Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings were Scandinavian raiders and traders who defeated most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (apart from King Alfred’s Wessex south of the Thames).
They settled in eastern, northern and parts of the Midlands of England from the 860s AD onwards. In some areas, a mixed ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture flourished.
Eventually, the royal house of Wessex was able to gain overlordship over much of England. Although in the early to mid-11th century, a Viking king, Cnut (Canute), briefly made England part of his North-Sea ‘empire’.
In 1066 the last Anglo-Saxon King defeated the final Viking incursion, but himself lost to the Normans.
Historical sources can tell us a good deal about the events of the period, but they are often in the form of terse chronicles, recorded from a particular standpoint.
Archaeology and the study of standing remains can offer us different perspectives. They provide a depth often not captured by the original sources, and bringing both together can give us a more rounded picture.
Archaeological traces of the ‘Great Heathen Army’
From 865 AD onwards, a large force of Vikings known to Saxon chroniclers as the ‘Great Heathen Army’ landed in England and picked off many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The temporary activity of such an army more than 1000 years ago might not usually be expected to leave many traces in the archaeological record.
Until the 21st century, not much was known beyond clearly visible ‘D-shaped’ earthwork defences associated with rivers, such as at Repton on the river Trent.
However, archaeologists have recently identified what they describe as the tell-tale ‘signature’ of the army and its movements.
As well as conventional techniques, archaeologists have used the wealth of information on finds available from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (reported by responsible metal detectorists) to fit the puzzle pieces together.
A breakthrough came with investigations into a site at Torksey in Lincolnshire, interpreted as a winter camp for the Great Army. Unlike at Repton, no outer earthwork has been identified. Perhaps the force gathered there was so large they felt secure enough without this – and the site was screened by a wetland to the north.
The warriors, families and camp followers would have lived in tents or perhaps temporary shelters of branches that left no trace.
However, they did ‘deposit’ (or rather lose) a lot of small artefacts. Archaeologists likened this to the situation of a muddy field at a music festival where small belongings get lost and trampled into the mud. Just imagine the effect scaled up for months.
Typical traces of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ include:
- Small clipped bits of silver ‘dirham’/’dirhem’ coins from the Islamic world of Iraq and Samarkand – demonstrating the far-flung Viking trading connections.
- Other strips of silver bullion and pieces of gold ingots.
- Anglo-Saxon coins from outside their normal area of circulation, (loot) and copies/forgeries of coins probably made on site. The latter often have garbled inscriptions presumably made by someone who was illiterate.
- Little conical gaming pieces made of lead, something to while away the time between raids.
- Weights made out of lead and copper-alloy for weighing precious metals.
- Metal accessories from Anglo-Saxon and Irish style clothing, mostly strap ends that have often been cut up or reused in other ways
This pattern can be seen in other places where the army camped or was active.
The great Viking army pottery throwdown
The Vikings in Scandinavia did not make much ceramic pottery. They often used wood or soapstone to create containers.
However, at Torksey, there is evidence that they were tapping into the latest pottery technology from areas of France or the low countries where they had previously been campaigning. There may have been potters from these regions among captives or camp followers.
This was pottery thrown on a wheel, a technique not seen in England since the days of the Romans.
Another Viking base at Thetford in Norfolk would also become a centre for wheel-thrown pottery production.
What buildings did the Vikings have?
In England, there is only minimal archaeological evidence for clearly Viking-style buildings similar to those found in Scandinavia. These are in the form of bow-sided buildings (where the sides ‘bulge out’).
These tend to be smaller than those typically seen in Scandinavia. The variants in England so far identified also differ in not having integral byres for cattle within them (perhaps because the winters here were less harsh?)
The Vikings were very adaptable. It may be that in England, they simply got locals to build structures for them or imitated the styles they saw here.
York: Viking-Age boomtown
A number of towns expanded and flourished during the period of Viking control (while some Anglo-Saxon port-towns became less prosperous due to their raids).
The best-understood example is at York, or Jorvik, as the Vikings called it, where extensive excavations have taken place around Coppergate.
These revealed a dense settlement of small houses and workshops with wattle partition walls between plots. The name ‘Coppergate’ comes from the Scandinavian for a wood-turners’ street (literally a cup maker).
It’s thought that in York, the Scandinavian incomers cooperated with local Northumbrian nobles and the archbishops to build up this trading settlement.
In particular, Viking-Age York had links to Dublin, then also a Viking town. A glimpse of Viking Age York has been recreated for the public at the Vorvik centre.
What has been found in Viking graves?
There are surprisingly few examples of clearly ‘Viking’ or Scandinavian burials in England, though those that are known have yielded fascinating information.
At Repton, archaeologists have interpreted the finds there as showing that the Vikings (possibly from the Great Army who are recorded as overwintering here in 873-4) re-used a Mercian royal mausoleum next to the Church of St Wystan as a kind of charnal-house.
The interpretation runs that they collected together their dead (about 264 individuals) from other locations and built a pagan burial mound around the mausoleum.
While most of the burials were robust males of warrior age, there were three children and a teenager added to a corner of the mound. Based on accounts of an Arab traveller travelling with Rus Vikings in eastern Europe around this time, it has been suggested these could be human sacrifices killed to sanctify the mound.
Other Vikings appear to have possibly received a form of Christian burial in the churchyard.
Only 2.5 miles away from Repton is the only Viking cremation cemetery in all the British Isles, at Heath Wood, in Ingleby parish, Derbyshire. Its location suggests it is also connected with the Great Army winter camp of 873-4. It is also evidence for the diverse make-up of that Army: in death, warriors – and camp followers – were buried following a variety of rites.
It also has the largest number of Viking Burials in a complex of 59 mounds. The site was known to be of archaeological interest since at least 1855 when antiquarian Thomas Bateman dug five of the mounds. In the 1940s there were further investigations. It was considered important enough to be protected as a Scheduled Monument in 1951.
However, confirmation of the extent and importance of the site came in 1992 with an earthwork survey by Marcus Jecock with the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in England – which subsequently merged with Historic England – and excavations between 1998 and 2000 by Marcus working alongside Julian Richards of York University.
As well as male and female human cremations within the mounds, the remains of animals were found including hunting dogs and horses. Analysis of the horse bones concluded that the animal had not grown up in England and presumably had been brought over by the incomers. Other animal bones may have been from feasting.
Carved in stone: the Viking influence on sculpture
We can see Scandinavian influences in both sculpture patterns and the subject matter the carving depicts, especially in northern England.
These can be grave markers known as ‘Hogback’ tombstones, with their distinctive ‘arched’ tops and animals gripping the ends, or carved crosses.
Sometimes sculptures mix Christian imagery with scenes from Norse mythology. A great example of this cultural fusion is the cross at Gosforth, Cumbria.
Here professor Richard Bailey identified that in addition to the Christian crucifixion scene there are depictions of the story of Ragnarok – the Viking conception of the overthrow of the gods and the end of the world.
Not just pirates and raiders
The Vikings made a big contribution to English history and identity.
They expanded the trading networks that England was connected to, they cooperated with local elites to expand flourishing towns, they added to the English language, introduced new artistic styles and culture and intermarried with local people.
They were also a catalyst for the idea of a single ‘England’ as a reaction to their more warlike activities.
The role of Historic England
Some of the important sites mentioned are protected by being ‘scheduled’ or ‘listed’. You can find out more about these and other sites online at the National Heritage List for England, and you can add your own photographs and information via our Enriching the List initiative.
Share your love of the Vikings
Let us know what fascinates you about the Vikings – or examples of places associated with their culture in England in the comments below.