The First Vikings

Two remarkable ships may show that the Viking storm was brewing long before their assault on England and the continent

(Courtesy Liina Maldre, University of Tallinn)The carefully stacked remains of 33 men were buried in the ship that brought them from Scandinavia to an Estonian island more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances.

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According to historians, the Viking Age began on June 8, A.D. 793, at an island monastery off the coast of northern England. A contemporary chronicle recorded the moment with a brief entry: “The ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.” The “heathen men” were Vikings, fierce warriors who sailed from Scandinavia and bore down on their prey in Europe and beyond in sleek, fast-sailing ships. In the centuries that followed, the Vikings’ vessels carried them deep into Russia and as far south as Constantinople, Sicily, and possibly even North Africa. They organized flotillas capable of carrying warriors across vast distances, and terrorized the English, Irish, and French coasts with lightning-fast raids. Exploratory voyages to the west took them all the way to North America.
The Vikings’ explosion across Europe and Asia and into the Americas was the result of the right combination of tools, technology, adventurousness, and ferocity. They came to be known as an unstoppable force capable of raiding and trading on four continents, yet our understanding of what led up to that June day on Lindisfarne is surprisingly shaky. A recent discovery on a remote Baltic island is beginning to change that. Two ships filled with slain warriors uncovered on the Estonian island of Saaremaa may help archaeologists and historians understand how the Vikings’ warships evolved from short-range, rowed craft to sailing ships; where the first warriors came from; and how their battle tactics developed. “We all agree these burials are Scandinavian in origin,” says Marge Konsa, an archaeologist at the University of Tartu. “This is our first taste of the Viking era.
Two years later, Jüri Peets, an archaeologist at the University of Tallinn, uncovered evidence of another, far larger and more technologically sophisticated craft just 100 feet away from the first boat. Soon workmen were ripping up a nearby road to reveal the vessel they dubbed Salme 2—the smaller boat would later be called Salme 1. The Vikings’ tremendous geographic reach, from Nova Scotia to Constantinople, was made possible by their mastery of the ocean, particularly the sail. However, archaeologically speaking, there’s not a great deal of evidence for sailing in the Baltic until roughly 820, when researchers think a 60-foot-long vessel, called the Oseberg ship, was built. Discovered in 1904, the Oseberg ship was used for the burial of a high-ranking Viking woman in what is today Norway.
The Salme site may change all that, pushing the first evidence for sailing back a century or more. Though, again, most of the wood had disappeared, by measuring the position of the more than 1,200 nails and rivets and carefully looking at soil where the wood had rotted, Peets concluded that Salme 2 was about 55 feet long and 10 feet wide. The craft had a keel, an element critical to keeping a sailing ship upright in the water. Peets believes clusters of iron and wood near the center of the boat and pieces of cloth recovered from the soil are indications of a mast and sail.

If he is right, Salme 2 is the oldest sailing vessel ever found in the Baltic. And other scholars are inclined to agree. “I would think that the big Salme boat would be the perfect place to find the first example of a sail before the Viking Age,” says Jan Bill, an archaeologist and specialist in Viking ships at the University of Oslo. “It’s the size of vessel,” says Bill, “where a sail would make a lot of sense.” Salme 2, built, sailed, and beached a half-century or more before the first raids on England heralded the dawn of the Viking Age, was, for all intents and purposes, a Viking ship. The Salme 2 vessel was certainly capable of crossing the open sea between the Swedish coast and Saaremaa, a distance of about 100 miles. The vessel also shows that the key technology of the Viking Age took shape at least decades, and maybe almost a whole century, before 793.

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Like its nearby sister vessel, Salme 2 brought a crew with it when it was buried. “Three days after we started digging, a sword was discovered, and after some days skeletons in rows began to appear,” says Ragnar Saage, a graduate student who worked with Peets on the excavation. It took two summers of painstaking work to excavate all the bodies: 33 in all, stacked neatly four deep. “We couldn’t believe our eyes,” says Saage. “It was a strange feeling to dig this kind of site.”
Taken together, the two ships represent a tantalizing mystery. Peets and Konsa agree the vessels were probably buried at the same time, as part of the same event. Based on the boats’ construction and the artifacts and remains found inside, the archaeologists believe the dead men were Scandinavian, probably from what is today Sweden, 150 miles away across the Baltic Sea. But what were they doing in Estonia? And why didn’t they make it home?

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