📸 "Leif Erikson Discovers America" by Hans Dahl
In 793 CE, a longship appeared off the coast of Lindisfarne, a small English island that held little more than a monastery. It was a quiet place, home to Christian monks and the occasional pilgrim. This longship, however, was not carrying pilgrims. It held Vikings, warriors from the north who would make their explosive entry into history with a raid of the abbey's riches. At the end of the raid, the monastery’s inhabitants had been massacred and their goods pillaged.
Alcuin of York, a member of Charlemange’s court, spoke of the event with fear: “never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.”
📸 The Oseberg ship, a viking longboat. (Source: Reuters)
The image Alcuin summoned of this Viking attack set the template for how these Scandinavian people were understood for centuries: barbarous pirates who killed and looted everything in their path.
This conception remains popular, but as in all things, it obscures a more complex truth. Viking culture was far more than sea-farring marauders—they established outposts and trading routes that stretched east into the Arabic world, and all the way west to what they called Vineland and what we call Canada. Vikings were warriors, but they were also explorers, artists, and craftsmen that all played a part of this pivotal time in human history.
📸 A carving from Lindisfarne that may depict the raid.
Dating the Age of Vikings is difficult. The Lindisfarne raid is usually accepted as its origins, when Vikings began to spread out from Scandinavian, but this was not the first such attack. Moreover, defining the Vikings from this raid frames them as outsiders whose attack was unprovoked.
In reality, Charlemagne’s growing empire had already come into contact with the Danes to the north. Some scholars suggest that the raid on Lindisfarne monastery, and many of the others which followed, were in direct response to the threat the Vikings felt along their own borders.
📸 An arabic ring found on Björkö. (Source: CNN)
Whatever the case, the Vikings operated for about two and a half centuries, during which they traveled across much of the known world. They scouted and raided the entire coast of Europe and all of the major rivers of the continent. During their time in southern and eastern Europe, they served as mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire and enforcers of the peace in slavic lands. They expanded far to the East, establishing colonies in today's Russia. The Kievan Rus as they were known also traded with the Islamic world, evidenced by the discovery of a ring bearing Arabic script in the 9th century grave on the Swedish island of Björkö.
📸 L’Anse aux Meadows today (Source: Unesco)
In the north Atlantic, Vikings discovered Iceland, the Svalbard archipelago, the micro-continent Greenland, and more. Around 1000 CE, Lief Erikson, son of Eirk the Red who first landed on Greenland, set foot on North America, the first European to do so. Erikson and others established temporary outposts on the more hospitable American continent, but its geographical distance made them difficult to maintain. After Erikson’s brother Thorvald was killed in combat with a Native American, attempts to settle the continent were abandoned, leaving behind only a collection of modest outposts like at L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland.
Records of these adventures and Norse society were often kept in literary form known as a Saga. When we hear the word saga today, we often think of the "Prose Edda" which contains many of the mythological stories we associate with the notion of the Vikings. However, the saga was really more of a broad term used to describe nearly any narrative like family histories, mythology, and tales of political intrigue. The sagas also describe the weapons of the Vikings and their manufacture. Next to the knives, the machete-like sax, and the swords of the wealthy, we also learn more about the various types of axes used by the Vikings.
📸 "The Funeral of a Viking” by Frank Dicksee, 1893.
📸 A viking axe head.
As with everything else with Vikings, the popular image of Norse weaponry is quite different than the reality. Smaller blades were more effective in close combat, not to mention much cheaper. While the largest axes like the crescent-shaped Breiðøx, or broad axe, might have a cutting edge up to 18" (45cm), the iconic "bearded axe," or Skegøx, might only reach 6" (15cm).
With a properly sharpened carving axe, a skilled craftsman can quickly turn out many useful implements including mallets, bowls, and even spoons. Combined with the adze, the gouge, and the drawknife, it is possible to create incredibly ornate carvings including the famous dragon heads which adorned the prows of many Norse sailing ships.
This Viking axe specimen from Mini Museum is a fragment of one such axe dated to 900 CE, the height of the Viking’s conquests. The axe head was restored in the 1960s using the techniques of the time, which tended to focus on the beauty of the finished object as opposed to stabilizing and preserving the material.
Additionally, one large bearded axehead is also available as a complete showcase specimen here. (Pictured)
📸 A viking arrowhead pendant.
Viking arrows were likely used more for survival than they were warfare, as they are most often associated with the act of hunting. The leaf-like shape of this specimen was common among those looking for their next meal and would be tanged into the shaft of the arrow. With their powerful bows, a Norse hunter could strike a target from over 600 feet away and bring down even large game like elk and bears.
This specimen is one such Viking arrowhead mounted as a pendant necklace. The arrowheads date to roughly 900 CE. It's an incredible piece of norse history and one that you can wear!
Cf. Sedov, B.B. Finno-Ugri i Balti v Epokhi Srednevekovija, Moscow, 1987
Cooper, Tracey-Anne. Reconstructing a Deconstructed Manuscript, Community and Culture: London, BL MS Cotton Tiberius A. III. Boston College, 2005.
Graham-Campbell J. The Viking World. Third Frances Lincoln edition. Frances Lincoln; 2001.
Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. Penguin Group USA, 1995.
Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are. Penguin UK, 2014.