Viking Colonists: Joining the Community

Many of the Vikings who raided these islands remained here rather than returning home, and slowly became part of the community. Pagan graves reveal the secrets of these newcomers, as the everyday objects they contain help us build a picture of the Viking past.
Settlement patterns of the Vikings 

War or peace?

What happened when Viking raiders turned into Viking settlers and took land from the native population to farm? There is considerable debate and controversy even today about the nature of the relationship between these colonists and the locals in Britain and Ireland. The historical sources, however, are clear that the relationship was hostile, and that negotiation was by the sword. Most modern historians argue that the Norwegians who settled in Scotland and the Danes who settled in England simply took what they wanted by force, killing or enslaving anyone who got in their way.

'Place names are an invaluable source of information ...'

But there is also the evidence of place names and archaeology, and they can be interpreted in more than one way. Place names are an invaluable source of information on the extent of Scandinavian (Viking) influence, and their distribution mirrors the geographical spread of colonisation known from historical and archaeological evidence. In England, for instance, Scandinavian names are concentrated within the Danelaw, the area of northern and eastern England that was in Danish hands.

In Scotland, the most densely concentrated area of Scandinavian names is in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, where a Norwegian earldom was established. But we should not assume that density of place names equals numbers of colonists, or that the creation of place names can be dated precisely. Blanket replacement of native names, as in Orkney and Shetland, may have happened gradually rather than suddenly. Above all, we need to remember that the story is likely to have varied across Britain and Ireland, and that we should balance historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence within a local framework.

People and daily life

Image of a Viking strap-end
Exquisite craftsmanship on a Viking strap-end
History tells of events, places and important people. The spread of Scandinavian place names not only helps to chart the extent of Scandinavian settlement but records the names of lesser people and how they reacted to the landscape around them.

For example, in Shetland, Haroldswick in the island of Unst means Harold's bay, while Lerwick or 'mud bay' perpetuates the Vikings' scorn for what was for them a useless harbour. But for the details of everyday life, we depend on archaeological evidence from excavations. Pagan graves are particularly useful because the bodies buried within them were fully dressed and accompanied by personal belongings, some of which indicate important activities of the living.

'Cooking, eating, storytelling and sleeping all took place in this one room ...'

Women often had the iron sickles with which they harvested the flax for making linen, the toothed iron heckles or combs with which they straightened the fibres, and the stone discs or whorls that weighted the wooden spindle for spinning the fibres into thread. Very occasionally they had beautifully carved boards of whalebone, on which they rubbed a high gloss on to the linen. Men were usually buried with their weapons (sword, shield, spear, arrows, axe) and sometimes with blacksmith's tools such as iron tongs and hammers.

Image of an antler bone whorl used for spinning
An antler bone whorl used for spinning
Farmhouses in the ninth and tenth centuries were long rectangular buildings with rounded corners, built of stone and turf or stone and timber with thatched roofs. Most consisted of a single room, 15-20 metres long, with a central long hearth and low benches lining the long walls.

Cooking, eating, storytelling and sleeping all took place in this one room, along with weaving and carving bone pins and whatever else was needed. There were separate outhouses for the cattle. Houses in towns tended to be smaller and were usually built of wood and wattle. Wherever people lived, domestic rubbish accumulated and with it invaluable information about diet, hygiene, equipment and everyday activities.

A Viking brooch

Sketch of Viking woman
Two brooches attach the straps of a Viking woman's pinafore
One of these everyday objects - and something that is found wherever the Vikings settled - is the oval brooch. This was a favourite item of jewellery in Scandinavia, and it is so standardised in design that it is instantly recognisable. This makes it very useful to the archaeologist as an indicator of Viking activities.

It turns up in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, England, Scotland, Ireland and even as far away as Iceland and Russia. About 10-12cm long, the oval brooch was mass-produced in hundreds in workshops throughout Scandinavia during the ninth and tenth centuries. It was cast in bronze (copper alloy) in a two-piece clay mould, and the decoration was often quite elaborate, with interlaced designs and sometimes settings for projecting bosses of amber or glass.

Female dress was very conservative and the equivalent of a folk-costume was worn for 200 years, not just in the homelands but everywhere that the Vikings settled - from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. It consisted of a pinafore of wool or linen, which was worn over a long and sometimes pleated linen shift.

' ... the textiles have normally rotted away, but the two oval brooches will still be in place above the ribcage.'

The pinafore had shoulder straps that were fastened by a pair of oval brooches, one below each shoulder. Wealthy women might have a string of brightly coloured beads linking the two brooches across the chest. When pagan female graves are excavated, the textiles have normally rotted away, but the two oval brooches will still be in place above the ribcage. We assume such burials to be those of Scandinavian women who came as colonists, but of course such brooches could equally well have been worn by local women married to Viking warriors.

