University of York

Vikings

The Viking hit-and-run raids on monastic communities such as Lindisfarne and Iona were the most infamous result of burgeoning Scandinavian maritime prowess in the closing years of the Eighth Century.

These skirmishes led to more expansive military campaigns, settlement, and ultimately conquest of large swathes of the British Isles.  But Dr Steve Ashby, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, wanted to explore the social justifications for this spike in aggressive activity.

Previous research has considered environmental, demographic, technological and political drivers, as well as the palpable lure of silver and slave and why these forms of wealth became important at this stage.

Dr Ashby said: “I wanted to try to discover what would make a young chieftain invest in the time and resources for such a risky venture.  And what were the motives of his crew?”

In research published in Archaeological Dialogues, Dr Ashby argues that focusing on the spoils of raiding is to ignore half the picture as the rewards of such voyages consisted of much more than portable wealth.

Dr Ashby says: “The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age.”

The acquisition not just of silver but of distinctive forms of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Celtic metalwork were tangible reminders of successful sorties, symbols of status and power, as well as calls-to-arms for future raids. Many of the large quantity of Christian artefacts found in Scandinavian contexts (particularly Norwegian pagan burials) escaped melting and recycling, not because of some form of artistic appreciation, but because they were foundation stones for power, and touchstones in any argument for undertaking military activity.

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