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.

Archaeology Show Premiers on BBC

Raiders of the Lost Past is not, as it turns out, the anticipated 5th Indiana Jones film but rather a BBC Two archaeology show which premiered last week. Hosted by Oxford scholar Dr. Janina Ramirez, the first season showcased finds from Suffolk, England, Mexico and even a 40.000 year old work of art discovered in Nazi Germany in 1939.

While neither Anglo-Saxons (Sutton who?), Olmecs or Upper Paleolithic cultures are of particular interest to Eastern Viking enthusiasts, the show is well-worthwhile, offering as it does a different take on history than usually presented. In the second and current season, Dr. Ramirez begins with the Palace of Knossos in Crete, which is here seen to be a Minoan administrative centre rather than a royal dwelling.

The next couple of episodes features two subjects dear to our hearts, Vikings and Turkey. The second episode, which premieres this weekend, sees Dr. Ramirez going to Norway, navigating the various hurdles arising from the pandemic, to explore a Viking ship. This is probably the Gjellestad ship previously discussed on these pages, or else an earlier find such as the Oseberg ship.

The third and final show of the season takes us to modern day Turkey, not to explore the Byzantines, sadly, but a 9000 year old city. No doubt this will turn out to the the Neolithic Çatalhöyük, but there is in fact a small Byzantine settlement nearby. Fingers crossed it gets a mention.

For those who want to check out the Janina Ramirez take on the Vikings, you can have a look at BBC Two – Raiders of the Lost Past with Janina Ramirez, Series 2, The Viking Ship

Sadly, the iPlayer only works in the UK.

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:

The link to Swedish National Broadcasting:

Celebrations in Kyiv Rus Park

Despite restrictions, Kyivans celebrated the holiday of Ivan Kupala on July 12th. The holiday is analogous to St John’s Day, known in Scandinavia as Midsommar, Sankthans or Johannus. Ivan is a Slavisation of John and the word kupala probably comes from the proto-slavic “kump,” which means gathering. In the Nordic and Baltic countries, it is celebrated on June 24th but for countries that use the orthodox liturgical calendar such as Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (and even Poland which does not), it is celebrated on July 6-7. or the weekend after, which explains the late date this year.

The occasion is connected with fertility. Young women are supposed to make flower wreaths and float them on the water. If they float, love will come, but if it sinks, it will not. Alternately, men may attempt to capture the wreaths to catch the attention of the woman in question. The celebration is also connected with water and children play pranks, mostly involving pouring water on people.

The main celebrations in Kyiv this year were held at the at Pyrohiv Outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and at the Kyivan Rus Park. The latter is situated 35 kilometers south of the city and attempts to recreate the ancient town of Kyiv as it stood in the 10th century on a 1 to 1 scale. Only a small part has yet been completed, but it is open to the public on weekends in the summer, with events taking place in full Rus regalia.

“Ukraine is not a 26-year-old country; it is a great state with a history longer than a millennium. It has always been admired and its enemies have always feared it,” says park director Nataliia Koval in the Kyiv Post.

Park founder and “Knyaz of Ancient Kiev” Vladimir Vladimirovich Yanchenko says on its website: “Ancient Kiev became the center of gravity in the process of creation of states of Eastern Europe … Lately, this Rus’ galaxy gave birth to such countries as Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia. So, if we want to strengthen and develop our country – Ukraine, it is necessary to save and protect this gravity of the Kievan Detinets.”

Ukrainian history is still a work in progress and like the Park itself, a stout edifice is being built upon much that remains conjecture. What we know about the Kievan Rus is gleamed from incomplete and sometime contradictory sources, and much is open to debate, whereas the process of nation-building tends to prefer clearer narratives. Nevertheless, leading specialists such as Petro Tolochko of the NASU Institute of Archaeology of Ukraine have been consulted for the recreation. Not everything here may look exactly as it did a thousand years ago, but there is no faulting the ambition.

For more information, see:

The Wise Woman

Ready to read your fortune: The Wise Woman

What’s in a Name? The K-Word in Modern Ukraine

You say Kiev, I say Kyiv. Let’s call the whole thing off. No, the Kiev/Kyiv debate is not the lost verse to a Cole Porter song but rather a very loaded political question in Ukraine these days. Following the Leninopad and the demolition of the 2000 or so Lenin statues remaining during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution (bar two in Chornobyl deemed too radioactive), various cities and towns in Ukraine have undergone a change in spelling to better reflect the Ukrainian language rather than Russian. Odessa has become Odesa, Kharkov switched to Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk is now simply Dnipro. The separatists in the Donbass have gone in the other direction, labelling Donetsk with the older name Stalino on ceremonial days. For most of the rest of the country, Kiev has become Kyiv. No more Chicken Kiev. And no more Kievan Rus.

For the Medievalist or Icelander, this should be a matter of scant concern. One can simply go with the ancient moniker Kænugarður, as it is known in the old Norse. Benoît Humbert, is his PhD thesis at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, seems to firmly establish what to the Icelander may seem self-evident, that the name comes from Kæna for ship and garður for town (garden in modern Icelandic), hence ship town.

The Russian Scandinavianist Tatjana N. Jackson says in her article “The North of Eastern Europe in Early Nordic Texts: the Study of Place-Names” that “Kænugarður” was rarely used in the oldest Norse texts from 12th and 13th Century texts compared to Hólmgarður, og Novgorod, no doubt reflecting the direction of Nordic penetration from north to south.

The Ukrainian name is in fact older. Down by the banks of the river Dniepr (or Dnipro) as it passes through K-town is a statue of four people in a boat. At the bow is a woman stretching her arms out, somewhat resembling Kate Winslet doing the same in the film Titanic. Behind her stand three stern-looking men, two carrying spears, the last one a bow. The woman is Lybid and her brothers are Shchek, Khoryv and Kyi. According to tradition they settled in these parts in 482. The three hills were named after each of the brother but the town eventually became known as the namesake of the eldest.

The ship faces downstream from whence they came, which also explains why the right bank of the river as seen on a map is called the left bank by locals and vice versa, which was to become of importance later when all of left bank Ukraine (the right side on the map) was dominated by the Russian Empire and the right bank by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a division that reverberates to this day. But it is accounts of people sailing down the Dniepr during the Rus era that our modest website hopes to illuminate.

“The Boat,” as it is sometimes called, has become an emblem of the city, reproduced on countless postcards and was unveiled on the 1500th anniversary of settlement in 1982. One could argue that in some ways this resembles Iceland more than other Nordic countries. Whereas the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes trace their roots deep into the post-ice age past, the Icelanders traditionally claim a definite starting point in 874 as mentioned in the Sagas. In downtown Reykjavíok there is a statue of the first settler Ingólfur Arnarsson dating back to 1924 and portrays the “Father of Iceland” at the helm of a dragon-ship.

Yet whereas Iceland was most probably uninhabited when the Norse first came there, what is now present-day Ukraine most decidedly was not. But more on that later. For now, let us merely establish, out of respect for Kyi and the gang, that we will pander to Ukrainian sensibilities by settling for Kyiv and even Kyivan Rus rather than Kiev. Not everyone writing on this site will do so. And that is fine too.

Valur Gunnarsson