It was here that many Viking warriors, traders, and settlers journeyed first (both literally and chronologically) before exploding into the North Atlantic world. 

An archaeological find worthy of Hollywood 

With Indiana Jones still playing at movie theatres and cinemas worldwide (a favorite film series of many here at The Viking Herald), the entire universe seems to have gone mad for archaeology and history. 

Whilst this can only be a good thing, the real-life work of an archaeologist is far from the action, glitz, and glamour that a now 80-year-old Harrison Ford depicts. 

Yet every now and then, the archaeological community discovers something that truly is as dramatic as anything Hollywood can dish out.

A recent example of this occurred on the now Estonian island of Salme in 2008. 

The traditional history of the Vikings marks the attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England, in 793 CE as the starting point of the Viking Age.

Although this attack was devastating - and we know this from the multitude of contemporary sources - it should not be considered the start of this age.

When road maintenance workers were excavating on the island of Salme, they stumbled upon artifacts and promptly called in archaeologists.

What they discovered radically altered our understanding of the beginnings of the Viking Age. 

The archaeologists eventually unearthed two clinker-built ships of Scandinavian origin, along with the remains of 41 warriors, 6 hunting dogs, and a pair of hawks, all killed in battle sometime in the first half of the 8th century CE. 

The dead appear to have been Scandinavian raiders - Vikings - including some of high status, who might have been familiar with the area through previous diplomatic missions.

This discovery pushed the onset of the Viking Age back by at least five decades, if not a century, earlier than traditionally believed.

The Viking connection in Salme marks the first of many interactions between people from Viking societies and the Baltic region. 

An 8th-century sword was one of the many artifacts retrieved from the Salme ship burial in Estonia, where the remains of two clinker-built ships and 41 Viking warriors were also found. Photo: Rsaage / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baltic Beginnings 

Towards the end of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE – 500 CE), the Western Roman Empire was in a state of collapse. 

A vast number of peoples had migrated westward from Eurasia, first into Eastern and then Western Europe. 

Like nearby Scandinavia, the Baltic region was never part of the Roman Empire, but it did have indirect contact and trade with Rome. 

By the time of this so-called "Migration Period," the Baltic region was inhabited by three distinct peoples: proto-Scandinavians, proto-Balts, and Finno-Ugric tribes. 

Whilst direct trade between Rome and the Baltic region was limited, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Aesti tribes in what are now parts of Latvia and Lithuania. 

However, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire left a vacuum that would eventually lead to Viking expansion centuries later. 

Historians and academics generally agree that the Baltic Sea had been used, since time immemorial, as a highway connecting the Baltic region to Scandinavia. This process only accelerated in the 7th century CE, as described in the sagas

Unfortunately, many of these tribes and groups in the Baltic region had not developed a writing system by the time the first Vikings appeared. So much of the proto-Baltic and Finno-Ugric culture and history is lost to us.

Like the Viking activities in other regions and countries, the beginnings of their history in the Baltic region started with predatory raids, such as that on Salme, during the 8th century CE and into the 9th century CE. 

However, by the mid-9th century CE, Viking expansion was in full swing. 

Drawn to Byzantine gold, Vikings navigated Eastern European rivers to arrive at Constantinople, which they dubbed Miklagard, meaning "The Great City." Photo: RauL C7 / Shutterstock

Eastern Gold 

Whilst the Western Roman Empire had collapsed by the 5th century CE, the Eastern portion (with its capital in the glorious city of Constantinople) was very much thriving during the early medieval period. 

Peoples from Viking societies crossed the Baltic Sea and began to exploit the various river systems of Eastern Europe that wound their way down to the Black Sea. 

From here, it was a short sail to the imperial splendor and riches of Constantinople, or as the Vikings called it, Miklagard (The Great City).

The eastern expansion of the Vikings into the Baltic region and beyond was overlooked by traditional historians for much of the 20th century. 

It is only with detailed historical literature, like Dr. Cat Jarman's River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, that this eastward push is receiving as much analysis and attention as Viking raids and settlements to the west. 

Peoples from Viking societies, especially in what is now Sweden, viewed the Baltic region as a convenient location for raiding, trading, and settlement. 

By the mid-9th century CE, we have numerous accounts, along with archaeological evidence, of Viking raiders and traders established throughout the Baltic region. 

However, many of these settlements served as mere stop-off points on the journey to the riches of the Byzantine Empire and other civilizations further south. 

Soon, the allure of Byzantine gold (or Abbasid silver nearby in West Asia) was so compelling that significant numbers of individuals from Viking societies began to cross the Baltic and travel down the Don, Dnieper, and other river systems throughout Eastern Europe. 

For the Byzantines, these eastern Vikings were known as the Varangians. They would continue to flow back and forth between Scandinavia and Constantinople via the Baltic region until the late 11th century CE.

These Varangians were also responsible for the establishment and foundation of the Kievan Rus – a vast polyglot empire that had significant interactions with the Baltic region – from the 9th century CE onwards. 

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is situated on the northern coast of the country, less than 200 kilometers from Salme, where significant Viking artifacts were unearthed. Photo: Sergii Figurnyi / Shutterstock

The written and archaeological record 

Whilst there may very well be only a limited archaeological record of the Viking presence in the Baltic region, especially compared to the British Isles or France, there is a vivid record of Viking life, exploits, and adventures in the Norse sagas.

The Heimskringla, which chronicles the early Scandinavian Viking kings until the end of the 12th century CE, was compiled a century later by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic historian and politician. 

The Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason's biography details his adventures, raids, and battles throughout the Baltic region, including his capture and enslavement, his subsequent escape, and how he eventually took revenge by killing his captor.

In Ergils saga (The Saga of Ergil), the titular character travels extensively in Kurland (western Latvia), which includes the ransacking and plundering of various farms.

The Viking presence is also recorded in stone. 

Numerous runestones throughout the Baltic region are erected in honor of the many Varangians who plied their trade and wares from the Baltic to the Black Sea. 

Some of the runestones even include tales of adventures in Miklagard. 

Aside from the runestones, there have been several archaeological discoveries of Viking boats as well as hoards – comprised mostly of Islamic dirhams and other precious treasures. 

By the end of the 11th century CE, the political landscape in the Baltic region began to shift. 

Local Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian tribes started to resist the people from Viking societies and asserted their independence, laying the historical groundwork for the three modern Baltic nation-states. 

However, by the end of the Viking Age, a new wave of traders, raiders, and settlers from what is now Germany soon began to exert their influence on the region. 

The Viking chapter of the Baltic's history had concluded, with the Teutonic chapter of the region just dawning. 

For more information on the Viking economic influences around the Baltic Sea, visit Science Norway here.

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