It all began with a bead: a small piece of carnelian recovered during the excavation of a Viking Great Army mass grave at Repton in 1982. Thirty-five years later, it fascinated Cat Jarman, who was examining artefact archives for the site as part of her PhD research. The carnelian would have originally come from India or the Middle East and, as Jarman traces its probable journey in River Kings: a new history of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, the story of Viking incursions into Derbyshire suddenly opens up to encompass trade routes snaking across Europe and Asia.
What follows is an immensely enjoyable insight into the Viking Age with a refreshingly different perspective. Jarman’s soaring narrative sweeps across the steppes of Russia, zooms in on runic graffiti in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, and carries us all the way to Gujarat in India, with intriguing stops along the way to visit Scandinavian trade towns, the Salme ship burial in Estonia, and more. The resulting book is fast-paced and fascinating, with a joyously conversational tone that makes you feel like you are travelling with an immensely knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.
During this tour, Jarman delves into evidence for early medieval seafaring and shipbuilding capabilities; Viking involvement in the slave trade and how its legacy can still be seen in Icelandic DNA; the role of women and how artefacts can be misleading; migration; and mythology. She also gives wonderfully clear descriptions of how various investigative techniques work (as well as what they can’t tell us).
Fascinating Eastern artefacts are held before us, from a small bronze Buddha statuette excavated on Helgö, a lake island near Stockholm, to a finger ring with an Arabic inscription, which was found in the grave of a woman buried at Birka. The written sources are no less arresting, as we explore Icelandic sagas and Islamic accounts that refer evocatively to the Vikings as al-Madjus – fire worshippers.
Illustrated with colour photographs as well as Richard Osgood’s beautiful drawings, this absorbing book is an epic journey in itself, covering a remarkable amount of ground in just over 300 pages. It is undoubtedly a trip you will want to take again.
River Kings: a new history of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, Cat Jarman, William Collins, £25. ISBN 978-0008353070.
Review by CH.