According to The Saga of the Ynglings, Odin ordered mortal Vikings to bury the dead accordingly: “He decreed that the dead were all to be cremated along with their possessions and said that everyone should arrive in Valhalla with the riches from his funeral pyre, and with the treasures he had hidden in the earth.”
Harnessing sails and ships, medieval Scandinavians explored the world, amassing treasures from faraway places. These Viking treasures preserve tales of exploration and adventure.
1. Glass Vessels in Viking Burials
On the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, the Vikings built a trading and manufacturing settlement called Birka. Thousands of people were buried at Birka from the late ninth to the tenth centuries. The graves contained an assortment of grave goods.
Archaeologists found glass vessels from the Rhineland, France, and the British Isles inside the Birka graves. Making glass vessels was an expensive and time-consuming process. Vikings did not make their own glass drinking vessels and had to import glass cups from other places in Europe and the Near East. These items were so important to the Vikings that they took glass goblets to the grave just like other treasures of more obvious importance.
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2. Tating Ware Jugs
Another burial from Birka lacked a coffin but contained interesting grave goods. Feathers and wool covered the grave where the Viking once rested. Archaeologists also recovered a jug of Tating ware design. The jug dated to the eighth or ninth century CE and had been decorated with applied tin foil. The top layer of foil appears to display geometric shapes, while crosses become apparent towards the base of the jug.
One theory suggests that the jug originally belonged to Christians in the west and somehow made its way into the hands of the Scandinavians. While Viking Age Scandinavians made ceramic bowls, the Tating ware décor of the jug in the grave is a style from Central Europe. Vikings also imported other ceramics from the Rhineland, including soft, yellow earthenware called Badorf-ware. Something about the Tating ware jug caught a Viking’s eye and it was taken onward toward Valhalla or perhaps to an afterlife from another faith.
The Vikings knew how to make beads. They made quite a lot of glass beads, but they also imported many different beads from around the world. Archaeologists have found many of these beads in the graves of Viking men, women, and children. Frequently, imported beads were made of rock crystal and carnelian. Vikings regularly obtained rock crystal and carnelian beads from the Black Sea region and from Near Eastern trade routes in exchange from slaves, fur, and other European goods. Archaeologists also find many larger beads with mosaic patterns.
For some time, archaeologists believed all mosaic beads had been imported from the Mediterranean region. However, evidence from trading ports suggests that the Vikings learned how to produce mosaic beads on their own. Other necklaces from Viking Age graves contain a variety of beads from Scandinavia, Europe, and the East as well as coins from the Near East. A necklace full of beads from near and far away acted as a meaningful souvenir above and beyond the grave.
After excavating 1100 burials on the island of Björkö, archaeologists took stock. They found that over 120 graves contained coins. These coins came from all over the Viking world including Scandinavia, England, Western Europe, Byzantium, and Rome. But most of the coins hailed from the Middle East like the dirham pictured above. This dirham was minted in present-day Afghanistan around 803/804 CE. The other dirhams the Vikings took to Valhalla represented the Sassanid, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Samanid dynasties. Archaeologists use these coins to help develop chronologies and learn more about the Vikings’ connections to the world. Why the Vikings took so many of these coins to the grave is a question that remains to be answered. Were they bits of spare change, proof of grand adventures, or something else?
Around 834 CE, the Vikings pulled the magnificent ship, the Oseberg, ashore in Norway. They wove a tapestry around the inside and built a burial chamber in the rear. They brought two recently deceased women inside the Oseberg. Their mourners began filling the vessel with spectacular goods: combs, animals, ornate chests, carts, and sleighs, and a bucket. Then they piled dirt around the ship and left the women to rest hidden in the earth. Centuries later, archaeologists uncovered the grand ship, one of the most elaborate finds ever excavated in the Viking world.
The bucket appears to have been made in Ireland. It is of dark brown wood with three gold bands and intricate handles that depict two men sitting with their legs crossed. This bucket has been called the Buddha Bucket.
Elsewhere in Sweden, archaeologists have recovered a Buddha statue, likely made in the late 4th or early 6th century CE in the East. These rare finds indicate an awareness of other worlds and religious figures in Viking Scandinavia, but it is unclear how much the Vikings knew about their trade partners in the East, Buddha, or Buddhism. What is certain, is that they felt these trophies from other worlds were important enough to keep with them for eternity.
6. French Suit Buckles
In the eighth century, the Vikings left their farms and sailed to England, where they began their legacies of raiding and violence. At the time, Charlemagne reigned over much of Europe, including present-day France, Holland, Belgium, and western Germany. The Vikings circled the region for years but held off touching France during the reigns of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious. Then in 841 CE, “Danish pirates” sailed through the Channel and burned Rouen. They continued raiding churches over the next few years building towards the big prize: Paris. In 845 CE, a Viking fleet sailed toward Paris ready to sack the capital. But the new king, Charles the Bald, was ready. He met the Vikings with gold and silver. The Vikings accepted the bribe and Paris escaped unharmed for the time being.
