Monday, October 10, 2011

Love them Vikings! (Half Were Women!)

It's been awhile since I've posted on archaeology and history, and I've been wanting to write about recent excavations on Viking history in the United Kingdom. Like research into Anglo Saxons, the archaeological picture continues to grow and change into a diverse and peaceful view of immigration and settlement back at the millennium - the first millennium that is!

Of course, there weren't any "vikings," anyway. Viking is a verb! Folks from way up in Norse countries went off a-viking. Ok, the word does appear once in awhile as a personal name, as in Viking son of Eric. But in general, one goes off to viking. And that's what the Norse peoples did from the 8th century C.E. onwards - sailing off about northern Europe and all the way to Greenland. (Some interesting historical linguists are connect the verb viking to vika, the old Norse word for a distance of measure at sea! very cool research, see it here.)

Since the 1980's archaeologists have been questioning the quintessential Victorian construct of Vikings - those horn-helmeted giants in sheepskin raping and pillaging across the entire North Atlantic. Of course the written record of Norse plundering comes down to us from non-Norse Christians, a notoriously unreliable source! Later centuries would seize these descriptions in both Scandinavian political movements and Wagnerian opera. Most movie depictions of "Vikings" reflect 18th and 19th century Viking revivalism.

The archaeological findings just don't reflect any of Wagner or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. And some of the most enjoyable scholarship is about Norse women settlers. You know, those women who went a-viking with their families, settling all over England, and now showing up again in studies of Norse burials. Those women, often with children, who point to a whole different "Viking." Those women, often buried with swords, who point to a different history all together.

It turns out scholars are estimating that Norse settlers in England were at least one third, if not half, of all "Vikings." And grave sites previously presumed all male, are being measured by osteological standards, instead of assuming that a sword in a grave means a male in a grave, and suddenly the ratio of grave finds changes completely! Since scholars already know that swordplay was part of all Norse children's education, and that girls learned with swords as well as boys, it is hardly surprising that Norse women were buried with swords beside them - yet still archaeologists are reporting their new findings with amazement.

The presence of Viking women graves with swords alongside is especially heartening for my swordplaying daughter. She wanted a Celtic persona in the Society for Creative Anachronism, not Norse - despite the scholarship about Norse girls and swords. So I put our family personas into 11th century Devonshire, where Norse settlements were established and where a nice Brythonic speaking family might know some sword-wielding peers. This also places us close to Anglo Saxon friends, recreating their own newly understood archaeological studies of equally peaceful Anglo Saxon settlements. These new grave finds in England have energized our family: gee, I was pretty smart choosing early 11th century England, which, based on archaeology, is appearing increasingly multicultural and cosmopolitan.

As is all of Europe. Research on the collapse of the Roman Empire is showing ongoing trade continuing across Europe, and pre-Roman Britian had significant trade with the Mediterranean for centuries. It's about time to reclaim history when it was truly peaceful - throughout England scholars are finding cemetaries with Anglo Saxon, Celt, and Norse people - all identified through DNA - buried peacefully together. Which suggests living peacefully together.

And once again archaeology proves that our history was far more complicated than we thought.

So hurrah for Norse women, who went a-viking with their families. Sword-wielding and shield-bearing, their remains point to an amazing past and culture.

(photo courtesy of