DCSIMG

In the end they really weren't so horrible

RAPING and pillaging. Longboats and horned helmets. Beards and ginger hair. Is that all there was to the Vikings?

Certainly the people who came from what is modern-day Scandinavia - Norway, Sweden and Denmark - and travelled to Scotland over 1200 years ago leaving their homes behind them, must have had more about them than a taste for beer and hunks of animal flesh. Yet this is the way many people today think of Vikings.

It's hardly surprising when you think of the way they're portrayed on film and television. And even though there's a variety of evidence available when studying Viking Scotland including language, place-names, documentary sources, oral tradition and archaeology - there are still many questions unanswered.

Let us consider the initial Viking migrations to Scotland. Almost every aspect has proven contentious: when exactly did it happen, where did it happen, and how many people did it involve? What was the relationship between the pre-existing people here, such as the Picts, and the migrant groups? Did the two groups integrate or did the invaders overwhelm or annihilate the natives? That we can still offer polar answers to such a critical question is symptomatic of many areas of Viking study.

So just what do we know about the Vikings in Scotland?

In one sense the idea of a fierce, terrifying warrior with beard, flowing red hair, shield, sword and axe is understandable. Historical records tell us that at the end of the eighth century Vikings from across the North Sea raided Scotland. While there is little doubt they burned, devastated and plundered it is arguable that these actions have affected many modern interpretations and opinions of "what the Vikings did for us".

The initial period of raiding was fleeting but it is often the canvas on to which many pictures of the Viking period are painted. But they were here for at least another 300 years. So it's fortunate that we have a large body of archaeological objects in our museum collections with which we can attempt to fill in the blanks and create new pictures which go beyond raids, killings and terror.

Shortly after the raids the Vikings settled in the Northern and Western Isles and in places along the coast of mainland Scotland, including the Lothians.

The archaeological objects we have mean we can see that the Vikings were farmers who kept a variety of animals, including sheep, cattle, and pigs, and grew crops such as barley and oats. They also collected plants for medicinal purposes. They exploited marine resources - including fish, seals and whales - and hunted otters and hares. As well as the actual animal and plant remains we also have a wide range of the objects used during the cooking and eating of these remains.

But the Vikings were far more than that - they were expert craftspeople and traders. They worked iron and bronze to produce objects for everyday use, such as knives, and stunning gold and silver jewellery. They also worked antler and bone into elaborate pins and combs. Much of this may have been for internal consumption but other objects demonstrate that considerable wealth and surplus was achieved. Gold and silver ornaments, coins and hoards, the "portable treasures of Viking Scotland", represent the most obvious form of wealth in circulation over 1000 years ago.

And while there is little evidence left of the Vikings in the south east of Scotland - apart from bone combs found in North Berwick and Dunbar - it is believed that in 1838 a Viking hoard, now lost, containing a mixture of gold and silver, was found during the clearance of a cairn in Berwickshire.

THE hoard may have been deposited during the activities of Ragnall, a member of the Scandinavian dynasty of Dublin, who raided and fought in the Lowlands during the tenth century. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Viking story, though, is trade. The Vikings in Scotland were great traders who travelled to distant lands to bring back exotic items. As a result they plugged Scotland in to an extensive trading network.

Objects tell us that they brought things from their homelands - wood, furs, antlers, hides, walrus ivory, along with jewellery and personal possessions. We also know they traded items made in Scotland, such as cannel coal jewellery, quernstones and various soapstone objects, to other areas such as the Faroes and Iceland along with flour, dried fish and fish oil.

The Viking world stretched from Newfoundland to the Middle East and beyond. Objects moved over thousands of miles across a great network. Not all of the objects survive (silk, spices, etc) but others tell of great adventures. They have even been finds of coins and jewellery from as far away as Baghdad, Samarkand and Tashkent - many in areas now argued to be rural and far from modern trade routes.

So while we have a tendency to view the Vikings in a one-dimensional way, this is a disservice both to their legacy and to the rich evidence we have at our disposal.

So as part of Scottish Archaeology Month the Museum of Scotland is hosting a workshop tomorrow entitled "The Vikings in Scotland". Members of the archaeology department will explore some of the themes raised here and show the varied and perhaps surprising evidence for how Viking people lived and died in Scotland over 1000 years ago.

The event is free and anyone can drop in. Just don't bring your horned helmets!

• Dr Andrew Heald is the Later Iron Age and Early Historic Curator at the National Museums of Scotland. Various events are being held at the National Museums of Scotland in support of Scottish Archaeology Month. Details can be found online at www.nms.ac.uk. The Vikings workshop runs from noon-4pm

 
 
 

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