Pre-Viking and Viking Age Norway

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Norway is a long, narrow, mountainous strip of land on the northwestern edge of the European continent, facing the North Atlantic Ocean. The word means "the way to the north" and originally may have designated the sea-lane along the coast. This is in line with the connections and developments of Norway as a primarily maritime nation through history. Throughout the centuries an exchange of goods, people, and ideas traveled both southward and westward. About the year a.d. 1000 the Christian faith was introduced to Norway from England, but in the later Middle Ages relations with Rome were carried on with Germany as the intermediary. Danish and German influences were long paramount, until new connections with the west were formed in the seventeenth century.

The first evidence of people in Norway dates to 9000–8000 b.c. from the sites of Komsa in Finn-mark and Fosna in the Mo⁄re area. We do not know who the first Norwegians were, because two different migration routes are possible, one from the north through the Kola Peninsula and one via Sweden and Denmark. The Stone Age in Norway dates from 5000 to 3000 b.c. and is characterized by hunters and gatherers that used coarse tools, especially axes, and had domesticated dogs. During the Late Stone Age (3000–1500 b.c.), domesticated cattle and the beginnings of agriculture made their appearance. This period also marked the first evidence of an artistic tradition. Rock carvings of fish and reindeer have been discovered. The one burial dating from this period, located east of the Oslo-fjord, is a collective grave. In later time periods single graves came into use.

During the Bronze Age (1500–500 b.c.), there are more extensive settlements and finer tools and weapons. Bronze (a copper and tin alloy) is not indigenous to Norway, and it had to be imported. This metal probably indicates status when found at archaeological sites. From this time period, there are magnificent rock carvings depicting sundials, wheels, oxen and oxen-driven carts, ships, and fish and fishing. All the rock carvings are located on rock faces with water cascading down or in indentations that collect water. A series of large mounds of stone and gravel are preserved from this time period and contain the bodies of powerful chieftains. These mounds also are placed in key locations in the landscape visible by outsiders, possibly as a sign of power and claim on the land. Later in this time period, the tradition moved toward cremation burials, where the remains were buried in urns.

About 500 b.c. iron first came to Norway. The pre-Roman Iron Age, or Celtic Iron Age (500–1 b.c.), primarily is known through archaeological work in southern Norway. Archaeological research in connection with urban development has provided insights on settlement and settlement patterns. It was a challenging time for agriculture, owing to climatic deterioration. The end of this period brought the Scandinavian countries into close association with the Roman civilization. The Roman Iron Age (a.d. 1–400) was marked by trade items from the Roman Empire, and Scandinavians came into contact not just with a different culture but also with Christianity, literacy, and a written alphabet. Both cremation and inhumation burials are found dating to this period. Many of the inhumation burials lie near megalithic monuments, often adorned with runic inscriptions. When the Roman Empire collapsed as the result of pressure from the Germanic migration (a.d. 400–600), a period of unrest also was felt in Norway by new invading tribes, marked by the ruins of local fortresses. This was termed the Migration period. The following period, the Merovingian (a.d. 600–800), saw powerful chieftains in the area, and close contact with the Germanic language–speaking peoples is witnessed in the rise of ornamental art, such as wood carvings, which flourished in the first historic period, the Viking Age.

The Viking Age was the result of linked economic intensification, military and technological advances, climate change, and, particularly, intense competition among chiefly elites and between elites and commoners. The era saw escalating Nordic impact upon northwestern Europe and a dramatic expansion of European settlement into the offshore islands of the North Atlantic. Early in this period, Norwegians settled in the Shetlands and Orkneys and Swedes on the coasts of Finland and Estonia. In these early expansionistic movements, the motive seems to have been more of peaceful integration rather than aggression and war.

The attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland in 793 marked the beginning of an era that has forever given the Vikings the reputation of raiders. The Viking expeditions were eastward and westward. Swedes who sailed the Baltic and founded the kingdom of Gardarike, with Novgorod and Kiev as the main cities, primarily undertook the eastward expansion. Voyages on the Russian rivers brought them all the way to the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), where many of these Vikings entered as soldiers in the Roman emperor's guard and were called Varangians. Some of the Varangians were Norwegians, the most noteworthy of them being the half-brother of Saint Olaf, Harald Sigurdson. He actually became chief of the Varangians and, upon his return to Norway, king. Rich finds of Arabian and Byzantine coins tell of the trade connections between the Orient and the Nordic countries at the time.

Three ship burials dating to the early part of the Viking Age have been unearthed: the Tune, Oseberg, and Gokstad ships. Ships typically were used for the burial of nobles. The fine craftsmanship and flexible frame, in conjunction with a shallow keel, made the Viking boat a formidable tool in surprise attacks. This construction also allowed ease in transport when the waters were too shallow or when a strip of land was blocking the river, as they could be lifted over narrow stretches of land so that the voyage could continue on the other side.