In graves throughout Viking world, Scandinavians took treasures from France with them to the afterworld. In Birka, archaeologists found the grave a woman who appeared to be high-ranking. She was buried with items both from both Scandinavia and abroad. For instance, archaeologists excavated a Thor’s hammer amulet from around her neck, a Scandinavian-made amulet. But they also found enameled suit buckles from France. How did this lady come by these buckles? Did she obtain them through friendly trade or violent bribery?
According to legend, a king of Norway once dispatched his men to Byzantium on an urgent quest. Their mission was to return with silk from the east. In another saga, Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson describes twelfth-century Norwegian King Sigurd’s expedition to Constantinople, where the Emperor threw open the city gates and welcomed the foreign contingent to a hall covered in “precious cloths.”
Excavations across Viking Age Scandinavia have resulted in the recovery of several pieces of woven silk from the graves of men and women. Archaeologists believe many of these silks were imported from Central Asia, Byzantium, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Once back home, Viking weavers cut the silk into strips and decorated the edges of clothing with foreign fabrics. Although archaeologists have found many silk fragments in Viking graves, the number of silk artifacts recovered remains low. Other pieces of silk may have deteriorated. Alternatively, silk may have been a high-status import available only to a handful of elite Vikings. Tales from the Icelandic Sagas indicates that the prestige of exotic silk continued after the end of the Viking Age.
8. An Irish Ring Pin
The Irish listened with concern as news of the Viking’s raid on Rathlin Island on Ireland’s northeast coast began to spread. The first raid occurred in 795 CE and the Vikings continued circling Ireland for the next few decades. In the 830s, the Vikings began establishing temporary ship ports in Ireland. These ports allowed them to winter in Ireland and raid more often. Dublin became one of the Vikings’ main hubs; however, the Irish grew tired of the intruders and expelled the Scandinavians in 902 CE.
The Vikings remained persistent and returned to reconquer Dublin 15 years later. Graves across Scandinavia attest to relations between medieval Ireland and Scandinavia. A common import from the British Isles were ring pins. Ring pins came in various intricate designs and helped Vikings keep their cloaks fastened. It seems that Vikings needed to be well-dressed as they made their journey to Valhalla.
9. Inscribed Finger Rings
Sometime in the late 19th century, archaeologists opened a grave in Birka, Sweden. They found a coffin and opened it to find nobody. The skeletal remains of the grave had disintegrated, leaving only burial goods. The vanished Viking had been buried with clothing, brooches, scissors, a needle case, beads of glass, rock crystal, and carnelian, and a ring. Based on the character of the grave goods, archaeologists believe the grave held a woman. Her ring suggests she lived a life that extended beyond the shores of Birka.
The ring is made of violet amethyst glass with a silver band. Analysis of her ring revealed an inscription in Arabic. The ring reads “Allah.” So unique is the ring that no similar rings have yet been found in Scandinavia. Both the glass and the foreign inscription mark the ring as an exotic and likely expensive item in Viking Age Scandinavia. Historical records testify to trade between Scandinavia and the Middle East. With the body of the ring’s owner missing, archaeologists have also speculated that the woman in the grave could have hailed from the Middle East as well. Others wonder if Vikings experienced efforts at Islamic conversion like the Christian missions of the period.
10. Peacocks in a Viking Burial for a Chief
He died around 900 CE. No one knows his name, but he must have been a high-ranking Viking. He stood around five feet nine inches. Sometime in his forties, he met a violent death, probably in battle. His people buried him in the rear of a ship called the Gokstad in Norway. They sent him to the afterlife with a game board, game pieces made of horn, fishhooks, kitchen utensils, six beds, and a sled. They may have buried him with other jewels or high-status items too. However, looters beat archaeologists to the Gokstad and stole many important artifacts. Then the Vikings buried the Gokstad and their fallen leader under approximately five meters of dirt.
Antiquarians excavated the Gokstad in the 1880s. The looters’ damage was disappointing, but the thieves missed a lot. Excavations revealed 64 shields, dragon heads, and three smaller boats. The fallen warrior appears to have lived life on the move. But he was not alone. He had 12 horses, six dogs, two goshawks, and two peacocks. Peacocks hail from South Asia. By the time the Vikings buried the Gokstad, peacocks had been welcomed by rulers of the Caliphate, Byzantium, Rome, and the Carolingian kingdoms. The Vikings were in contact with many of these kingdoms and they could have learned of or obtained peacocks from any of these places. Nevertheless, for the majority of medieval Norway, the peacock would have been a unique, exotic pet. The owner of the Gokstad peacock likely flaunted it as a symbol of how far he had gone, both literally and figuratively.