RELATIVE to their lingering influence, reputation for violent conquest and charismatic persona, archaeologists aren’t exactly drowning in Viking artefacts. We can all summon an image of the curly-ended longships, the shields and battle garb—but many of the visuals we append to this much mythologised way are based on a few knockout pieces, scattered clues, and many smaller fragments.
The Scandinavian raiders’ territory-grabbing interlude in history lasted a little less than three centuries, from 793 to 1066, with Scandinavian control clinging on across the Scottish Hebrides until 1266. But given they were influenced by cultures before and informed those after, finding an artefact that genuinely adds to the picture of the Vikings and their extraordinary exploits can be tricky. After all, being a Viking was a way of life—not simply a title bestowed by the intersection of nationality and time.
Here are a few of the objects that survived the Vikings and have made it this far through the centuries—all of them instrumental in building a picture of legendary people.
Not a single relic but rather a breed of advanced weapon—emblazoned with the word +VLFBERH+T like a designer brand—this particular accessory was notable for the technology that made it. Far from your average sword, the Ulfberht is thought to have been manufactured between the 9th and 11th centuries. Made from a highly pure alloy forged with large amounts of carbon, the material took great skill to work with and required fierce heat to make. This was generated in a blacksmith’s furnace known as a crucible. The resulting weapon, made of ‘crucible steel,’ gained its legendary chops for being super-light but supernaturally strong—and a prized asset for a warrior.
Like many aspects of Viking culture, the origins of the Ulfberht sword are shadowy. Some 170 examples bearing the inscriptionhave been found across Europe, though many have their letters spelled out of sequence—with the last ‘+’ after the T, rather than before it. These are thought to have been knock-off examples made by competing swordsmiths to cash in on the reputation of what was clearly a technological anomaly. Built in an unprecedented manner that would disappear once again following the demise of the Vikings, an Ulfberht was analysed and recreated by master blacksmith Richard Furrer for National Geographic documentary Secrets of the Viking Sword.Furrer described the resulting replica as ‘representing my entire skillset… sitting there in a two-pound chunk of steel.’
Vale of York Hoard
Exhumed from an otherwise bare field near the English town of Harrogate in 2007 by a father-and-son team of amateur treasure seekers, this astonishing find – aside from being a dream haul for any detectorist—gave a glimpse of the Vikings’ trading, or looting, reach. Comprising some 600 coins, bullion and assorted jewellery tucked tightly into a silver container etched with lions and deer and lined with gold, the find’s contents have been dated to the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
“This is the world in a vessel,” the British Museum’s Jonathan Williams toldThe Guardianat the time, in reference to the exotic nature of some of the objects that lay within, hailing from destinations as disparate as Afghanistan, North Africa and Russia. The Vale of York Hoard, or Harrogate Hoard as it was formerly known, is the second largest Viking treasure found in Britain after the Cuerdale hoard, unearthed near Preston in 1840. The discoverers, David and Andrew Whelan, were praised for their discipline in unearthing the cache intact, and later shared a bounty of £1m with the landowner. They initially thought they’d found a rusty bike.
The Lewis Chess Pieces
One of the most spine-tingling Viking-era finds was uncovered on a beach at Uig on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis in the early 19thcentury. Exactly when and how remains a point of dispute, though the discovery is often credited to one Malcolm Macleod from the village of Peighinn Dhomhnuill, who reportedly found them in a collapsed sandbank in 1831. All that is known for certain is they turned up at Edinburgh’s Society of Antiquaries of Scotland later that year where they became a source of fascination and speculation that endures to this day. Examination and analysis of the whale tooth- and walrus ivory-carved pieces, which measure around 10 centimetres and number some 93 known individuals and accessories, have suggested a Scandinavian origin—possibly Trondheim in Norway—around 1150AD.
Though there are many origin theories, chess possibly arose in India in the 6thcentury, and was likely played by nobility and clergy amongst Scandinavian society. The Lewis pieces, which were highly coveted items and numerous enough to make four separate sets, may have been stashed by a furtive travelling salesman whilst plying trade across the Norse-ruled Scottish Hebrides. But all of this is guesswork: the pieces could have been made anywhere from Norway to Iceland, by up to five different artisans, a single Norwegian maker, or one Icelandic woman.
What gives the chess pieces their magic is their charisma. All saucer-eyed and expressive in character and form, the pieces exaggerate the figures they depict, giving a concentrated, almost satirical view of the culture from which they came.
If Vikings played chess, they probably didn't use this set—but what the Lewis pieces do give us is a possible glimpse of them. Amongst the Queens, bishops and kings, the most overtly Viking of these is the rook, or warder, who is biting his shield and wears a maniacal expression. Historians have likened this piece to the ‘berserker’warriors of Norse and Germanic folklore, who were said to have worn animal skins (the word means ‘bearskin’ and has given rise to ‘beserk’), guzzled intoxicants and approached battle with crazed brutality, intended to terrify opponents through their ferocity. (Related: Kinder, gentler Vikings? Not according to their slaves.)
