Everything We've Learned About Vikings Since You Were In School

Fierce warriors, the Vikings relentlessly raided Britain in the ninth and 10th centuries. But recent Viking archaeological finds reveal another side to the warrior culture and new interesting facts about their way of life. They created trading networks, connecting them to North America and the Islamic world. They excelled with metalwork and cast decorative pins. And in their winter camps, the Vikings loved to play games. The discovery of board game pieces at a Viking winter camp in England aligns with what we know about Viking parties: They didn't just wait for warmer weather to celebrate.

The findings also prove that when the Viking berserkers went to war, they did so alongside shield maidens. DNA evidence suggests Viking women were warriors and leaders just like Viking men. Researchers even found Viking remains in North America using high-tech satellite imagery. The same method may uncover new discoveries about the Vikings in the future.

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  • A Major Travel Route In Norway Was Likely Abandoned Due To The Black Plague
    Photo: J.H. Barrett/Glacier Archaeology Program / Cambridge University Press / CC BY 4.0

    A Major Travel Route In Norway Was Likely Abandoned Due To The Black Plague

    Melting ice in Norway's Jotunheim mountains has revealed a trove of ancient Viking artifacts, including horseshoes, sleds, skis, garments, and other items. According to a study in the journal Antiquity, the mountain pass was a well-trafficked trade route from 300-1500 AD, with a peak in activity around 1000 AD, a time of increasing trade and urbanization known as the Viking Age.

    Climate change has caused the ice to recede in the region, which is why these artifacts have suddenly become accessible. Vice reports that the area, located in Lendbreen, Norway, has been attracting researchers since 2011 when a wool tunic from the 3rd or 4th century was discovered there. Some 800 artifacts have been discovered since, as well as bones, antlers, cairns, and a stone shelter. 

    The Glacier Archaeology Program notes that, of the five mountain passes located in this region of Norway, “only Lendbreen has such a shelter and a large number of cairns,” making it "clearly a route of special significance.” Lendbreen's artifacts are also particularly well preserved, due to the ice patch that once surrounded the pass.

    Based on the age of the finds thus far, use of the Lendbreen pass ended around the same time that the Black Death was ravaging Europe. 

  • Viking Women Likely Fought As Warriors
    Photo: Morris Meredith Williams / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Viking Women Likely Fought As Warriors

    While Viking legends tell stories of female warriors, scholars have debated whether Viking women really did fight or if the tales were simply fiction. But in 2017, a DNA test on a Viking warrior's grave proved Viking women weren't just warriors, they were leaders.

    The 10th-century grave contained the skeleton of a woman buried with a sword, an ax, a spear, and two shields, indicating she fought with her people. Along with the weapons, the grave contained a gaming board, hinting at the woman's tactical and strategic knowledge.

    According to Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, who led the study to DNA test the remains, "What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real-life military leader, that happens to be a woman."

  • Vikings Probably Settled In Multiple North American Locations
    Photo: Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vikings Probably Settled In Multiple North American Locations

    The Vikings reached the New World centuries before Christopher Columbus. While they didn't arrive in America wearing horned helmets, new research sheds light on their presence in the territory. Researchers previously knew of one likely Viking settlement in North America, L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, Canada. But in the 2010s, archaeologist Sarah Parcak turned her attention from lost Egyptian cities and tombs to the grassy plains of southern Newfoundland.

    Using satellite imagery, Parcak identified a potentially important Viking settlement at Point Rosee. When archaeologists visited the site in 2015, they uncovered an iron hearth and a turf wall - indications that Vikings may have created the settlement. The discovery has the potential to change everything we know about Viking voyages to North America.

  • Vikings Did Their Own Metal Crafting 
    Photo: The National Museum of Denmark / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

    Vikings Did Their Own Metal Crafting 

    In the 19th century, a Swedish farmer uncovered a Viking carving that depicted a dragon. Scholars believed the small carving was a mold for casting metal objects. With no other evidence of similar metal castings, the object remained a mystery - until 2015, when a team of archaeologists uncovered a metal dragon that appeared identical to the mold.

    The object was found in Birka, a rich source for Viking artifacts in Sweden. Sven Kalmring, the senior researcher on the study, said: "Of course, as an archaeologist excavating in Birka, one is aware that you definitely will make thousands of fine finds. This find, however, once identified, blew our minds."

    The discovery proved Vikings created their own molds and pins rather than simply importing the expensive, technically complicated luxury items.

  • A Viking Ring Fort Revealed A Bloody History
    Photo: Danskebjerge / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    A Viking Ring Fort Revealed A Bloody History

    Archaeologists knew Vikings built ring forts after finding four in Denmark in the 1930s. But for decades, researchers uncovered no new ring fortresses - until they made a discovery in the 2010s using laser-based surveillance. With the new technology, the fortress known as Borgring, located on the Danish island of Zealand, came to light.

    Borgring stood nearly 500 feet across, with four gates and roads paved with wood. Researchers proved the structure was built around the 970s or 980s CE by counting the tree rings on its wooden ramparts.

    The fortress appeared to have suffered an attack and burning. In addition, a carpenter left a toolbox during the attack, giving archaeologists a treasure trove of Viking tools: a plane, a nail iron, awls, and chisels.

  • Danish And Swedish Vikings Battled A Thousand Years Ago
    Photo: Anagoria / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Danish And Swedish Vikings Battled A Thousand Years Ago

    When archaeologist Søren Michael Sindbæk uncovered a Viking ring fort in 2014, he didn't realize how many surprises the fort held. The structure appeared to have sustained a heavy attack that burned two of its four gates. While researchers can't conclusively say who attacked the fort, Sindbæk believes the evidence points to the enemies of Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, the king who helped unite Scandinavia and convert Denmark to Christianity.

    Sindbæk argues the fort's position near the Baltic Sea indicates the most likely attackers were Swedish Vikings raiding Denmark. History records a major battle between the two Viking peoples around the same time.