Scandinavian Vikings are renowned for their long journeys and great exploits across the world, with many legends and narratives detailing the variety of identities they assumed in foreign parts: warriors, traders, settlers and mercenaries, artisans, tax collectors, and – not least – skilled shipwrights and navigators. The Vikings’ voyages westwards, to Normandy and the British Isles, are well-documented, but most of these tales are about those who travelled out and returned home again. We have long had a much less clear picture of their journeys to the east, where many remained, creating new settlements and forging new empires – despite the fact that they left behind a far more extensive array of Scandinavian artefacts there than they did on their western expeditions. Now, though, new research in recent years has shed more light on these distant travels, which are the subject of the Moesgaard’s latest special exhibition.
Looking to the east
These expeditions really took off between the 9th and mid-11th centuries AD, with many Scandinavians setting out on long journeys along extensive river networks, through eastern European forests and the vast steppes to the south, driven by curiosity and desire for adventure, or by a thirst for wealth, power, and glory. As in the west, the Vikings became a powerful force, establishing new realms and playing a central role in local power contests. They adopted language, religion, and culture from the peoples they encountered along the way, and soon they became an integral part of the foreign world that on first sight seemed so alien to them. A new people, Rus, emerged as a dominant force in the east.
The decision to set forth into these strange new worlds was driven, at least in part, by Scandinavia’s geography. While Norway looked west to the British Isles and the North Atlantic, and Denmark looked south to the Holy Roman Empire, much of Sweden looked out towards eastern Europe and Russia, and the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate beyond. Objects from these regions begin to reach Scandinavia by at least the 7th century thanks to growing trade links, but by AD 800 more and more Vikings from eastern Sweden and the surrounding areas are venturing out to these lands themselves. This is not to say, though, that Scandinavians from other regions were not also making these journeys, many artefacts with strong Danish influences are also found across the east. Over the next century, these travellers established fortified trade centres, long-distance cultural networks, and eventually a new empire – the Rus realm.
For many, the journey began at the Swedish trading post of Birka, near modern Stockholm, or Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea, 90km off the coast of mainland Sweden. These sites were important trade hubs for many of the merchant ships travelling to and from the lands to the east of Scandinavia, and further afield. The cosmopolitan nature of these sites is reflected in their archaeological records. At Birka, hundreds of warrior merchants with links to the Rus realm were buried with accessories, clothing, and weapons that reflect their connections to the steppe-nomad, Byzantine, and Arab worlds, while DNA analysis of skeletons from Gotland has revealed that the inhabitants of this ‘island of merchants’ were significantly more multicultural than the rest of Scandinavia at the time.
From these ports there was easy access to the Baltic, where Scandinavian interest also intensified during the 9th century. At towns near the Bay of Riga in Latvia, bustling trade centres grew up and goods flowed in and out from regions near and far. At the burial ground of Salaspils Laukskola, two wealthy women were buried with lavish grave goods from all across the known world. As well as being home to thriving trade hubs, the Baltic is a starting point where it is possible to enter the crucial river networks of eastern Europe. The West Dvina River, in present-day Latvia and Belarus, is an important gateway, with connections to the Dnieper and other rivers running through the Rus realm and down to the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and Constantinople and Baghdad beyond.
Along these routes were several important stopping points, the first of which, for many Vikings heading east, was Staraya Ladoga. Located on the shore of Lake Ladoga, in modern north-west Russia, this settlement developed into a multicultural trading hub after the arrival of large numbers of Scandinavians in the 860s. At Staraya Ladoga, travellers swapped the large longboats that had carried them across the Baltic Sea for smaller vessels suitable for navigating the tight and often treacherous waterways of eastern Europe. At many points along the way, it was necessary to carry both boats and cargo over land to avoid stretches of narrow, shallow water or rapids with fearsome names such as Aeifor, ‘the Unnavigable’. Most undertook these journeys from early spring to late autumn, while the rivers were full and free of frost, but low water levels in autumn made navigation tricky, and many travellers probably chose to remain at Staraya Ladoga until the arrival of winter made travel by sled possible instead.
So what could motivate so many to make these long and difficult journeys? They certainly provided plenty of adventure, and there were ample opportunities to obtain power and status along the way, but perhaps most persuasive was the promise of wealth – above all, silver.
Silver and slaves
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Islamic world underwent a period of rapid economic growth, at the heart of which was a significant increase in silver production at the Samanid mines in central Asia and Afghanistan. This silver was very uncommon in Early Viking Age Scandinavia, but trade brought a few Arab silver coins north, which sparked an insatiable hunger for this precious metal in Scandinavia. This really set their adventures to the east in motion, as they ventured out in search of riches, glory, and the fresh opportunities afforded by this new form of wealth.
Throughout northern and eastern Europe silver gained huge significance, with hack silver exchanged by weight serving as an international currency for trade across north-eastern Europe from at least the mid-9th century until well into the 11th century. Arab silver turns up throughout the Rus, Baltic, and Scandinavian world, along rivers and in the settlements and trading posts on the way. The vast number of silver hoards buried along the Volga River – which runs through Russia down to the Caspian Sea – reflects just how much of this metal was flowing from the Caliphate towards Scandinavia by the 10th century; Gotland alone has produced 700 buried hoards of silver, with a total weight of 1,000kg. And silver was not just hoarded and buried: writing in 922, Arab diplomat ibn Fadlan reports that for every 10,000 dirhams a Viking man accumulates, he has a silver neck ring produced that he gives to his wife to wear; it becomes a visual symbol of the wealth and prestige of those who obtain it.
