Medieval Viking or Byzantine Iron Boarding Hook

Found with metal detector in the Balkans. A boarding hook (or grappling hook) is a composite hook attached to a rope, designed to be thrown or projected a distance, where its hooks will engage with the target. Grappling hooks have been used in naval warfare to catch the rigging of an enemy ship so that it could be drawn in and boarded.

Why not blacks at Birka?

It’s black history month, so I thought I’d take a pause from my ordinary writing and explore the possibility of black people and people of colour visiting viking centers like Birka and Old Uppsala. This first post deals with the simple questions “why” and “why not”, quite a tricky subject in academic research.

There’s an interesting project going on at Uppsala University right now. Textile archaeologist Annika Larsson and Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics, are ananlyzing textile and human fragments excavated at Valsgärde. These are not new finds; the project came about when the university’s collection of archaeological finds was moved to the Evolutionary Biology Centre - a good picture of how old collections still can give us new answers, and how a certain amount of chance is involved in all research.

If you’re familiar with the Valsgärde finds you may be slightly puzzled over me mentioning human bones. Most books written about the magnificent boat graves excavated says that no human remains were found. However, much to the scientists’ surprise there were bone fragments and teeth in the collection. Realising the big opportunity they started up the project to do a DNA analysis to see if all the buried humans are from the area around Valsgärde. Considering that the textile fragments are silk from China and Persia there’s a real chance that at least one person buried at the place is from the Orient.

10thC textile fragment from Valsgärde, Museum Gustavianum

Now it’s time to back time a bit; the Valsgärde site was excavated between 1928 and 1952 - haven’t anyone asked themselves if there are people from outside Sweden buried there earlier? No, not on a large scale at least. The general assumption has been that the vikings traveled to faraway places, bought magnificent things and returned with them, not that traders from faraway places went to viking centers like Birka, Old Uppsala and Valsgärde to sell their stuff themselves. This may seem strange, trade normally is a two-way street, but there are a number of reasons this question have slipped the archaeologists’ and historians’ mind. Indeed, there are always more than one reason behind something that happens, which is why we shouldn’t clutch to one as the only explanation.

Viking Plym, a slightly apologetic “reconstruction” of a viking ship from 1912

How much do racism play into this? Hard to say, it do, but on many levels. Racism looks different in Europe than compared to, for example, the USA, and especially when dealing with vikings anyone working with the subject has to take the different shades of xenophobia and prejudices into account. From the bombastic nineteenth century dreams of Great Sweden to the WWII era nazi appropriation and present day nazi appropriation of viking symbolism there have been a lot of people interested in bending archaeological and historical finds to their own agenda. This also means there’s been a certain amount of recoiling, where scholars and scientists have downplayed aspects of findings to not play into the hands of these dark forces. For at least thirty years after WWII there was a strong trend in emphasising the rural life of Viking Age people and the peaceful trade they did, for example. As a scholar and scientist in this field you’re always walking an extremely thin line between your own internalized racism and the urge to not play into the hands of dark forces.

The foremost reason, I think, is that swedes nowadays mentally percieve Sweden as a small country with little influence. This can be hard to shake, especially when many of the viking centers looks like this today:

Boondocks (Old Uppsala, guided tour of the excavations 2015)

Even more boondockish (Birka, if I remember correctly this is the place for the large garrison house)

So much boondocks it hurts (Vendel, view from the medieval church. The boat graves were excavated in the slope in the picture, and as you can see people are still being buried here.)

Whereas these are all beautiful places where I’d give my left arm to live, none of them are even close to places like Athens and Istanbul - viking age international metropoli still going strong. Even trained archaeologists with years in the field have a hard time imagining these swedish viking centers as being something else than simple rural areas. There’s often a slight surprise when finds gives another picture. As for these areas the first assumption seems to have been “Why would a viking age traveller chose Valsgärde when she/he could go to Byzantium?”

Graves from richer people in Old Uppsala and Valsgärde almost always contain fragments of silk, most often from Sogdia (Soghdiana) east of the Caspian sea. Traveling by boat to this area from Sweden is quite impressive, the vikings were more than half-way to China when they arrived. Most of the journey can be covered using easily accessible water ways in Finland and Russia, so I’m not surprised there’s been a trade route between Sogdia and Old Uppsala. It’s more surprising how hard it is to shake the image that this, and other trade routes, were one way streets. The sogdians obviously had a very good market for their silks in the Uppland area, wouldn’t they be crappy merchants if they didn’t send a representative there?

Not a find from Valsgärde, but still Viking Age cloth from Soghdiana

Textile Fragment with Pheasant in Pearl Roundels LACMA M.2007.32.2 (1 of 2) “, photo Ashley Van Haeften, Public Domain Mark 1.0

Ms. Larsson and ms Allen’s project can give us the hard evidence we need for people travelling to Valsgärde (not only from). As you may have guessed it’s hard evidence and few textual sources that is the problem in proving that others than scandinavians lived at viking centers. We do know that viking centers like Birka were international and that people from many countries were living there. So the project at Uppsala University is probably a sign that the question asked in research is moving from “why  people of colour at viking centers?” to “why not people of colour at viking centers?”. It’s a healthy shift in research, after all it’s a shorter distance to travel between Birka and Alexandria in Egypt than between Valsgärde and Sogdia.

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Note my tip jar in the margin, do chip in some cents if you like what I’m writing!

Sources

Surprising finds of Viking apparel”, New Horizons, Uppsala University’s magazine about research and education
Vendel exhibition at Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala
Vikingar

Unless otherwise stated; pictures by me from Birka 2015, Old Uppsala excavations 2015, and Vendel parish 2016

Blog post dedicated to my father in law: Sigvard Norén 1923 - 2016 RIP

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If you’re waiting for an update on Darcy’s adventures at Viking Age Old Uppsala I have some slightly bad news for you; there will be a last update, then I’m taking the project off the blog. The reason I’ll be leaving you hanging mid-story for a while, is that the story with its annotations have become too bulky for a blog (first time it happens to me). It would be more easy to read in book form with side and foot notes, so I hope to release it that way in the future. I aplogise for keeping you hanging!