Nowadays, it is fashionable for people across the Nordic region to joke about how lucky Norway was when it discovered oil in the North Sea in the 1960s. 

This discovery led to a total transformation of the Norwegian economy and society, which has seen it rank amongst the top few in terms of per capita income and societal harmony and development. 

The Nordic peoples have a long history of harnessing abundant natural resources for wealth and prosperity, a tradition that dates back centuries to the early medieval period when Vikings roamed the region. 

However, it was not oil or gas that provided wealth for Viking merchants and traders but fossilized tree resin, what we call amber. 

This was the "Nordic gold" that soon saw untold wealth flow back into the Viking homeland of Scandinavia and surrounds as it was a prized commodity everywhere from Timbuktu to the borders of the Tony Dynasty in China and everywhere in between. 

The Vikings developed extensive trade routes spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and stretching into the Middle East, exchanging commodities like furs, timber, amber, slaves, silver, gold, and silk. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Reconnecting through raiding and trading 

Despite what most Northern Europeans tell you about their region, especially during winter, there are several advantages to living in the Nordic and Baltic regions. 

For people in Viking societies – who inhabited these regions in the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) – their natural environment could be as harsh and brutal as a Nordic winter's night. 

Yet, it could also be full of surprises, especially when it came to amber. 

This fossilized tree resin, prized for its beauty and rarity, was found in abundance in the Viking orbit, especially along the shorelines of southern Scandinavia and the Baltic basin

In addition to their reputation as feared warriors and raiders, people from Viking societies were also known for their prominence as traders in early medieval Europe. 

They played a significant role in establishing the great slave markets, such as those in Dublin, and in facilitating the transportation of human capital across Europe and its surrounding regions. 

They were also the traders and merchants who helped reconnect ancient trade links established by the Romans, connecting the four compass points of Europe. 

Whether through peaceful means for profit or by the point of a sword, it was only a matter of time before amber, a natural commodity found in abundance, was utilized for a healthy profit. 

However, was amber prized for anything other than its natural beauty, and why was it considered the "Nordic gold?" 

Discovered at Birka in Sweden, this Viking Age amber figurine, measuring about three inches (7.6 centimeters) in length and resembling a seated cat, likely served as a decorative ornament. Photo: The Swedish History Museum (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder... of money 

Only in recent decades has the art world taken a serious interest in the Vikings as skilled artisans and craftsmen. 

We know, in fact, that people from Viking societies were responsible for six stylistically magnificent artistic phases, roughly spanning their rise and fall. 

When people from Viking societies got their hands on this abundant amber, they used it as the basis for exquisite jewelry. 

Amber was carved, polished, and crafted into beads, pendants, brooches, and other ornaments, showcasing the skilled handiwork of Viking artisans.   

This jewelry could be sold locally or exported through the extensive trade networks established by people from Viking societies, connecting the Nordic region with the wider world. 

These amber artifacts were highly prized by both domestic and foreign markets. 

Beyond their aesthetic beauty and allure, such jewelry symbolized status, power, and prestige. 

It held considerable value for people in Viking societies as well as for other civilizations and cultures, notably the Byzantines and the political elite of the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates

It is believed that amber was traded as far as China and India. 

In return, Viking merchants received payment in kind, such as gold, precious metals, jewelry, or more exotic goods, ranging from slaves to spices and precious textiles, including silk. 

Amber was a valuable commodity during the Viking Age, prized for its beauty and rarity, and the Baltic region was one of the major sources of amber in Europe. Photo: Milla77 / Shutterstock

Protective properties and grave goods 

Apart from its allure for profit, amber held significant spiritual and religious value for the Norse people. 

Amber was believed to be associated with the sun and, therefore, to possess magical healing properties. 

In an era before modern medicine, such protective and magical qualities were highly sought after in the harsh realities of everyday life

Amber was commonly used in amulets or bracelets, believed to have the power to ward off evil or harm from the wearer. Who needs health insurance when you've got amber? 

Amber artifacts have also been uncovered in a number of Viking-era graves throughout the Nordic region. 

This seems to suggest that amber was used in religious rituals during funerary practices, perhaps as offerings to the deceased in the form of grave goods. 

Amber was used as "Nordic gold" by Viking merchants, but now it is used for scientific research on climate, biodiversity, and trade dynamics of Viking societies. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A snapshot of the past 

So, beyond its role in enriching Viking merchants and providing a sense of security, why should we, in the comfort of the 21st century, care about amber? 

Well, given our civilization's current emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, Viking-era amber, in all its forms, serves as a valuable tool in unlocking the mysteries of history. 

It has contributed significantly to scientific research, providing insights into ancient ecosystems and environments. 

Additionally, it offers valuable information about the climates and biodiversity of Viking societies. 

Whilst amber was a means of providing untold riches for people in Viking societies, it has also provided us with invaluable scientific and environmental insights into the early medieval period. 

This is yet another reason why "Nordic gold" lives up to its nickname. 

Amber held a multifaceted significance in the Viking trade, embodying both material wealth and symbolic value. 

Its abundance in the Nordic regions fueled prosperous commerce, shaping Viking economies and influencing trade networks across Europe. 

Beyond its economic utility, amber adorned Viking elites, reflecting status and craftsmanship. Symbolically, it intertwined with Norse mythology, embodying concepts of prosperity, protection, and divine favor. 

Today, Viking-era amber artifacts stand as enduring testaments to the cultural and economic legacy of people from Viking societies, proving they truly were early medieval Europe's greatest traders and merchants. 

What untold scientific and environmental riches Viking-era amber artifacts could provide us in the future shows the enduring legacy of amber for societies both past and present. 

For more information on the Vikings and money, visit BBC here

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