You know the scene. A horde of ravenous Vikings are rushing off their longship and about to destroy, burn, plunder, and pillage an unsuspecting medieval village.
Whilst this scene has occurred multiple times throughout the world, from the Iberian Peninsula to the eastern shores of the Black Sea and everywhere in between, this is only part of the story of the Viking Age.
The societies that produced Viking warriors also excelled in creating great works of art and advanced naval technology, bequeathing to us priceless cultural artifacts from runestones to the Norse sagas.
Thanks to recent generations of historians, we are beginning to look afresh at people from Viking societies.
Though there is no doubt that some of their warriors were bloody, violent, and fearful, the fact remains that most of the population was not off killing monks and grabbing gold; they were engaged in mundane - though no less backbreaking - agricultural work.
Even the most fearsome Viking was only off raiding a part of the year - often, they had to return to their home to help with the harvest.
Advancements in technology have assisted historians and archaeologists in unlocking the mysteries of the past, and we now have a much fuller view (though still not complete) of what life was like for the Viking peoples.
Though their societies produced some of the most fearsome and famous warriors of the early medieval period, including Rollo, Sweyn Forkbeard, and Harald Hardrada, they also nurtured generations of people whose life stories were not the work of sagas or stories: farmers, builders, maids, and mothers.
In fact, a discovery in 1936 near a farm in Sweden helped to reshape attitudes about people from Viking societies.
Gotland is famous for its unique cultural heritage, including the medieval town of Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its remarkably well-preserved town wall and extensive Norse and Hanseatic artifacts. Photo: AsiaTravel / Shutterstock
Plowing a field for archaeological gold
There used to be a lake just west of the village of Hemse, on the Swedish island of Gotland, cast adrift from the mainland in the Baltic Sea.
This lake, however, had long since dried up – becoming boggy peatland – by the time local laborer Hugo Kraft began to plow the field in 1936.
Kraft, a day laborer, was employed by the farm owner, Emil Nordby, to plow what was assumed to be a peaty field.
However, after a few minutes, the plow hit something solid.
After careful excavation, Kraft unearthed what became known as the Mästermyr find.
A chest was uncovered containing woodworking and blacksmithing tools from the early medieval era used by people in Viking societies.
The chest, containing more than 200 tools, takes pride of place in Gotland as the largest discovery of tools made during the Viking Age.
Aside from the chest, there was a bounty of other archaeological finds, including bronze cauldrons, three bells, and various iron objects.
While it is impossible to carbon date the chest, experts have tentatively agreed that the tools, though based on earlier Roman designs, were indeed produced during the early medieval period.
Contained within the chest was a collection of over 200 tools, including items for metalworking, such as tongs and files, and items for woodworking, like planes and drawknives. Photo: Christer Åhlin / Statens Historiska Museum (CC BY-SA 2.5)
What's in the box?
In the near century since its discovery, the Mästermyr find has been studied and analyzed by historians and experts worldwide.
What separates this from other Viking-era finds is that, for once, we have the implements and tools used by "common people."
Hence, it is refreshing to find tools that were used every day by some of the people who did not go abroad to seek fame and fortune on a Viking raid.
Among the contents of the box included three padlocks, a chisel, a hacksaw, three hammers, three sledgehammers, and several sharpening stones.
Historians have concluded that the large box belonged to an early medieval tradesman who had some knowledge of locks and coppersmithing and must have also been engaged in repair work.
Analysis has also been done on the designs of the tools. While there is no doubt that these were constructed during the early medieval period, many of them are believed to have been influenced by Roman-era tools.
This suggests that even though Scandinavia was never in Roman orbit, the influence of Rome was still being felt half a world away, on the island of Gotland centuries after the "fall" of the Roman Empire.
The Mastermyr chest's unearthing led to an enduring research endeavor lasting half a century, signifying its place as an exceptional find in the context of 20th-century Viking archaeology. Photo: Christer Åhlin / Statens Historiska Museum (CC BY-SA 2.5)
A book for budding archaeologists
Whilst the chest was discovered in 1936, the archaeological analysis became something of a life's work for Swedish Gösta Berg.
He was contacted by a curator at the State Historical Museum to help catalog the Mästermyr find.
This led to a 5-decade-long project, association, and love affair with what has been billed as one of the most important Viking-era finds uncovered in the 20th century.
Along with a colleague, Greta Arwindson, they both dedicated the majority of their lives to detailing, researching, and writing about what was uncovered in that boggy field one day back in 1936.
The result of this lifelong passion project was a comprehensive volume titled The Mästermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest from Gotland, where each of the 200 items uncovered is meticulously detailed and explained with precision.
The book also zooms out to analyze the technological and social evolution occurring throughout central and northern Europe during the time that the chest was believed to have been utilized daily.
Aside from a little heavy jargon, this book should be at the top of any budding archaeologist's list.
Reading it is perhaps the best way to honor the authors who dedicated their lives to help spread this most unexpected of archaeological finds.
The Mästermyr chest and the tools that lay within are renowned for their exceptional preservation and the craftsmanship evident in their contents.
The tools and objects within showcase the high level of skill and expertise of the Viking artisans. This discovery has greatly expanded our understanding of Viking technology and daily life.
The discovery is a unique treasure trove of Viking Age artifacts and continues to be a subject of fascination for historians, archaeologists, and history lovers alike.
It offers a tangible connection to early medieval Scandinavia and a glimpse into the practical skills and ingenuity of people from Viking societies.
For more information on how Viking-era tools were employed, visit Science Norway here.
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