Although silver was at the heart of the economic systems that developed in this period, many other forms of trade were also taking place, with merchandise ranging from textiles and furs to iron, beeswax, pitch/tar, and slaves. The increasing wealth of the Caliphate and other regions naturally led to an increase in demand for labour. To meet this demand, merchants travelling through northern and eastern Europe captured huge numbers of people from the local populations and transported them to the slave markets of the Arab world, North Africa and Spain, Scandinavia, and the Baltic. The vast quantity of silver in the archaeological record is a direct testament to the extent of the lucrative slave trafficking taking place, with thousands being sold every year. Indeed, so many Slavic people were captured during the Viking Age that their name gave rise to the term we still use today to describe those who have lost their freedom, slaves.
Eventually, by the late 10th century, the Samanid silver mines started to become exhausted, and the supply of silver coming from the Islamic world began to dry up. The Arab coins reaching Europe were of a very debased quality, and silver from mines in Harz, Germany, started to dominate Viking hoards instead. Around this time, the slave markets also moved westwards, concentrating not around the Volga, but instead in the vicinity of Prague. ‘Silver fever’ was still present in the Baltic and Scandinavia, but the Islamic world was no longer at its heart. However, Scandinavian contact with the east continued, especially in the Rus realm where they had built up centres of power and valuable connections with the Byzantine Empire.
The Rus realm
Throughout the 9th century, the Vikings travelling across eastern Europe began to establish centres of power through the foundation of trading posts – many of which became fortified trading stations, and then permanent settlements over time – as well as the formation of trade alliances, and the subjugation and enslavement of many of the local Slavic people. The term ‘Rus’ came to refer to the population of these regions, which was made up of not just Vikings, but rather an amalgamation of Scandinavians, steppe-nomads, and Slavic peoples, whose traditions and cultures fused together over time.
In 862, however, Scandinavian influence over the Rus realm became more formal, with the establishment of a dynasty of princes who ruled the region for centuries to come. According to the 12th-century source, Nestor’s Chronicle, three Scandinavian brothers, Rurik, Sineus, and Truvar, were summoned by a tribal alliance east of the Gulf of Finland to come and rule over the region and restore peace. The three brothers settled there and established administration over a vast area, building forts and collecting protection money from the local people. Prince Rurik established his power centre first at Staraya Ladoga and then at Rurikovo Gorodische, further south, where the Volkhov River meets Lake Ilmen. By 864, he was absolute ruler of the Rus and moved his administration to the new town of Novgorod, just a few miles north of Rurikovo Gorodische, where he forged alliances with local families and expanded the area under his authority. Rurik died in 879, but the Rurik dynasty retained control of the region for many generations.
After Rurik’s death, power passed to his brother-in-law, Oleg (Helge), who moved the seat of power to Kyiv, which became a crucial centre. One of the key advantages of Kyiv’s location was its proximity to the city of Constantinople (Istanbul), known to the Scandinavians as Miklagård, ‘the Great City’. With half-a-million inhabitants, flourishing markets, and access to trade routes across the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, this affluent city was a source of considerable interest.
Throughout the 10th century, several Kyiv princes attempted to attack Constantinople, with varying degrees of success, but the treaties negotiated in the aftermath of these episodes offer an insight into the complex relationship between the Rus and the Byzantine Empire: the Rus were granted, among other things, their own slave market in the city, and permission to serve as the emperor’s elite imperial bodyguard, the Varangian Guard; however, there were also restrictions on the number of Rus merchants allowed inside the city and the goods they were able to purchase, so clearly they were still viewed as a potential danger. However, over time, relations between the two states began to settle down. Fortified hubs like Novgorod and Kyiv developed into permanent urban residences, and the Rus began to adopt several aspects of Byzantine culture, including its religion. Prince Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity and marriage to Byzantine Emperor Basil II’s sister, Princess Anna, in 988, signified a substantial change in Rus religion and culture: Volodymyr founded his own church, established an ecclesiastical network, and, unlike his predecessors, produced coins that resembled those of his Byzantine contemporaries.
Under Volodymyr, the Rus realm developed into a state with clearly centralised power and common laws, thereby transitioning away from a warrior society into one that was more cosmopolitan and urbane. However, it remained a melting pot of cultures and maintained strong links to Scandinavia, with reciprocal marriages between the Kyiv princes and the Danish royal family continuing for generations. The Rus realm and its connections to the Byzantine Empire also continued to attract many Scandinavians looking for adventure, or refuge. Harald Hardrada made his name as a great warrior through his exploits in Constantinople, where he served as a member of the Varangian Guard in the 1030s, returning to Norway with a reputation that helped him gain the throne, before he turned his attention across the sea to England. His death in 1066 is often regarded as the end of the Viking Age, and the great Viking expansions of the previous centuries did come to a close after this time, but there were still many opportunities for adventurous Scandinavians to travel to the Byzantine Empire and beyond, and in the Rus realm a unique, new culture had been established.
Rus – Vikings in the East tells the captivating tale of the Vikings’ journeys to the east and the new cultural realm they gave rise to, drawing on a wealth of new information that has been revealed over the last few decades. The result is a fascinating, and visually impressive, insight into a long-neglected aspect of Viking history.
DETAILS Rus – Vikings in the East Address: Moesgaard Museum, Moesgård Allé 15, 8270 Højbjerg, Denmark Open: until 11 September 2022 Website: www.moesgaardmuseum.dk/en/exhibitions/rus-vikings-in-the-east/