The Vikings, of course, were known above all for their summer escapades, be it raiding and pillaging coastal churches, conducting fearsome campaigns of conquest at home or abroad, or trading and exploring throughout Europe and beyond.

But what did they get up to in their winter months when the weather turned, war and adventure were put on the back burner, and they retired to the warm hearth of home? The Viking Herald investigates.

Some archeological treasures from Swedish settlements and the city of York, England, suggest that in addition to supping sweet mead by the fire with their loved ones, the Vikings may well also have indulged in a classic winter pastime: ice skating. 

Unlike contemporary ice skates, the tenth-century Viking skates discovered in York are constructed from flat horse bone, and historians believe they were secured to footwear with leather straps, allowing users to glide using a cross-country skiing-like motion. Photo: Courtesy of York Archaeology

A striking find 

The Viking ice skates found in York are incredibly well-preserved, with both the skates themselves and the boots almost fully intact. 

Instead of the sharp blade of a typical 21st-century skate, this tenth-century version is made from a flat horse bone.

It is believed that the user fastened their shoes to the skates with a leather strap and propelled themselves forward with the help of a stick, using a motion similar to that seen in cross-country skiing.

Impressive as the York skates are, they are by no means unique. 

In fact, bones with grooves dug into them and a hole bored into each end – the signature form of early skates – have been found in dozens of Viking sites. 

In one study, the researchers Rune Edberg and Johnny Karlsson analyzed a total of 679 skates of Norse origin – 290 from Birka and 389 from Sigtuna, both major Viking archeological sites in Sweden. 

They found that almost all of the samples were made from both cattle and horse bone and while the majority were designed for adult use, they were also able to identify a number of children's skates too. 

The distinctive design of early skates, characterized by grooved bones with holes at both ends, has been uncovered in dozens of Viking archaeological sites, making the York skates just one among many. Photo: Ola Myrin, SHM (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Widespread use 

While ice skating was clearly popular among the Norse of this era, they were by no means the first people to take it up. 

To the best of our knowledge, the earliest ice skates were used in southern Finland some 4,000 years ago, possibly by the ancestors of the Sámi, who shared many of the most northern lands of Scandinavia with the Vikings. 

To the east, ice skates made from animal bones found in China have been dated to 3,500 years ago, with archeologists noting apparent similarities to those found in Europe.

The use of ice skates is believed to have become more widespread in Scandinavia as early as 1000 BCE, as well as in parts of Germany and Hungary. 

In contrast to the first metal blade skates that emerged in the Netherlands in the 13th and 14th centuries, bone skates were cheap, easy to make, and accessible to all. 

The Nordic winter, known for its prolonged darkness and challenging conditions, prompted the use of skates as a valuable aid for mobility in the snow and ice. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Light relief in the dark of winter 

So, what did they use them for? 

In the Viking Age, the harsh winters in the lands of Scandinavia were a more restricted, less productive time. Often, people would retire to their homes and spend much of the day resting, preparing food, or simply sheltering from the elements. 

They would also, however, have ventured out into the cold from time to time, and it is assumed they primarily used the skates to aid movement in deep snow.

That is not to say that they didn't have a bit of fun, too. 

While contemporary written records of the use of skates are scarce, those that do exist suggest the skates were also used for entertainment purposes. 

The earliest known written account comes from a description of London by William Fitz Stephen from approximately 1180 (perhaps the idea had made its way south with the Vikings?):

"When the great marsh that washes the Northern walls of the City is frozen, dense throngs of youths go forth to disport themselves upon the ice. Some gathering speed by a run, glide sidelong, with feet set well apart, over a vast space of ice. 

Others make themselves seats of ice like millstones and are dragged along by a number who run before them holding hands. Sometimes they slip owing to the greatness of their speed and fall, every one of them, upon their faces.

Others there are, more skilled to sport upon the ice, who fit to their feet the shinbones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with iron-shod poles in their hands they strike ever and anon against the ice and are borne along swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a mangonel."

(Description of London, William Fitz Stephen)

There is also a brief mention in the Heimskringla, the first known written reference in Old Norse

Here, a speaker at a Thing, or assembly, somewhat dismissively mentions the swiftness of the local boys and how it had impressed the Sámi or Laplanders:

Then the same man got up in the troop of Elfgrims who had spoken before, lifted his hat a little up, and said, "The lads run well, say the Laplanders, who have skates for nothing." Then he sat himself down again.

(Chapter XI - Saga Of Olaf Kyrre, Heimskringla, The Chronicle of The Kings of Norway)

Given the extremities of life and the difficulties of existence during the Viking Age, we surely couldn't begrudge the younger members of the community for indulging in a bit of skating for nothing.

For a detailed analysis of the ice skates found at Birka and Sigtuna, please see Bone skates and young people in Birka and Sigtuna by Rune Edberg and Johnny Karlsson, published in Forn Vännen, the Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research. 

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