Later Iron Or The Viking Age

FROM about A.D. 700 to A.D.1060 there appeared on the shores of Western and Southern Europe a people who became the dread of its inhabitants, for they came only for plunder. The fleets of these Northmen controlled the sea, and their power, wherever they went, seemed almost irresistible. After a while they established themselves at many points on the coast they had conquered, and founded kingdoms. At that time society was in a chaotic state, and had not recovered from the darkness which had befallen it after the fall of Rome.

From the French and English chronicles of that period one gets but an imperfect and wrong idea of the character of the Vikings. We must remember that these accounts were written by their sworn enemies—men who did not have the same religion, and who looked upon the victorious Northmen as the embodiment of rapine, cruelty, of everything that was wicked. But the Vikings were not without culture and noble qualities. Brave and daring they were, and when weighing carefully the facts which have come to us, we learn that many of these powerful warriors were endowed with great ability, that they governed well the countries they had conquered, and after battle were—as brave men generally are—imbued with a spirit of generosity towards their defeated foe. Men often falsify history unawares, when blinded by hatred, prejudice, or big otry, to suit their own purpose.

About the arms, which once made the Northern Vikings so redoubtable, we get from the numerous finds and the many sagas very good information. From these one sees that their arms were principally the same as during the earlier iron age, and the engravings below show bronze plates with raised figures representing different forms of helmets in use during this period. The arms used were sword, spear, club, bow and arrows, and the much dreaded Viking axe. The spear-points as well as the axes were often inlaid with gold and silver.

Bows and arrows were generally used for the hunt, but in sea battles they also played an important part.

Of these weapons the most formidable were the double-edged swords, which, therefore, were highly valued by the Norsemen of old. Their qualities were praised by the Skalds in their songs, and the old sagas tell us how they were passed as heirlooms from father to son for generations, some even being traced back to the possession of the Asagods. Many of them were ornamented with finely executed designs in gold, silver, and bronze. A well preserved one was found a few years ago in Southern Skane, and is now kept in the museum of the State.

Of the numerous voyages eastward by the Vikings, both for peaceable and warlike purposes, a large number of Runic stones in different parts of the country bear witness. On one Runic stone in Sodermanland is written that it was raised by Sirid to her husband Sven, who often sailed with valuable ships to Semgallen, near Tumisnis. Semgallen is the eastern part of Kurland, on the river Dana, and Tumisnis is Domesness, the most northern point of Kurland. On another, now in a tower of the castle at Gripsholm, the Runic characters read : ” Tula lit raisa stain thins at sun sin Havait bruthur Inkvars. Thair faurn trikilk fiari at Kuli auk austarlar ni Kafu tuu sunarla i Sarklanti ” (Tula raised this stone to her son Havald, Ingvar’s brother. They went bravely far away to Kul, and farther east in Kafa they died, southward in Sarkland [Saracen land]).

These Runic stones seem also in reality to belong to the first part of the eleventh century.

There are others which tell us of voyages to Greece. In Eds parish, Upland, is one, the runas on which were cut by one Ragnvald, who in Greece was chieftain of the army. At Fjukeby, not far from Upsala, is an-other, cut by a father to the memory of his sons, of whom one was chief of the Vikings (Vâringarne), who went to Greece but died at home.

Stones telling of expeditions to Greece are to be found not only in the coast provinces of Upland, Sodermanland, and Ostergotland, but far away in the country districts. On one of those found in Upland there is an inscription telling of a man who died in Langbardaland (Lombardy), in Northern Italy.

At Taby, north of Stockholm, the country road, up to the present time, leads over an old bridge of stone and gravel, having its sides lined with several high stones, raised at even istances from each other, and with a number of small ones ‘forming a chain from one end to the other. The large stone it the north end of the bridge has the following inscription: ‘ Jarlabanke had these stones raised for himself while he was yet alive. He built this bridge for his soul’s welfare, and he was the owner of the whole of Täby. God save his soul.”

The form of these runas, as well as of some others found in the same neighborhood, which likewise bear Jarlabanke’s name, shows us that he was living in the eleventh century, rather be-fore than after the middle part. The bridge at Taby has, consequently, been in use about eight centuries.

At other places in Sweden one may yet see the bridges of which Runic stones from the early days of Christianity bear witness. Others have been rebuilt. When the bridge leading over a brook near Kullerstad church, in Ostergotland, was being rebuilt, about the year 1850, there was found a fall-en and forgotten stone, which was raised up again. Its inscription commences: “Hakun made this bridge, but it shall be called Gunnar’s bridge.” One stone at Sundby, near Up sala, tells us that Ture had made salohus (quarters) after his wife’s death. Such quarters were built on the roadside in the wilderness, where the tired traveller could not get a roof over his head in any other way.