The economic basis of the Viking expansion has attracted a growing body of scholarship, increasingly based upon a rich archaeological record, illustrating that economic power, military power, religious authority, and competitive display were interlocking elements in elite strategies for aggrandizement. They also were key points of friction with the long-established leveling mechanisms of Iron Age Germanic society. Viking Age chiefly economics ultimately was not about money but about honor and power. Wealth generated from successful farming, intensified fishing, loot, trade, or protection selling was not an end in itself but a means to acquire the key elements of chieftainship. Among these prerogatives were well-armed retainers, loyal clients, fine clothing and weapons, exotic objects for display and award, and spectacular architectural settings for glorious feasts and impressive ritual moments. Evidence of ritualistic activity, such as feasting and horse fighting, is evident in materials from the Merovingian site of Åker, near Hamar in Norway.

In arctic Norway, mighty chieftainships grew up on the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands during the Late Iron Age, creating a power center that was to contest primacy with the expanding petty kingdoms of western and southern Norway for a long time. Research on animal bone material from Iron Age sites (both pre-Viking and Viking) in northern Norway reveals great insight into the structure of political economy of these northern chiefly establishments. Huge boathouses, extensive farms, and at least one large feasting hall at Borg, equipped with imported gold and glass that must have rivaled any similar structure below the Arctic Circle, point to the formation of a political power center in the area. While the warm currents of the North Atlantic drift allowed some barley growing in these offshore arctic islands, most barley production probably was reserved for beer rather than porridge. The majority of the diet was supplied by meat and milk of domestic stock, birds and bird eggs, sea mammals, and, especially, the abundant stocks of marine fish, whose spawning grounds surround Lofoten and Vesterålen.

The development of fishing, in particular, and the building of a monetary economy based on the exchange and trade of a storable product, such as dried fish (stockfish), in the twelfth century a.d. allowed a mercantile connection of these arctic lands with mainland Europe. Royal and church patronage had created a vast investment in the specialized exploitation of the abundant cod stocks accessible from the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands. Settlement pattern, scheduling of subsistence activities, division of labor, gender roles, and relations between Scandinavian and Saami populations all were affected by the profound economic and social transformation. During the Iron Age the Norse were not unfamiliar with the concepts of intensive fishing and the use of stockfish (beheaded air-dried codfish) as an integral part of this multifaceted political economy. Stockfish became the key product that connected this northern land with the mercantile economies of mainland Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The difference between the Iron Age and medieval times lies in the focus and scope of the activity as well as the nature of the controlling elements. In both eras, elites were transforming fish into objects of abstract value. In the Iron Age fish was used for prestige by facilitating the purchase of barley for beer making, for getting furs that then were traded for luxury items in distant ports, and, of course, for feeding people both at home and during voyages. All these transactions garnered the ultimate products of "honor," prestige, and lineage power. In medieval times the transformation was of a different nature. Fish no longer was used for acquisition of prestige but rather as money. Fish therefore, did not just change into an object of abstract value but was altered further to become an abstract commodity. Its value went beyond the local and regional level to achieving a truly international scale.

A frequently cited account by a North Norwegian chieftain Ottar (recorded in the court of King Alfred of Wessex in the ninth century) provides a description of chiefly economics, mentioning income from "tribute" collected regularly from the Saami peoples for reindeer farming, and from both the Saami and the Norse for whaling and walrus hunting. According to N. Lund, a wandering Anglo-Saxon scribe noted that this North Norwegian chieftain owned far fewer cattle than any respectable thane of Wessex but was "accounted wealthy in his own country." As King Alfred knew all too well, Nordic seafaring skills allowed for the acquisition of wealth from raiding, protection racketeering (Danegeld collection—payment to the Vikings in England and France for not being plundered and for the assurance of defense, if necessary), and large-scale slaving as well as fishing and maritime trade. In the three centuries between a.d. 800 and 1100, Iron Age Scandinavians became major players in the royal politics of northwestern Europe, and for a brief period in the early eleventh century a single Scandinavian dynasty controlled most of England, Denmark, and Norway. Several scholars have argued that the escalating raids and massive wealth generated by Viking activity contributed greatly to social changes that eventually promoted stable monarchies in Scandinavia and thus contributed to the demise of chiefly Viking Age politics in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden by a.d. 1100.

By the tenth and eleventh centuries Norway, as well as the rest of Scandinavia, became Christianized. The early kings used Christianity as an ideological reinforcement for their fledgling states. These kings promoted the development of ecclesiastical centers at foci of secular power, such as Hamar and Nidaros (present-day Trondheim), and the shift from the chieftain's farm to the churchyard marks the beginning of the Middle Ages.

See alsoViking Ships (vol. 2, part 7); Viking Settlements in Orkney and Shetland (vol. 2, part 7); Viking York (vol. 2, part 7); Pre-Viking and Viking Age Denmark (vol. 2, part 7); Pre-Viking and Viking Age Sweden (vol. 2, part 7).


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Sophia Perdikaris