Vikings reaching the Americas started as a legend, which was since proven with the discovery of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Since there have been several more settlements found… which naturally stokes the imagination as to just how far and wide the North American continent the Vikings roamed. In this eagerness a number of hoaxes have also made the rounds – the “white Indians” and runestone of the northeast, the runestone in Texas and supposed discovery of a Viking long ship in the Mississippi River. Lately, there has also been a concerted effort by some to re-interpret the saga texts – which has led to an interesting although unproven theory that the Viking sailed the Great Lakes!
So the question arises… what would likely have happened if Vikings really had stayed longer in Vinland, and had more interaction with the Native Americans? Actually, there’s some good guidance to be had. Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer winning 1998 book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, starts by asking the simple question – why was it that it was the Europeans that landed in the Americas, and not the Native Americans who arrived on European shores? And yet interestingly, it literally “misses the (Viking) boat”… in that the otherwise truly superb book asks the question and explores it based on Christopher Columbus and not Leif Erikson!
“Guns, Germs and Steel” represents weapons, diseases and knowledge advances… and Diamond expertly shows how these three central factors have shaped much of human history. How could these have been affected by prolonged contact?
Tomahawks, spears and bows/arrows – The Native American tomahawk has always struck me as having many similarities with Viking Age axes (not the Dane axe, but the smaller battle axes). But no pre-1492 iron headed have ever been found. Nor iron tipped spears or arrowheads. And the pre-1492 Native American bows were not as advanced as Viking. With prolonged contacted, it would seem likely that the Native Americans upgraded to Viking weapons either by trade, war booty or learning the fabrication skills (just as after 1492, where iron tomahawks and arrow heads appear, and later guns were adopted).
Diseases and genes – One of the great travesties of the 1492 European arrival, was the death by smallpox and other diseases of millions of Native Americans in both North and South America. It actually killed more than armed conflicts. If there had been more contact with Viking’s arriving in the eleventh century, then it seems likely that this would have caused similar epidemics. Interestingly the Native American Mississippian Culture does decline in the centuries between the Vikings and Columbus – however, it is thought to have been from rivalries and famine… and not a disease epidemic. Likewise, it would be expected that some inter-marriage would take place – and with the modern advances in genetics making key discoveries about English and Normandy histories based on DNA, then it is remarkable that there none with the Native Americans (the “white Indian” myth nonewithstanding!).
Iron-working, runes and boat building – Native Americans were not proficient in iron fabrication pre-1492, while Vikings were. Vikings had a rune symbols system, which was more advanced than Native American pictogram-based symbols. And notoriously the Vikings were master boat builders. If there had been prolonged contact, it seems likely that Native Americans would have adopted some or all of these knowledge advances.
It would truly be exciting to discover an iron head to an axe or tomahawk, which was fabricated before 1492. Or some iron arrowheads. Or that the demise of the Native American Mississippi Culture was linked to an epidemic caused by a European disease. Or actually finding the remains of a long ship in the Americas. Or finding an item truly etched with Norse runes.
So, while every Viking heart hopes for new evidence of more Vinland activity, then the great paradox is that if the Vikings would have had more contact with Native Americans – then it could plausibly have been Native Americans arriving in Europe on their own long ships! Or failing that, then that the Native Americans would have been better armed and have built up immunity to European disease by 1492 – in which case the history of the Americas may have evolved very differently than it did!!
TV shows like History’s “Vikings” and BBC’s “The Last Kingdom” attempt to find the balance between realistically showing the brutal violence of the Viking Age, but at the same time not have it be gratuitous maiming. And the producers should be commended for this – the shows are after all primarily intended as main stream entertainment.
However, there is also a real risk of romanticizing what was undeniably a very harsh and brutal life in the Viking Age. It is worth remembering that the life expectancy / average age is thought to have been less than 30 years old at the time. Natural causes like disease and illnesses could not be treated effectively. But death from violence was also significantly higher than it is in our modern age.