The great bulk, perhaps the greatest, of the population of Scandinavia, at the latter part of the heathen time, were living in villages, the most of which even then may have had the same name, and been situated in the same places as at present, or at least until the new divisions of the land broke up those old villages. This may be seen from the marked circumstance that by the side of each village, especially in the provinces around Lake Malar, are still found the grave-fields where the heathen population of the villages are resting. As the art of burning lime and bricks was probably first introduced in the North at the time of Christianity, the houses of this time were evidently of the same kind as those of which ruins have been found at Bjorkon or Lake Malar. These ruins, the oldest known in Sweden, consist of pieces of hardened clay, which retain their forms perfectly, in consequence of the strong heat they were subjected to when the houses were burned. It is by the guide of these that we distinguish between two different kinds of buildings, clay huts and wooden houses in which the joints between the timbers are closed with clay. Ruins of the former kind of buildings show pieces of clay of irregular form, on one side usually smooth, but on the other—the one turned inward—impressions of twigs, generally somewhat more than half an inch thick.

The inner part of these houses consisted generally of one oblong square room, the longer sides of which *ere rather low, often less than a man’s height, and lacking both windows and doors. The entrance was at one end, and was protected by a porch. Where a window was used, it was placed on the roof, which generally had a high pitch, and rested on cross-beams from one long wall to the other. They had no chimneys, only an opening in the roof through which the smoke arose from the fireplace in the middle of the room. The roof was covered with straw, turf, or shingles. The furniture in the houses of the heathen was neither abundant nor valuable. Benches and bedsteads fastened to the walls, long ables in front of these benches, and a chest or two for keeping the treasures of the family—these were the principal if rot all the furniture. Chairs are sometimes spoken of, but lot often. Odin quotes thus from the song Havamal –

Gunlod me gave, Upon the golden chair, To drink of the costly mead;

and in an Iclandic saga we are told how a man broke into a grave-mound in Norway in the year 1011, and there found Hogbon (inhabitant of the mound) sitting on a chair, and under his feet a shrine (casket) filled with gold and silver. Unexpectedly enough, once in a while remnants of cushions from the time of the Vikings have been found. Some years ago such a discovery was made in a grave-mound in the south-eastern part of Norway.

As a protection against and refuge from the attacks and incursions of enemies, probably most of those stone forts seen on the heights in the different provinces were built. They occur in great numbers, especially around the Malar, as well as on the islands in that lake. The engraving on the following page shows such a fort at Ismanstorp, in Oland. The wall is built of granite boulders and limestone, and is very solid, though no trace of mortar can be seen ; its height is about 15 feet, and its width 9 feet at the top where it is not damaged. Several openings lead into the fort, the diameter of which is no less than 400 feet. The foundation walls to numerous houses are still seen inside the fort.

For making fire, flint and steel were used, as is proved by ‘numbers of these found in graves of this age. Of the utensils in use during this period a pretty accurate idea can be formed from those found in numerous graves. Of these, especially, a large number of vessels have been preserved. The cooking utensils were of bronze, clay, stone, or iron. Drinking- vessels were of gold, silver, glass, clay, but more generally of horn. Knives were used, as were also spoons of wood and horn. Furs, skins, woollens, and linen have been found, and sometimes silk; ornaments of bronze, silver, am gold were also in use. Dice and checkers have been found and traces of chess figures, showing that this game must have been known during the ninth century, if not before.

The mode of burial during the Viking times is shown by immense numbers of graves of this period ; they are found in Norway as far as Lofoden or the mainland. From these it is seen that the corpses were sometimes burned, and sometimes buried unburned. The graves are marked either by mounds or stones in a square, by a three-pointed figure, or by the out-lines of a ship—the latter probably being over graves of Vi-kings. On the tops of the mounds are often seen round stones ornamented with circles or other figures.

Near Bjôrkôn, also called Birka, are found many grave mounds, probably more than in any other place in Scandinavia : the number still visible is about 2100, but many have been destroyed during the centuries that have elapsed. More than 500 of these graves were carefully examined during late years; everything found in them has, as the “black earth” denotes, shown them to have belonged to the latest part of the pagan era.

A remarkable Runic stone was found at Roks church, in Ostergotland. It is the longest Runic inscription found any-where in the world. The inscription proper reads thus :

“To the memory of Vâmod these runas stand; Them Varen the father cut After the fallen son.

“I tell of my son, who took double booty twelve times, each from different men. This I tell as the other, how he was surrounded by nine flocks of enemies from far away Rejdgots, and thus he found his death in the battle.

