The beautiful Estonian island of Saaremaa, situated just off the country's west coast by the Baltic Sea, has a compelling Viking history.
In addition to being one of the stop-off points for Norse traders on their journey further East, Saaremaa is also home to a fortuitous chance archeological discovery that changed perceptions about when the Viking Age truly began.
The Salme burial ships, found in 2008 and 2010, have helped kindle a revival of interest in Baltic-Scandinavian history, with everything from a Viking-themed festival to a living history village giving locals the chance to explore the fractious relationship between the Norse and Estonia.
To find out more, The Viking Herald spoke to Annely Holm, project manager for the Saaremaa Viking Center, which is currently under development.
Saaremaa Island, a crucial waypoint for Norse traders, unveils Estonia's deep Viking roots through the groundbreaking discovery of the Salme ships. Photo: Miks Mihails Ignats / Shutterstock
Vikings before the Vikings
As Annely tells us, the discovery of the two Salme ships was a truly historic event.
"The first ship was found by accident in 2008, when construction workers were laying a cable for a cycle path, before archeologists uncovered the second in 2010. The ships are believed to be from the sixth century, and DNA analysis has shown the people were from Sweden."
Indeed, the ships have been dated to 700-740. Both are clinker-built, of Scandinavian origin, and were used in a burial ceremony for fallen warriors.
The two boats contained the remains of some 41 people, as well as dogs, hunting hawks, weapons, and various artifacts.
The find indicates that the period of prolonged raiding by Norse warriors may have begun significantly earlier than the conventional start of the Viking Age – the famous raid on the English settlement of Lindisfarne in 793.
It is also believed to be the oldest example of a Norse ship burial and has attracted international attention.
"There was an exhibition first in Saaremaa, then in Tallinn, Estonia's capital," Annely says.
"Now it has been moved to Stockholm for two years. The most important aspect was the date: This is why the exhibition is called Vikings Before Vikings."
- READ MORE: The Viking history of the Baltic region
The Salme burial ships, dating back to 700-740, are linked to Swedish Vikings, suggesting that Viking Age raiding activities began earlier than previously believed. Photo: Kati Aus
Many experts also believe the findings show conclusive archeological evidence of the conflicts between Swedes and Estonians described in the sagas.
The island of Saaremaa is believed to be Eysysla of the Icelandic sagas and was likely attractive to both the Norse and local seafarers for its natural harbors and access to lucrative Eastern trade routes.
In fact, even before the groundbreaking discovery of the Salme ships, several archeological finds had suggested a strong link between the Norse and Estonia, not to mention the rest of the Baltic states.
"It was known that the Eastern route went through the rivers of Estonia towards Russia and St. Petersburg," Annely informs us.
"There have been isolated discoveries throughout Estonia and also in Scandinavia, including jewelry and weapons. So we knew there had been encounters, but there had been no major finds."
"It is clear that we didn't have exactly the same culture as the Vikings – we had no longhouses, and our ships were a bit different."
The lifestyle wasn't the same but was similar, and there were certainly plenty of interactions and trade."
Not that all relations were friendly, however.
"It seems there was also a lot of robbing going on. We sailed to Sweden, raided the coastal areas, and fought the Norse, and they did the same to us."
"We also know there was a huge change in the climate just before the start of the Viking Age: crops failed, which would have increased the need to raid others."
"Today, we think the whole process of raiding probably began earlier than we previously thought."
The Salme ships' discovery has ignited a Viking revival in Estonia, highlighted by festivals, educational workshops, and plans for a new Viking center to enrich tourist experiences. Photo: Kati Aus
A Viking renaissance
The discovery of the Salme ships has led to a renewed fascination with the relationship between the Vikings and Estonia.
"Today, we have a Viking festival on February 16-18 in a village called Saula, close to Tallinn," Annely points out.
"There is a Viking village there, where everybody dresses up as Vikings, and you can enjoy sword-fighting and archery workshops."
"There are also different presentations and speakers – this year, for example, we have one lecture about Viking burials and another that presents an overview of the latest findings from Saaremaa."
On Saaremaa itself, another Viking village remains open throughout the summer. Meanwhile, Annely is spearheading a new project that could help turn the site where the Salme ships were found into a major tourist attraction.
"I am employed by the local municipality, and we are currently working on the concept for a new Viking center to be built on the site. There are already quite a lot of tourists going there, but there is not much to see at the moment."
"We aim to have the location, size, cost, initial concept of the exhibition, and other details in place by the end of this year."
"We plan to involve experts from the tourism, archeology, exhibition, and financial fields with the project and also work with the local community and Saaremaa Viking enthusiasts."
"We want to tell the story of the Salme ships and also the life of the Saaremaa people during the Viking era."
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