Some point to the influx of silver, from the far richer Islamic world, into European societies from the 8th century CE onwards as being too tempting to resist for these Scandinavian pirates.
Others think population pressure, boredom, or an effort to resist Christianization saw fierce warriors take to the high (North) seas.
However, a team of researchers from Norway has analyzed whetstones to come up with a new theory on why the so-called Viking Age began.
Stones appear to whet researchers' appetite
The small town of Ribe (population 8,257) has a large history that outsizes its relatively small and genteel current size. Founded in 854 CE, it is the oldest extant town in all of Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) but also contains a wealth of whetstones which have been at the center of a new theory surrounding just when the so-called "Viking Age" began.
For the uninitiated, a "whetstone" (or sharpening stone) was a common sight in the early medieval period, used to sharpen sword or ax blades.
A team of scholars and researchers from the University of Oslo and Bergen, as well as from the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU, Norges geologiske undersøkelse), have examined more than 400 whetstones in the area surrounding Ribe.
This town was, of course, an important trading locus in the early medieval period. Using microscopic analysis of the whetstones, they concluded that the stones were quarried sometime in the 8th century CE over 683 miles / 1100 kilometers away in Trondheim, Norway.
So how do these whetstones, dotted around Ribe, fit into a new theory about an earlier start to the so-called "Viking Age"?
Stable trading networks
The vast number of whetstones discovered around Ribe suggested that distant quarry sites, like the one in Trondheim, Norway, must have been major supplies to the bustling early medieval trading entrepôt of Ribe.
A journey today from Trondheim to Ribe takes about a 14.5-hour drive – that with the help of modern satellite navigation, the comfort of a car, and highway infrastructure. The scenario in the 8th century would have been very different.
The whetstones would have been loaded onto ships and sailed down the Norwegian coast and through the Skagerrak Sea to reach Ribe. Such a venture needed a sophisticated level of economic cooperation, demand, and activity in order to prosper.
The analysis of the whetstones – and their quantity – suggests that there must have been stable trading networks – that connected Denmark with Norway – to allow such whetstones to be transported hundreds of kilometers by sea.
Trade networks – for fur, reindeer antlers, and even walrus ivory – were believed to have been established between Viking Era societies and beyond – by the 9th century, so the discovery of these whetstones pushes back the dawn of this era further.
Trade networks – that allowed these whetstones to be transported hundreds of kilometers from their quarry site – must therefore have not only been established (meaning there was an economic demand for them in Ribe) but also relatively stable and safe in order for entrepreneurs to work.
The analysis of the Ribbe whetstones somewhat shatters the picture of the 8th century CE Scandinavian world as not having sophisticated levels of economic demand or interdependence.
A whetstone used to sharpen blades. Photo: Wawan Pristanto / Shutterstock
What can these whetstones tell us about Vikings setting sail?
The stable and established trade networks – that allowed these whetstones to be shipped off for hundreds of kilometers – meant that there that the various petty kings, rulers, and political elites could offer these merchants adequate protection from pirates and raiders.
These pirates and raiders would have limited opportunities to loot goods and treasure in the waters around Scandinavia, so, according to the study, they must have sailed further abroad.
Some of these raiders and pirates – who we call Vikings – would have entered the service of the various rulers throughout Scandinavia, but many more would have been forced to start raiding where the political and security situation was less secure.
The British Isles – during the early medieval period – was, for the Vikings – an irresistible land of fragmented Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with a vast number of treasure-laden monasteries and churches. Easy targets in the British Isles – like the raid on a monastery on Lindisfarne off northeast England in 793 CE (the raid that signals the beginning of the so-called "Viking Age") were selected.
As the Norse rulers and kings became more powerful throughout the 8th and into the 9th century, however, they may have acted to secure trade routes, which connected Scandinavia with much of Europe, even in this period.
Vikings would thus have been forced to raid and pillage further abroad – including Northern France, Portugal, Spain, and even into communities that lined the Mediterranean Sea.
A surprise to many academics
The analysis of 400 whetstones – dating them to the 8th century CE – shows a level of economic interdependence and political security in Scandinavia that has surprised many academics and historians.
Furthermore, the transport of this amount of whetstones meant a significant demand for Viking-era weapons – swords and axes – used by Vikings in raiding, pillaging, and fighting across much of Europe. These whetstones have helped push back the 'dawn' of the so-called "Viking Age" from 793 CE to the earlier 8th century CE.
For more on the beginning of the Viking era – including the analysis of the Ribbe whetstones – read the article "The Beginning of the Viking Age in the West" from the Journal of Maritime Archaeology, accessible here.
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