly around AD 1000, is unlikely to be coincidental as it was a time of high mobility, emerging urbanism and increasing political centralisation in Scandinavia, and a period in which markets around the Irish, North and Baltic Seas were growing.”

Perhaps an ancient trade route of the Eastern Vikings has been discovered? In any case, archaeologist Lars Pilø has recently discussed the six most interesting items in Artnet News. Among these are a Viking Age tinderbox, a horse snowshoe and a strange kitchen item which may also have been used as a tent peg. The route was abandoned in the late Middle Ages, perhaps as a cause of worsening climate or the Black Death. Covid-19 has made it difficult to travel to the site lately, so it can be said that climate change and pandemics connect our times with those of the finds in more ways than one.

The top six items:

A Viking Archaeologist Shares 6 of the Most Fascinating Finds From a Slew of Recent Discoveries Made in Melting Ice (artnet.com)

The full story from Cambridge:

Crossing the ice: an Iron Age to medieval mountain pass at Lendbreen, Norway | Antiquity | Cambridge Core

1200 Year Old Norwegian Ship May Shed Light on the Rus

Excavations around the Gjellestad ship in south-eastern Norway continue unabated and it is hoped they will be completed this month. GRE radar has shown it to be 19 metres long and five metres wide, and even though much of it has rotted away, it is hoped that a replica may eventually be built.

This is the first major excavation of its kind in Norway for over a century and this boat is of roughly the same size as the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships, on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Those ships were found at the westside of the Oslo fjord, but this on the eastern side.

While this does not mean that it was intended for journeys east, the find is nevertheless of interest to scholars of the Eastern Vikings. In the 9th Century the Vikings started using sails which enabled them to cross the open seas to the west. Many ships combined rowing and sailing, depending on the weather, but the Gjellestad ship has a different keel than previous findings, which has gotten archaeologists excited.

The shallow draught enabled the ships to travel across the waves, but also over inland waters as found in eastern Europe. The king buried with the ship may have travelled far and wide, even to Byzantium. The ship was light enough to be carried from one river to the next, as was crucial to navigate the rivers in present day Russia and Ukraine. The ship has been dated to roughly the century between 750 and 850 CE.

For the BBC article, see here:  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55145985

For more specific questions, you can contact chief archaeologist dr. Knut Paasche directly here:  knut.paasche@niku.no

News from Norway

An archaeology student at the University of Trömsö found a previously unknown Viking era trading post in Sandtorg in northern Norway between the towns of Harstad and Narvik. Dating from the 9th century, it is the oldest trading centre in the north of Norway and shows that international trade was conducted from here earlier than thought. Among the artefacts discovered are Arabic coins and an Asian belt strap decoration. Those who know the Sagas will recall that this is the general area Egill Skallagrímsson’s immediate ancestors emigrated from to Iceland.


The NRK national radio series Museum, about Nordic history and archaeology, is finally available as a podcast. In an episode from 2005, hosts  Øyvind Arntsen and Jan Henrik Ihlebæk travel to Starya Ladoga, the old Aldeiguborg, to find out about the beginnings of the Rus. Among the conclusions are that once Rúrík went east, he left Swedish history and entered that of Russia, in much the same way that prince Carl left Danish history and entered Norwegian when he became King Haakon VII of Norway. If Kyiv is he mother of Russian cities, then Aldeiguborg is the grandmother. In Norwegian with some Russian:


 Norwegian lion meets Russian bear

Swedish Proto-Vikings on Icelandic TV

De första svenskarna, or The First Swedes, is a two-part series by archaeologist Jonathan Lindström. The series debuted on Swedish television in February and the first episode was showed on Icelandic television last week. Using modern DNA technology from the University of Uppsala, Lindström aims to show that Sweden was first settled by dark-skinned, blue-eyed people from coming the south at the end of the last Ice Age 11.000 years ago. Almost simultaneously, a pale skinned group entered from the north via Russia, emanating from modern day Turkey. These hunted elk and had superior stone age weapons and tools and soon interbred with the former group. The second episode, to be aired tomorrow (July 21st) deals with proto-Viking raids from long before the beginning of the Viking Age.

The link to Icelandic National Broadcasting is here: https://www.ruv.is/sjonvarp/spila/fyrstu-sviarnir/29633/8qj8oh

The link to Swedish National Broadcasting:  https://www.svt.se/special/mot-de-forsta-svenskarna/