Yes, the Vikings Raided, but They Also Established Thriving Cities

Vikings are typically thought of as war-like marauders, but new archeological evidence shows that many followed a different path, living in cities and cultivating the arts. (Photo: Selenit/Shutterstock)

Like any other group of people, the Vikings weren't monolithic. So while they have a reputation as tough seafaring pirates who "raided and traded" throughout Scandinavia, the British Isles, the Mediterranean, North Africa and parts of the Middle East, not all Vikings fit that profile.

Discoveries by archeologists in Ribe, Denmark, have shown that plenty of Vikings of the time were doing what people throughout the rest of Europe were doing — minting their own currency, paying taxes, and making art and music. Ribe, aka "The Oldest Town in Denmark," advertises itself as a place to learn about medieval history because it has a clear 1,300-year-old history as a township. The Viking Age of Scandinavian history began in the 790s and ran through 1066.

The dig in Ribe has been ongoing since 2017, funded by the Carlsburg Foundation (that's the beer company's philanthropic arm) and Aarhus University with the Museum of Southwest Jutland. A number of incredible finds have been unearthed, including coins that look like they were just minted, stone molds for making jewelry, the top section of a lyre, and beads — all evidence of a complex, peaceful and long-lasting city with its own money, and artisans dedicated to making jewelry, music and art.

"What we have here defies the opinion that all the Vikings did was to raid and to rape," Richard Hodges, a British archaeologist told The Guardian.

A more complex story

Viking ship at the ancient harbor of Ribe, viking settlement
The dig at Ribe continues to uncover revelations about the Vikings. (Photo: LGieger/Shutterstock)

Crucial to the significance of the archaeology is the nature of the soil at Ribe, which is sandy and hasn't moved much. What was left in a trash pit has laid undisturbed since the 8th century, so each layer can be precisely dated. In addition to the painstaking hand removal of objects, lasers have been employed at the dig, resulting in a 3D image of the objects before they are dug up.

That work has documented dozens of different types of beads — including some from as far away as Raqqa (what is now Syria today) where they were being mass-produced. The bead-makers of Ribe may even have been undercut by the Middle-eastern competition, in an unexpected example of globalization.

"We can see in Ribe that Viking society was based on sophisticated production and trade. It is a paradox: they made these beautiful things, they had gorgeous cloth, wonderful artifacts, but at the same time they are known to history for their brutality," said Hodges.

Why the outsize reputation for murder and mayhem? That may be because the history we have to work from was written by Christians, who may have wanted to paint the Vikings in a negative light, or hold them up as particularly bloodthirsty since they were pagans. "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of God's priests, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples," wrote Alcuin of York at the time. "The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."

But the Anglo-Saxons were hardly pacifist victims. A burial pit with 50 decapitated Vikings was found in Dorset in 2010.

That's not to say that some Vikings didn't raid, pillage and plunder. But those weren't the only actions they took, as proved by the Ribe archaeology and other digs that correlate those finds, like the one in York: "During the construction of a shopping centre in the Coppergate area of York, Viking homes, clothes, jewellery, and a helmet were found well preserved in the moist earth. It led to the creation of the city's Jorvik Centre. The Vikings became seen as domestic, family-oriented people," reports the BBC.

But this depiction of "cuddly Vikings" — as the BBC story jokingly refers to them — is probably just as off-base as the horn-helmeted ones; the truth is probably somewhere in-between. Like modern people, Vikings were likely a mix of artists, warriors, teachers, leaders, thoughtful types and psychopaths. Just as today, it takes all kinds to make a rich and complicated society.

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