Therefore, came across a couple of demonstration videos – showing the awesome destructive power of Viking weapons. A potent reminder that it’s one thing to watch a TV show or read about how lethal the Viking axe and sword were… it’s another to have been at the receiving end back in the Viking Age!
Press release update from January 5th, regarding the December 29th flooding of the Yorvik Viking Center, unfortunately confirms the fears of major damage to the exhibit. Here’s link to news report from December 29th:
Yorvik Viking Centre remains closed until further notice – as the repairs are being made.
This sad event hurts deep in the heart of all Vikings!
When the Norse of the Viking Age are shown, then these Vikings typically wield sword, axes, spears and shields. Images of Vikings holding bows are few and far between – and why is that? Archery gives some clear advantages in combat, the bow and arrow had been around for centuries and we know that the Norse used them.
And yet, there are stories of bows and master archers during the Viking Age. One of this comes from Saxo Grammaticus relating the story of how Palnatoke (the jarl of the Danish island of Funen, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth) shots an apple off the top of his son’s head. This is actually the earliest known European telling of this setup, and precedes the well-known incident where William Tell does the same. Incidentally, some historians have pointed to the possibility that the name Palnatoke may have meant “Toki the Archer” in Old Norse.
Furthermore, the bow seemingly has played a key role in the deaths of notable Viking Age leaders reportedly killed by an arrow (list not exhaustive):
Knud Dana-Ast – Little is known about this Danish jarl and supposedly oldest son of King Gorm the Old. One version of his death holds that he was killed in a battle against his younger brother, Harald Bluetooth. However, another version tells of Knud and Harald jointly leading a raid, and that a cowards arrow is shot into their camp where it hits and kills Knud.
King Haakon the Good – Mortally wounded by an arrow at the Battle of Fitjar in c961, as told in the Hakonamal skaldic poem.
King Harald Bluetooth – Mortally wounded by arrow shot in the buttocks during revolt which may have been led by Harald’s own son, Sweyn Forkbeard. The story goes that it may have been his life long arch-rival (and foster-father of Sweyn), Palnatoke who fired the arrow.
King Harald Hardrada – Mortally wounded by arrow shot into his neck at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. By some accounts, the arrow was shot by Harold Godwinson.
King Harold Godwinson – The earliest report of Godwinson’s death does not mention him being killed by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Some years later however the tradition starts of him being killed by an arrow in the eye – as also shown on the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
There are numerous accounts of archery being an integral part of Viking Age skirmishes or battles at sea. For instance, several Nordic sagas describe the Battle of Svolder c999 in which there is engagement with bow and arrow as part of the sea battle. Archaeological finds also seem to indicate that there were special hollow tip arrows to contain embers, which could be fired at opposing ships in an attempt to get the decks or sails to catch fire.
It seems certain that the Viking Age Norse had bows and were proficient in using them. Perhaps the key to why the bow and arrow tend to have little prominence in stories and depictions of the Viking Age is to be found in the difference in tactics between Viking raiding, and Viking Age land and sea battles. As a final thought, it is worth noting that only a century after Hastings, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart comes the story of probably the most legendary of archers, Robin Hood.
Roskilde Museum has announced that an amateur metal detector archaeologist back in August made a discovery of almost 400 Viking Age artifacts in a field near the town of Karleby in Denmark. The artifacts include coins, silver cups, a 25cm long cloth pin, a silver arm band, beads of glass and amber, and bronze and silver plated trinkets.
Photo from Roskilde Museum
The items are estimated to be from the second half of the 10th century. More research will be done to attempt to determine the context of the collection of artifacts – whether it is likely a hoard hidden for safe keeping or perhaps grave goods?
The artifacts will be on display at Roskilde Museum (close to Roskilde Viking Ship Museum) in December. It will then be transferred for further investigated at the National Museum in Copenhagen.