Vikings in Britain – The Archaeological Evidence

In what respects can the archaeological evidence provide information about the process and nature of the settlement of the Vikings in the British Isles? Discuss with reference to at least two of the following regions: England; Scotland and the Isles; Ireland The study of the settlement of the British Isles in the early historic period is inherently interdisciplinary. In order to make sense of the disparate and often unsatisfactory sources, and create a viable history of this period, a scholar must be able to synthesise and appraise a wide range of material of different types. Archaeological evidence forms an important part of this synthesis, and is sometimes the only window we have into the early medieval world.

The image of Archaeology often conjures up images of spectacular finds, treasure in the form of well preserved and valuable objects from the past1. However, the study of artefacts is only one part of a diverse and intricate discipline, which involves many methods of investigation into the past. Archaeology is at its most simple, the study of the human past through the examination of its physical, material remains, however applied archaeological method, science and theory has expanded its role and prominence in historical study significantly. Above all, archaeology is about examining the anthropological process’s by which societies are altered and shaped over time, whether by process of invasion and usurpation by other societies, or through a process of evolution. Archaeology has much to say about the complex processes behind the creation of a Scandinavian society in the British Isles in the early medieval period.

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When looking at the history of the Viking settlement, one is initially confronted with several questions about the process and nature of the settlement. Was the settlement a single movement, or one of disparate migrations, was it intended as a military conquest, or a peaceful movement into the land and what kind of numbers did the Vikings arrive in? The Ninth century is far better documented than, say, the Adventus Saxonum of four hundred years previously, but nevertheless, the documents do not come close to revealing the whole story.

Archaeological evidence provides vital context within which to place the information given in the documents, and provides us with information about the changing mechanisms of Viking settlement practise, particularly when compared to the archaeology of Viking settlement in their homelands, which the documents provide little information on. What then, are the types of evidence that archaeology reveals?

Archaeology can itself be sub-catagorised into separate areas, each of which sheds light on different parts of the puzzle. The most obvious area for archaeological investigation comes from the investigation of Viking settlement morphology, how the Vikings structured and distributed their settlements, and how those settlements related to their landscapes and to each other. Associated with the archaeology of settlement, is the archaeology of how the Vikings disposed of their dead, and the ways in which the characteristics of burial rites are indicative of the nature of Viking settlement.

In conjunction with the settlement and burial evidence, archaeological science has made important contributions to the study of environmental factors which affected the Viking settlement and modern techniques of landscape analysis and mapping with Geographical Information Systems, can help us better understand the Vikings relationship with their Landscape. We then need to look at ways of integrating the archaeological record with other sources for the period, in order to be able to draw conclusions about the process and nature of Viking settlement. First then, we turn to settlement archaeology.

One of the inherent weaknesses of archaeological evidence is that any assertions based on it can only be made in the light of the current state of excavation. On the one hand this constantly expanding corpus of evidence provides a refreshing contrast to static documents, but on the other, extrapolations about wider landscapes and settlement patterns from excavated sites must always be provisional and on the assumption that contradictory evidence is not lying unexcavated. This is particularly apparent when we consider that the impetus for many excavations is urban development.

Consequently much of our understanding of the Vikings has been from these rescue excavations in settlements such as York. The result of this inequality in the location of sites has been that we have had a far greater understanding of Viking settlement in urban areas of significant settlement, often of the tenth century than we do of the process of Viking rural settlement in the ninth. However, this information in itself is useful, we have a good idea from these urban excavations where the main areas of Anglo Scandinavian urbanisation were and archaeology has provided a good understanding of the process of settlement in the urban sphere.

Anglo-Scandinavian disc brooch, lead manufactured, with typically flat Anglo Saxon profile (after Hadley 2006) We can also examine from this urban archaeology, regional variations in urbanising patterns, a classic example being the differences between the re-emergence of an urban settlement, such as that at York, with the foundation of a new one at Dublin. At York, archaeology reveals a picture of an earlier Anglo Saxon wic at Fishergate, relocating to a site nearer to the Roman fortifications of York in the mid ninth century, probably as a response to the threat from the Viking armies to the north2. We know from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, that by the late ninth century, the Vikings had settled in the York area, and the archaeological record shows a steady stage by stage expansion of York as an urban settlement.

The well known excavations at Coppergate in the 1970’s have revealed an enormous amount of data about the nature of the Viking settlement there, with striking insights into both the domestic and economic lives of the Vikings being uncovered. The excavations revealed a multitude of industries, metalwork, tanning, woodworking, pottery production et al taking place in the vicinity of domestic tenements. However, the archaeology of Coppergate does not paint a picture of a purely Viking settlement, as Dawn Hadley points out, ‘purely Scandinavian objects seem to be few in number.’

The artefactual evidence from Coppergate points both to extensive trading links with Carolingian Europe and further afield, but also to a merging of design patterns; in brooches, for example, examples have been found betraying both Anglian stylistic convention and with Scandinavian decoration (fig. 1). Despite the significant Viking presence in York, it should be noted that the architectural features observed are not discernibly Scandinavian, lending further credence to the idea that, in York, there was a substantial mixing between the Anglians and Scandinavians, to create this new Anglo Scandinavian identity.

The archaeology of York also reveals information about the later Viking conversion to Christianity in the tenth century, with evidence of the reuse of Roman masonary in the construction of early Anglo Scandinavian churches, most notably a cathedral, the cemetery of which was located under the present Minster, alongside the Anglo Scandinavian Cathedral was located the royal palace; settlement archaeology is important for denoting the nature of high status settlement.

At a similar time to the Coppergate project, excavations in Dublin were revealing a different story. Here there were cases of distinctively Scandinavian structures were being revealed, with historic dating enabled by coverage in the Annals of Ulster of the establishment in the ninth century of a Viking longphort, and subsequent reestablishment of the settlement in the early tenth century. Here both the documentary evidence for violent confrontation, and the evidence of Viking military presence in both architectural form and burial evidence4 (fig. 2) indicates that here there was substantially less commercial and cultural interaction between Norwegians and Irish celts, than between Anglians and Danes in England.