“Formerly the king, Vikings’ courageous Chieftain, reigned Over Rejdsea shores. Armed on the charger Now sits the generous Kind over the shoulder The shield is hung.

“This I tell as the twelfth, How the horse of Valkyrja (the wolf) Finds fodder widely around on the meadows Where twenty kings lay fallen.

“This I tell as the thirteenth, Which twenty kings sat in Zealand In four winters, with four names, Sons of four brothers : five of name Valke, sons of Râdulf ; five Rejdulfar, Sons of Rugulf; five Hâgislar, sons of Harvad; five Gunmundar, sons of 0rn…. I tell of my son, what heroes’ Descendant he is: it is Vilen. He may Always plough the waves : it is Vilen. The Viking flees.”

The art of ship-building stood high in the North, and the Norsemen’s ships were numerous. Snorre Sturlasson says: “King Anund Jakob, in a war with Denmark, had a fleet of upwards of 400 vessels.” At other times even greater numbers are spoken of. In the saga about St. Olaf we are told that “Knut the Great (Canute), for his attack on Norway, had brought together a fleet of 1440 vessels. These were driven forward partly by the use of sails and partly by oars. On each was generally not more than one mast and one sail. The sails were usually of coarse woollen stuff, and some-times of silk, with ,blue, red, and green stripes. The number of oars was often very great, and the size of a ship was known by the number of seats for the rowers. Olaf Trygvesson’s ship, Ormen Lange (The Long Serpent), the largest at the time in Norway, had thirty-four pairs of oars, and a crew of nearly 1000 men. Canute the Great owned a dragon (a ship with a dragon’s head in the stern) which had upwards of sixty pairs of oars,”

From the tracings on gravestones and rocks in Scandinavia, and from the finds, one gets an idea of the shape of the vessels that were used in ancient times. In Alskog parish, at Tjangvde, in the southern part of the island of Gotland, there was a-Runic stone about five feet high ; it is now in the mu scum at Stockholm. At the base is a dragon-ship with only one mast aid one sail. On the deck there is a row of armed men, and above all an eight-footed horse–a representation of Sleipner, the horse of Odin—in front of which are men making offerings. (See engraving on the following page.)

That burial in ships was not uncommon in the North during the Viking age is proved both by the narratives of the sagas and by several finds during recent times. In Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have been discovered mounds, enclosing vessels in which warriors were buried with their weapons and horses.

In the saga of Hakon the Good, Snorre Sturlasson gives an account of a battle which this king, in 954, fought against the sons of Erik Bloodaxe and their mother; Gunhild, in which the latter were defeated. On the side of Hakon fell, among others, Eigil Ullsark. After having won the battle, King Hakon took those of Erik’s sons’ vessels which were lying on dry land and caused them to be dragged high up on the shore ; he then placed Eigil Ullsark and all those who had fallen on his side in one of these ships, and buried it in a mound of earth and stones ; he also buried his enemies in other ships. These mounds are still seen south of Frejderbjerg, at the entrance of the Nord fjord. High bautastenar mark the grave of Eigil Ullsark.

Near Borre, in the neighborhood of Horten, not far from the Christiania fjord, were found in 1852, in a large mound, the remains of a ship which had been from 50 to 55 feet long; and, in this, burned human bones, skeletons of three horses and of a dog, besides several valuable antiquities. A tradition says that this mound enclosed the graves of the Vest-fold kings, Osten and Halfdan, who flourished at the end of the eighth century.

In another mound at Ultuna, south of Upsala, in 1855, were found the rotten but still plainly visible remains of a vessel, in which a man had been buried with his arms and his horses. The bolts which held the planks together still remained in their places. The vessel seems to have been as large as a small sloop. By the side of the corpse lay a sword, with a magnificent hilt of bronze, beautifully ornamented, as well as the remnants of the wooden scabbard and its gilded mountings. Besides these were found a helmet, with crest of silver-inlaid bronze—the only helmet from the heathen time found in Sweden—a shield buckle of bronze-inlaid iron, the handle to the shield, a bundle of arrow-points, mouth-pieces to two bridles, thirty-six checkers, three dice, and parts of two horse skeletons. In the stern of the vessel were lying a broiling-iron, a pot wrought of riveted plates with immovable handle, and bones of swine and geese—remains from the burial-feast, or the knapsack given to the deceased on his journey to Valhalla. The metal of which these articles were made was iron, except when otherwise specified.

