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The Vikings are mostly known as a group of aggressive invaders who pillaged and plundered their way from Scandinavia to other European nations from about the 8th to the 11th century A.D. In fact, the word "Viking" means "pirate invader" in the Old Norse language. Though they were a fearsome lot, the Vikings were also skilled boatbuilders and seafarers who sailed to other lands for many reasons, seeking riches and profitable trade routes. Archaeologists have uncovered former Viking sites as far away as Iceland, Greenland, and Canada that reveal fascinating history about ancient civilization. Here are six things about the Vikings you might not know.
Not All Vikings Came From Scandinavia
Sweden, Norway, and Denmark receive most of the attention regarding Viking history, but a group of warriors known as the Oeselians lived on a large island called Ösel. Known as Saaremaa today, the island is located off Estonia’s coast in the Baltic Sea. According to 13th-century Estonian documents, Oeselians built merchant ships and warships that could carry about 30 men each.
In 2008, workers inadvertently discovered a burial ground in the town of Salme that included human remains, along with swords, spears, knives, axes, and other weapons. Archaeologists excavated the site (and later a second site nearby) and found the remains of two Swedish ships dating to about 750 A.D. One ship contained neatly ordered remains; the other was more haphazard, indicating battles had taken place. Archaeologists believe the two ships likely carried Swedish Vikings who met their end while attacking the Oeselians.
Latvian Vikings Were Known as the “Last Pagans”
Another tribe of fierce Viking warriors, the Curonians lived along the Baltic coastline of modern-day Latvia. The Curonians were referred to as Europe’s last pagans since they resisted all attempts to convert to Christianity long after neighboring nations did so. They frequently raided Swedish settlements and attacked merchant ships, often forming alliances with other groups, including the nearby Oeselians.
The Curonians were also among the region’s wealthiest groups, primarily due to the trade of amber (precious fossilized tree resin). The Baltic region contains vast amounts of amber, nicknamed “the gold of the North,” and Baltic amber was traded all over Europe and northern Africa. One of the Curonians’ primary settlements, Seeburg, was along the Baltic coast in modern-day Grobina. There, you can visit the Curonian Viking Settlement, an attraction that immerses visitors in folklore and activities such as archery, boat trips, and excursions to visit historical sites.
Vikings Established the Kingdom of Dublin
Ireland once contained many wealthy monasteries, since it had been a Christian nation for about three centuries before the first Vikings’ arrival late in the eighth century A.D. At first, the Vikings either traded with or marauded Irish monasteries and set up temporary camps. Around 840 A.D., they established a year-round settlement and built a wooden fort (called a longphort) along the River Liffey bank in modern-day Dublin. The Vikings used the settlement as a base to raid inland settlements and obtain timber to build ships. Over the next three centuries, they formed alliances and fought battles with local rulers, establishing the Kingdom of Dublin. Dublin became a strategic and bustling trading port and one of the longest-lasting Viking settlements outside Scandinavia.
Construction workers initially discovered two extensive Viking settlements in Dublin, one at Wood Quay and the other at Christ Church Cathedral. Dublin embraces its Viking history, and one of the best ways to experience it is by visiting Dublinia, a museum and historic area that hosts festivals. The National Museum of Ireland also houses many artifacts and a Viking Age exhibit.
Normandy Is Named for the Vikings
According to medieval Latin documents, Normandy (a province in northwestern France) is named for the Vikings that pillaged, plundered, and later settled here beginning around 790 A.D. The Latin name for them was Notmanni, which means “men of the North.” Defenseless monasteries were often their first targets, and a Danish Viking expedition even sailed up the Seine River to raid and occupy Paris in 845 A.D.
After a French king ceded land to him in 911 A.D., a Viking leader named Rollo established a permanent settlement in the region, which became known as the Duchy of Normandy. The Normandy territory expanded over the next several hundred years as Scandinavian Vikings colonized the area. They eventually gave up their paganism for Christianity and integrated into society. Rollo’s descendants built a stronghold and, later, around 927 A.D., a palace in Fecám, which you can visit today. Fecámp overlooks a protected harbor (the likely site where Rollo first came ashore), making it easy to visualize a fleet of Viking ships bobbing on anchors.
Vikings Settled Iceland
Unsurprisingly, when these medieval seafaring raiders invaded a land, they encountered resistance from the Indigenous populations. But when Norwegian Vikings arrived in Iceland in 870 A.D., the only inhabitants they found were a small group of Irish monks, who left soon after. The Vikings discovered Iceland by accident when they were blown off course during storms. Once word reached Norway that Iceland was open for the taking, settlers descended on the island, bringing with them enslaved peoples from the British Isles. DNA testing and genealogy studies have shown that early Icelanders were about half Norse (from Norway and Sweden) and half Gaelic (from Ireland and Scotland).
By 930 A.D., the settlers had divided Iceland into 36 principalities, formed the Althing (assembly of free men), and adopted a Norwegian law code to establish a commonwealth. Two surviving texts from the 12th and 13th centuries, the Íslendingabók (Book of the Icelanders) and the Landnámabók (Book of the Settlements), detail these early activities. Surprisingly, the Norse language hasn’t changed much over the centuries, and Icelanders today can still understand their Viking ancestors' language. You can find historic and replicated Viking sites, artifacts, and festivals all over Iceland if you visit today.
Greenland’s Vikings Disappeared
A Norwegian Viking known as Erik the Red was the first European to settle in Greenland in 983 A.D. Two years later, he led an expedition of Icelandic settlers to Greenland, about 900 miles away. The settlers established two communities, the East Settlement near present-day Qaqortoq and the West Settlement near Nuuk. For the next 300 years or so, the settlers successfully farmed, fished, raised cattle, and hunted caribou, seals, walruses, polar bears, and other Arctic animals. However, Greenland couldn’t provide all the resources (such as timber and iron) they needed, so Greenlanders relied on trade with European nations.
During this time, Europeans began importing ivory, which they used to decorate churches and make chess pieces and other trinkets. Greenland’s walrus population was plentiful at the time, and Greenlanders collaborated in groups to hunt walruses for their skins and tusks. The island nation’s success was mostly due to a bustling ivory trade.
Then a series of events in the 13th century led to the demise of Greenland’s Viking settlements. Greenland winters became harsher and storms more frequent, making it exceedingly dangerous to hunt and export ivory in treacherous seas. The longer winters shortened the already short farming season, creating food scarcities. Meanwhile, African elephant tusks became a competing source for ivory, collapsing the Greenland market. On top of that, the Black Plague was sweeping across Europe, further reducing the ivory demand and disrupting Greenland’s ability to survive. Archaeologists and historians believe that many of Greenland’s impoverished inhabitants died over time (many drowned at sea), and the others simply left and went to North America, Iceland, or Europe. By the end of the 14th century, the Norse settlements were vacant.