An iconic implement from pagan mythology, this ‘hammer of the gods’—known as Mjolnir—was the weapon of Thor, the god of thunder. Thor was a popular character in the theology of the Norse in Viking times, often depicted as a mighty warrior who guarded the gates of Asgard and conjured the odd hellfire storm.
As Christianity swept through Europe, many clung to emblems of the old faith, wearing Thor’s hammer as an amulet or necklace, possibly in imitation of Christian affectations, or as a blessing for strength in battle. Many such trinkets have been found amongst Viking ephemera, from the simple to the ornate – as well as a mould found in Denmark used by an enterprising (or indecisive) jeweller to forge both Christian crosses and Mjolnir pendants. (Related: Viking amulet factory forces rethink of enigmatic artefacts.)
The Gjermundbu Helmet
However enduring the idea, Viking helmets didn’t have horns. Not that we know of, anyway – as there is remarkably little to go on when it comes to Viking helmets in general, other than the presumption that they probably wore them. Most depictions of the Vikings were created centuries after their first raids (the infamous horned helmet was a 19thcentury opera affectation) with only wood engravings and the later ‘picture stones,’ sometimes used as grave markers, offering contemporary clues to how the Vikings saw themselves. Many of these featured figures in profile suggesting skullcaps or simple bullet-shaped helmets made from bits of riveted iron, in a style called spangenhelm. Given their view of extravagant weaponry as a suggestion of affluence and prowess, it’s likely helmets were viewed as similar status symbols.
A clue—indeed, for a long time, the only clue—came in 1943 with the discovery of a broken spangenhelm helmet in Ringerike, Norway. Discovered in nine fragments amongst a cache of weaponry and other burial artefacts, the piece – named Gjermundbhu, after the farm where it was found – was painstakingly restored, giving a literal glimpse into the eyes of a Viking warrior. With ceremonial figuring and a distinctive ‘spectacle’ eye-guard, it evoked Scandinavian (and Anglo-Saxon) helmets from the pre-Viking age, some of which came replete with chainmail ‘beards.’ A second strikingly similar but less embellished helmet, which had been found in a sewerage excavation near Middlesborough in north-east England in the 1950s, was recently examined and confirmed by a 2020 Durham University study to be a 10thcentury Viking helmet. Other than a few disparate fragments, this and the Gjermundbu relic stand alone as the only two Viking helmets yet found.
One of the most enigmatic and undoubtedly the most spectacular Viking finds was the ship burial unearthed in 1904 at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in the Vestfold region of Norway. Vikings often used longships as vessels for the moneyed dead and their effects, with care taken to ensure the occupants had enough accoutrements to ensure a prosperous afterlife—much in the manner of the Ancient Egyptians. Dating from 834, the Oseberg burial was the Viking equivalent of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Though disturbed in antiquity it remained resplendent with cultural treasures, with the 21-metre ship—made entirely of oak and inscribed with exquisite carvings – packed with artifacts including a chariot, a bucket featuring a brass figure likened to Buddha, tents, equipment, several animals and the bodies of two women of evidently high social standing.
Also found were five carved animal heads of mysterious purpose. Bound with roperunning through the mouth of one, as if to bridle it, the heads—hewn from single pieces of naturally-curved wood, bejewelled and etched with distinctive Baroque swirls and pretzel-like knots—depict fanciful animals evoking lions, water dragons or fierce mammals. What’s even more murky is their purpose: whilst painstaking craft by clearly five separate artisans went into their creation, what they were used for in life (or death) remains unknown, making them evocative symbols of a culture that was rich with symbolism and artistry, despite its violence.
Longships were masterpieces of design, and the keys that unlocked the Viking conquest machine. With a broad hull and shallow ‘draft’ – meaning little of the ship lay under water during sail – they were swift and stable yet cavernous, capable of moving hefty payloads into shallow water, such as rivers and inlets.
These raiding ships had an unmistakeable profile, which soon became a symbol of terror.While not as resplendent as the ship found in the Oseberg burial, the Gokstad ship, at almost 24 metres, is the largest Viking ship ever found. Found as part of a burial in Gokstad in Norway’s Vestfjord in 1880, the ship was capable of carrying 32 sailors, or transportation, or cargo—a true multi-functional vessel.
As well as boats and swords, archaeology has yielded more intimate and whimsical elements of the thousand year-old Viking culture—combs, games, clothing, jewelry. And these ice skates, found in a bundle of 42 others in Coppergate, York, and housed at the city’s Jorvik Viking Center.
Made using leather and polished bone—typically horse leg bones—the skates weren’t blades designed to bite the ice like today’s nimble models. They were likely used very much like skis, with accessory poles used to balance while the user skidded across frozen ground or water. They were likely used for practical purposes such as hunting, but possibly for pleasure, too—giving a slightly different view of one of the most feared conquistadors in history.
This story was adapted from the National Geographic U.K. website.