Styles of settlement

Image of walrus ivory dice
Walrus ivory dice, excavated in York
Typical Scandinavian artefacts like oval brooches, whalebone plaques and ornate swords can be found throughout the Viking world - but there were remarkable differences in the way that the newcomers lived.

There is a contrast between the essentially rural pattern of Norwegian settlement in Scotland, with its individual farms and family estates, and the urban development of Dublin and later Waterford in Ireland. There the Vikings established trading centres on the coastal fringe of a rural hinterland that was little affected by Scandinavian activities.

'Timber buildings set in plots of equal size suggest a degree of town planning ...'

York was the northernmost of the Viking towns of England, and it seems possible that the Viking takeover of rural estates may have stimulated urban growth in the sense that some of the dispossessed English farmers sought a new life in trade or industry in towns.

Viking York in the tenth century was larger than contemporary Scandinavian towns, a fact that underlines the importance of the Danish settlement of England to the balance of wealth and power around the North Sea. It was enclosed by an earthen bank topped by a stout wooden fence, and in places within the heart of the modern city excavations have revealed deposits of Viking Age material several metres deep.

Timber buildings set in plots of equal size suggest a degree of town planning, while the debris from workshops tells of urban industries such as leather-working, bone comb-making, textiles and metalworking. Crucial to urban development is the discovery of coin-making dies, for the Viking economy had previously been based not on currency but on silver bullion and the exchange of goods.

Towns were not a Viking invention, and the growth of towns such as York depended on their existing foundations. This is perhaps why towns did not develop in Scandinavian Scotland before the 12th century because there had been no previous urban development. Kirkwall in Orkney was one of the first, stimulated by the building of St Magnus Cathedral, which began in 1137.

Until then, despite being the seat of the Norwegian earldom of Orkney, Caithness and Shetland, Orkney was essentially rural. Wonderfully fertile, Orkney was a prime target for settlement in the ninth century. There may even have been Viking winter-camps in Orkney in the late eighth century, from which raiding parties set out for Lindisfarne, Iona and the monasteries of Ireland.

Viking Orkney

Image of ruins
Ruins on the Brough of Birsay, Orkney
We have no written records left by the ordinary people who lived in areas that were taken over by the Vikings. There is no way that we can tell for certain what happened, but we can use the evidence of artefacts from excavations as clues.

Orkney, perhaps the first place to be colonised, is an ideal place to search. The original people who were living in Orkney at the start of the Viking Age were Celtic-speakers. They were known as Picts, and inhabited part of the Kingdom of the Picts which made up most of mainland Scotland. The question of what happened to them is still hotly debated, especially between historians, linguists and archaeologists.

'... the colonisation of Orkney had been so successful that it had become a Norwegian earldom.'

According to Scandinavian historical sources, the Orkney islands were either deserted at the time of the earliest Norse settlement or their inhabitants were slaughtered. Very few Celtic place names survive, lending weight to this picture of desertion or wholesale genocide. But by the end of the ninth century, the colonisation of Orkney had been so successful that it had become a Norwegian earldom.

The very strength of this Norse settlement would ensure that in time the pre-Norse names would disappear, and we simply do not know how quickly that happened. The archaeological evidence shows that Pictish artefacts were still in use in the early Norse settlements.

The question is how this evidence should be interpreted. Does it mean that Pictish slaves were servicing new masters? Or that the Norse colonists needed to acquire tools and equipment from the Picts? At the very least it ought to imply that there were still Picts around and that they had not been exterminated by the Vikings.

Christian Vikings

Image of Viking coin
The cross on this coin from Viking York suggests there was a Christian community here
Critical to this issue are excavations of Pictish sites in use before the Viking Age began. Some farms were abandoned, others were much reduced in size. The evidence seems to suggest that Pictish society was in decline in Orkney in the eighth century, perhaps from epidemics of disease or bouts of civil war, which would have made the Viking takeover of the islands much easier.

It is even possible that the Vikings were welcomed as protectors against the Picts and Gaels of mainland Scotland. Whatever the reason, the Picts of Orkney survived alongside their new political masters. They even influenced the Viking way of life, most notably converting them away from their pagan Nordic gods to Christianity. Pagan burials with their useful array of grave goods ceased soon after 950, a couple of generations before the official conversion of Norway in 995.

The influence of the Vikings on our native population continues to raise many questions about the effects of their colonisation of parts of Britain. Perhaps some of these questions will never have satisfactory answers, but new discoveries, campaigns of excavations on targeted sites and new research into scientific sources of information, such as DNA, will add to our knowledge and help to explain our Viking ancestry.

Published on BBC History: 2004-09-11
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