River Kings: a new history of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads

The sleepy village of Repton in south Derbyshire seems like an unlikely starting point for a voyage halfway around the world. But it is here that Cat Jarman begins her brilliant new history of the Vikings.

In 873, Repton was the site of a massacre by the Great Viking Army. After attacking the monastery there, the marauding Scandinavians then enslaved many luckless locals and forced them to build a fort by the nearby River Trent. This the Vikings used to beach the longboats that had taken them deep into England. The fort would be where they planned their future campaigns.

But Repton also became the site of a vast grave. The victims of the Vikings were dumped en masse, while nearby four children were laid to rest after some kind of grisly sacrificial ceremony. Their own dead were buried with more respect, along with brooches, necklaces, and exotic carnelian beads.

It was the bead that caught Jarman’s attention. Many years after the site at Repton was discovered in 1982, she came across it as part of her PhD research. How had such an artefact, most likely made in India or the Middle East, come to be buried instead in the middle of England?

The story unfolds a bit like an adventure novel. Jarman moves first to Torksey, the site of another Viking camp further up the Trent, and then out to the coast and across the water to Scandinavia. From there, her investigations take her east, beyond the Baltic and down a network of rivers such as the Dnieper and Volga, deep into the heart of Eurasia.

For anyone who once thought the Vikings only went west, it is fascinating to learn how far they also travelled in the other direction, and just how good they were at doing so. These toughened warriors, men and women alike, developed excellent knowledge of foreign lands and waterways, and were immensely skilled at constructing forts – like that at Repton – all across the steppe, the uncovered remains of which made Jarman’s journey possible.

They ultimately reached as far as the gates of Byzantium and Baghdad, although the author herself finishes her journey in the Indian state of Gujarat, where she meets the last remaining maker of the carnelian beads.

The bead is only one of several artefacts she touches on along the way. There is also the Buddha statuette discovered on the island of Helgö in Stockholm. For the Vikings, she explains, such an object would have represented status and luxury even if they had no understanding of its meaning.

This is what is really good about River Kings. Not just a travelogue, it also discusses ideas of blending cultures and the consequences of globalisation. Indeed, as Jarman argues, the Vikings were among the first globalisers, tapping into the emerging global arteries of commerce known as the Silk Roads, as well as transporting themselves a significant way along them.

There were downsides to this, too. Recent evidence from a mass grave in Oxford suggests the Vikings were responsible for accelerating the smallpox pandemic of that era, which has an obvious resonance with today. Jarman touches on this only briefly; it would have been wonderful to hear a lot more.

But otherwise, her style is immensely readable and the book had me hooked from the start. Jarman is particularly good at explaining all the complex technology that a bioarchaeologist such as herself would use on a daily basis. Relatively recent developments with isotope analysis, LiDAR, and GPR have made many of the findings she discusses possible.

We can hope that future developments in tech will deliver more information about the Vikings, not thugs at all but, as this book demonstrates, ruthless and brilliant globetrotters with a pleasing taste for the finer things in life.

Review by Calum Henderson.
River Kings: a new history of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, Cat Jarman, William Collins, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-0008353970.