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By Susanne Wedlich
Insight LMU, Issue 1 (2011)
Abstract: Raging marauders or heroic warriors? What were the Vikings really like? How did they master a demanding environment? How did they form trading networks and what did they use as trade goods? Answers to these questions may be found at Haithabu, now a candidate for inclusion in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The anthropologist Gisela Grupe has been using chemical methods to tease clues to Viking lifestyles from skeletal remains and organic materials found at Haithabu. Her results challenge some cherished interpretations.
Introduction: The longships appeared off the small island of Lindisfarne as if they had materialized from nowhere. Armed men waded ashore, and proceeded to destroy much of the rich monastery of St. Cuthbert. They put its inhabitants to the sword and burned its buildings. They then made off with their spoils, vanishing as swiftly as they had arrived. The monastery founded at this spot on the Northeast coast of England was left in ruins. The chronicles date the devastating event to June 8, 793. On that day, the Vikings made their entrance on the stage of history, and shocked the Christian world of Western Europe.
The savage raid on the monks of Lindisfarne was not to be the last of its kind. For the following three centuries − the Viking Age − the inhabitants of the coastal regions of Europe lived in the knowledge that nothing was safe from the violent seamen, bent on robbery, arson and murder. Even large fortified cities, like London, Cologne, Paris, Cadiz and Pisa, were attacked. But the pirates generally preferred to raid smaller settlements and monasteries, where they could expect to encounter little opposition and find rich pickings.
The term “Vikings” is generally applied to the early Scandinavians as a whole. In the Middle Ages, however, it referred only to the Northmen who roamed the seas in their fast and highly manoeuvrable longships, on the lookout for rewarding opportunities (the Norse word refers to an overseas expedition). Their kinsmen at home, and the rest of the population of Scandinavia, did not share their way of life, nor were they all members of a single polity. But they all spoke the same language, used the runic script and worshipped Odin, Thor and the other Nordic gods.