At Nydam, on the coast of Southern Jutland, was found in a swamp, in 1863, a large and fine boat, built of oak, which was propelled by 14 oars on each side. Its length was 80 feet, its -width at the broadest part 11 feet ; it was very high, and pointed at each end, sinking in the centre to a height of 5 feet, resembling very much the surf-boats of the present day. It was constructed of eleven heavy planks, five on each side, and the other was placed in the bottom, and was cut in such a shape as to form a keel. The timbers overlapped each other, and were riveted together by iron bolts, of which the round heads appeared on the outside, the spaces being calked with a material composed of woollen cloth steeped in pitch. These timbers were joined in a curious manner to the ribs of the boat; at each place where they touched the latter a longitudinal strip was eta out on either side, and a hole bored rough the block which was thus formed ; a hole was also bend sideways through the rib in a position corresponding to that in the block, and through these a rope, made of the inner part of the bark of the linden, was passed and securely tied. This gave the boat a high degree of suppleness, which was advantageous in the surf and in heavy seas. At each end was a beam rising to a considerable height above the boat, and to which the ends of the timbers were nailed. Through the upper part of each of these beams there was a large hole, in which, to judge by the way they are worn, probably ropes were passed when the boat was to be dragged ashore. During the Viking times even the larger vessels were drawn upon the land during the winter. Both ends of the boat are so nearly alike that it is difficult to decide which is the stern. The form reminds one in the most forcible manner of the descriptions of the ships of the Suiones given by Tacitus, only a few generations before the building of the Nydam boat, which, according to the Roman coins found in it, must have occur red about 300 years after the Christian era. Tacitus says the ships of the Suiones are unlike those of the Romans, so that, in whatever direction they were rowed, they always had a stem to land with; and they did not carry sails. The boat at Nydam was only intended for rowing, and no traces of any mast bave been found; the oars were of the same shape as those now in use, and nearly 12 feet long. On one side of the boat the rudder was found, which is narrower and more like an oar than those of the present day. The rudders of the most ancient period, and far into mediæval times, were fastened on the right side of the stern, and not in its middle as now, which side is yet called starboard (steerboard).

In 1867 was found, in a mound at Tune, in Smaalenene, Norway, a Viking ship, at present in the Christiania Museum. The ship, which had been without deck, is built of oak, the planks being fastened to the frame by wooden bolts. The wood-work is finely done; the keel is one piece of wood, and entirely preserved. The boat is nearly 42 feet long, its width being about 12 feet ; its height cannot have exceeded 4 feet 3 inches: . both stem and stern are sharply pointed, and exactly alike. As the gunwale is wholly destroyed, the oar-tholes’ are wanting, and the number of oars used is uncertain; but the vessel also carried sails, and of the mast, which was of fir, the lower part was still in its place. A little aft of the mast the rudder, resembling an oar, was placed ; the appearance of the tiller shows, however, that it was fastened to the vessel on the side. In this ship was laid the unburned corpse of a chieftain, with three horses, swords, spears, shields, etc.

On the shores of the Sande fjord, at the entrance of the Christiania fjord, a still more remarkable find was made in 1880. On the farm of Gokstad is the well-known Kong’s Haug (King’s Mound). In digging in this place a welly-preserved ship from the Viking time was brought to light. Its hull is 6 feet long, and about 14 feet wide amidships; its perpendicular height cannot have much exceeded 5 feet’; unlike the above-mentioned Tune boat, which it far exceeds in size, it is very long, narrow, and low. In the middle lies a log, both ends hewn out so as to form a fish’s tail; it served to support the mast, of which a part is still standing in its place, while the upper part lies (cut off) in the ship. In and near this were found portions’ of two or three smaller boats, and also Times of sails, rigging; oars, the rudder, Which had been fastened on the side of the vessel, etc. The gunwales were completely covered with shields, the iron-mountings of which, as well as pieces of the shield-boards, painted in various colors, were pre-served. Outside the vessel were the bones of three horses and a dog. When the Vikings lay still with their ships, especially for the night, it was their custom to erect tents over them for their protection. On this vessel, as the repose of the chief was to last until Ragnarok (the end of time), a burial-chamber of wood had been constructed instead of the tent. This was situated aft of the mast, and formed like the roof of a dwelling. Unfortunately, the pressure of the mass of earth resting above had on one side broken the spars which sup-ported the structure; it was also evident that the chamber had been subject to visitation; some one had dug in, cut open the ship’s bottom, and, no doubt, plundered the grave of a large part of its contents ; therefore not much was found there, but what there was proved of great interest: scattered unburned bones of the corpse, remains of magnificent clothes, of a ,stuff crocheted with silk and gold, of. bridle and harness, mounted with fine plates of gilt bronze, among which were exceedingly well-worked pieces of great rarity: These finds aie of time greatest value, as illustrating the accounts, by the old sagas, of the custom of burying the dead champion in his ship. It was, no doubt, chiefly in vessels like these that the Vikings executed their. daring deeds.