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18 September 2014
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Loot: Why the Vikings Came to Britain

A fair wind for raiding

Image of prow of Viking ship
The distinctive prow of a Viking ship ©
Alongside the efforts of boat builders was a gradual improvement in climate and overall weather patterns in the ninth and tenth centuries. This led to calmer seas and fewer storms in summer. There are many clues that point to this change in climate. If you slice a tree trunk horizontally, you can see the rings that represent annual growth - thick rings in good years and thin rings in bad years.

Equally, if you dig down into a peat bog, you will find that there are horizontal layers, caused by variations in climate - in dry summers the surface of the bog will dry out and compact, whereas high rainfall will encourage the peat to grow. Plants can also provide evidence. They have different needs in terms of temperature and moisture, and the presence or absence of the pollen of certain plants on an archaeological site can indicate what the climate was like when people were living there. A cool and wet climate, for instance, will encourage the growth of ferns.

So we know that the summers were getting warmer at the time of the Viking raids, but that was not the whole story. For Norwegians intent on reaching Scotland and the honeyed seaway to Ireland, the wind was on their side too. The prevailing winds helpfully blew westwards into their sails in springtime, to take them to the Scottish islands, and eastwards in the autumn to bring them home.

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