However, when the Oseberg Viking ship was unearthed in 1904, the discovery of a small bucket suggested they may have had contact with Asian cultures and civilizations. Or does it?
A historic discovery
Our modern understanding of people from Viking societies has been greatly influenced by this find in Oseberg, Norway.
With archaeology as a modern science in its infancy, the unearthing of an elaborately designed Viking longboat, along with a wealth of grave goods and the skeletal remains of two women, helped to change the understanding of the Vikings radically.
Before this, the standard view, especially in academia, was that the early medieval Scandinavians (and surrounding regions) were little more than thugs with axes, rapacious and greedy barbarians who pillaged and plundered everywhere from the British Isles to the Black Sea.
Yet the discovery by a team of Norwegian and Swedish scientists of the best-preserved Viking ship (yet discovered) on a farm in Oseberg, Norway, significantly changed this common preconception.
For Norwegians, who had only recently gained independence after centuries of rule by its eastern and southern Scandinavian counterparts, the Oseberg Ship was celebrated and feted as a reminder of this young nation's proud Viking history.
For those in academia, the elaborate artwork, furnishings, and grave goods proved that people from Viking societies were skilled artisans and had complex societal customs and rituals.
The 1904 excavation of the Oseberg burial mound revealed the Oseberg Viking Ship, intricate artifacts, textiles, and sacrificial offerings. Photo: Olaf Væring / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo (CC BY-SA 4.0)
What lay beneath...
When the team of archaeologists and scientists unearthed the Oseberg Ship, they discovered more than just a beautifully preserved and decorated Viking ship.
Buried in the mound along with the ship was a series of grave goods.
Though the burial mound had been disturbed at some point in the centuries since its burial – with all the precious metals and gold stolen – there were still several grave goods left by intruders for posterity.
These hidden treasures included elaborately decorated sleighs, an elegantly carved four-wheeled cart, and several wooden chests.
However, one item garnered more interest than most: a seemingly insignificant small brown bucket. This small bucket, made of yew wood fastened with brass, did not seem like something of much value.
Nevertheless, upon closer inspection, a bronze and enamel ornament was fastened to the handle. This ornament was in the shape of what is believed to be two anthropomorphic figures sitting with their legs crossed and hands in their lap.
Adding to this prospect of an eastern origin was the ornamentation of the chest area with what was believed to be swastikas in striking red and yellow.
These have a shape and design common in Buddhism and are said to be symbols of good fortune.
Comparisons were made between the figures and depictions of Buddha sitting in the famed lotus position. Both contemporary and later historians and academics wildly speculated that this proved a link between Viking societies and the cultures and civilizations further east in Asia.
The so-called Silk Roads were known to Europeans since Antiquity as trade existed between the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty in China.
Could merchants, traders, or raiders from Viking societies have traversed their well-trodden Silk Roads to encounter merchants, traders, or raiders from Asia?
Could Vikings have made it further afield than the eastern shores of the Black Sea and pushed into Central Asia or even further east into regions that lay under the influence of Buddhism?
Crossed seas but not Silk Roads
As tantalizing a prospect as contact between the Vikings and cultures further east in Asia seems, the modern consensus is that the "Buddha bucket" (as it was dubbed) originated somewhere much closer to Scandinavia than China or India, likely in the British Isles.
Since its discovery more than a century ago, similar buckets have been uncovered in Hexham (United Kingdom) and Loland (Norway) with similar figures and swastika-looking designs.
Modern historians believe that the designs on the "Buddha bucket" have nothing to do with Buddhism and everything to do with Christianity.
During the early medieval period, the British Isles were a vibrant location for the Catholic Church.
Missionaries were sent from what is now England and Ireland to proselytize throughout Viking societies in Scandinavia and surrounds. The monastery on Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England, was the epicenter of this religious work.
One important project was the creation of the Gospels decorated in what later art historians have called the "Insular style"- a mix of Celtic and Roman artistic traditions.
Some of the artwork on the pages of these Gospels is strikingly like the "Buddha bucket."
Given the Vikings' long presence in the British Isles – especially Lindisfarne (whose predatory raid by Vikings in 793 CE was seen as the traditional start of the Viking Age) - it is more likely that the bucket traveled over merely the North and Norwegian seas rather than overland on any silk route from the far east.
Despite its nickname, the design of the bronze and enamel figures points towards Celtic artistry from Ireland or the British Isles rather than Eastern influences. Photo: Eirik Irgens Johnsen / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo (CC BY-SA)
Could the Vikings have sailed to Asia?
So, the "Buddha bucket" mystery appears to have been solved. It more than probably originated in the British Isles and not in Asia.
However, could people from Viking societies have made it as far away as India or China or anywhere in the orbit of Buddhist influence? Given that
Vikings were early medieval Europe's most celebrated navigators – sailing from the modern coast of Canada to the Black Sea and everywhere in between – could they have reached Asia?
Whilst many in the West think of the Silk Roads as an overland route connecting Europe with Asia, a series of maritime Silk Roads connected China with Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, West Asia, and Southern Europe.
Given that they sailed to the North American continent across the vast and treacherous Atlantic Ocean, they could – in theory – have followed the routes that Asian traders and merchants followed and sailed eastward.
However, this crosses into the realm of historical fantasy and wishful thinking.
Yet a statue bearing a striking similarity to the Buddha, carbon-dated to have been manufactured in India sometime during the 6th century CE, was unearthed on the Swedish island of Helgo.
Unlike the origins of the Buddha bucket, how and why it ended up there remains a mystery...
For more information on the Oseberg Viking ship, visit National Geographic here.
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