Gotland during the Viking Age

It’s common wisdom that Gotland went it’s own way during the Viking Age—but that’s certainly not because Gotlanders weren’t connected. On the contrary, Gotlanders had a habit of collecting things that showed just how connected they were. From the thin soils of this rocky isle, archaeologists have uncovered more than 168,000 coins from the Viking Age, which is all the more remarkable since no one in Scandinavia was making coins at this time. Many of the Gotland coins still bear the marks showing when and where they were made, indicating that this idiosyncratic island was tied to trade routes spanning North Africa, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Stavars skatt, a Viking Age hoard from Hemse in Gotland.
Stavars Skatt. This hoard from the mid-900s from southeast Gotland consisted of almost a thousand silver dirhams and two silver bracelets. Tens of thousands of dirhams have been discovered on Gotland, and although they have often been cut into smaller pieces to be used for their silver weight rather than as minted coins, numismatists have still been able to identify where and when many of these were made. It’s more difficult, however, to know how long it took for these coins to reach Gotland, and how long they circulated before they were buried. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

But when did Gotland become a hub for this trade? And did these routes exist before the ‘silver fever’ of the late 800s? This is where glass becomes important. During the early medieval period, almost all glass was produced solely in the Near East—Egypt, the Levant, Syria, and Iran. But it was used all over, including on Gotland. If Gotland glass looked different from the rest of Scandinavia prior to the 870s, then we have a sure indicator that Gotlanders were forging eastward connections before they developed their hunger for silver. To this end, I’ve examined some 2500 beads from Gotland (and still counting!). Here’s some of my initial observations.

Necklace beads of glass and fossil from Ire Grave 133B.
Ire Grave 133B, ca. 540-660. This is a typical Vendel Period necklace. The red, orange, and green glass beads at the top of the frame were common throughout the Baltic and appear in large numbers, for example, on Bornholm. These beads were probably imported in finished form. The white beads, however, were made from local fossils and rarely circulated beyond Gotland. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

To begin with, Gotland beads looked a lot like the rest of the Baltic during the Vendel Period preceding the Viking Age. This is an important baseline, because it shows that as the Iron Age transitioned into the Viking Age, people around the Baltic were largely consumers feeding off a single market—albeit one that was dispersed and had few if any major hubs. But Gotlanders did have local pride, and they fashioned beads made from some of the fossils found readily in the limestone bedrock that makes up much of the island. They made cylinders from the stems of ancient sea lilies, and they ground medium-sized round beads from the coral reefs that had been home to the world’s first vertebrates. These beads are relatively rare in other places, at least throughout the western Baltic which I know best, reinforcing the impression that Iron-Age Gotlanders were entering long-distance markets as consumers rather than as producers of exotic goods. They abandoned the cylinder beads perhaps before 700, although other fossil beads continued in use throughout the Viking Age.

Vendel Period fossil beads.
Vendel Period Beads from Gotland, ca. 540-660. The white cylinder beads were made from fossilized sea lilies (crinoids) common in the Gotland limestone. The unworked fossils at the front still have the appearance of plant stems, but the beads have been ground and polished into the smooth white appearance that Vendel Period Gotlanders seem to have preferred. The round white beads were mostly made from tabulate coral fossils, which often turn a buttery yellow when lit with a strong light. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

In the early 700s, new trading sites began to appear across southern Scandinavia at places like Ribe and Åhus. At first, these were mere trading camps, set up seasonally, but later they became more permanent towns for craftwork and exchange. Beadworkers lived in these towns, and their products traveled north among the elite communities living in what is now Sweden. But I’ve seen very few of these beads on Gotland. This tells us not only that Gotland was peripheral to the economic expansion that was tying the Baltic closer to Western Europe during the Merovingian/Carolingian transition. It tells us also that pre-Viking Age Gotlanders didn’t depend on these networks for access to glass—they must already have had some access via non-western routes, probably still making use of the dispersed networks that had been their basis for exchange throughout much of the Vendel Period.

Glass beads from Ribe, 725-760.
Beads from the Ribe Posthuset Excavation, 725-760. These particular beads were made (and lost) at a seasonal campground for craftsworkers in western Denmark. The blue beads decorated with red, white, and sometimes yellow were made primarily in Ribe and later at Åhus in southern Sweden. They occasionally spread to elite sites northward throughout Sweden, although I’ve seen very few in the collections on Gotland. Even as western craftsmen and merchants were increasingly sailing into the Baltic, Gotlanders looking for trade must have been seeking other routes. (Sydvestjyske museer, Ribe, DK.)

The only site where these new Scandinavian-made beads appeared in appreciable numbers seems to have been at Paviken, which was a trading site established on Gotland’s west coast perhaps as early as 750. Imports from 750 to 800 were primarily restricted to the generic colors of green, white, and blue. These colors appear not only dominant among the finds at Paviken, but also as the exclusive elements of bead assemblages in other places as well. For example, an elite grave at the old cemetery of Ire on Gotland’s east coast includes melted beads of green, white, and blue, and it should probably be dated to this period. Similarly, these colors make up the entire palette of the molten beads found near the Fröjel picture stone, indicating that this otherwise undatable monument was probably set up at about same time, in the years just prior to 800.

Glass beads from Paviken, Gotland.
Beads from Paviken, Gotland, ca. 750-850. This is a typical selection of beads from the site. The blue bead at the top left is a rare example that could be classified as being Ribe-style, suggesting that although traders may have been stopping at Paviken as early as the mid-700s, their visits were probably few and brief. The segmented beads at the top right show stronger connections to the early Viking Age towns of Hedeby and Åhus, where this style seems to have been a major import during the early 800s. The beads on the bottom with criss-crossed lines have long been associated with Birka, which was also growing at this time, although they appear in other places as well. But the red-and-black checkerboard at the right has few comparisons in other western collections, indicating that Gotlanders still tied into other trade routes pointing toward the centers of glass production in the Near East. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

Beads from the trading town of Paviken show increasing similarities to the west beginning in the early 800s. Beadmaking may already have been abandoned in northern Europe at that time, but the growing trading hubs were developing more-or-less direct connections with the Near East. Previously, most beads had been made from molten glass that had been wrapped around metal mandrels. But the new beads were made from glass that had been drawn or blown into tubes, and then formed into a desired shape like small discs or multiple ‘segments’ joined by narrow waists. Distribution patterns suggest that this technique might have been practiced solely near the primary production centers around the Eastern Mediterranean. Hedeby in southern Jutland was probably a main point of entry for these beads into the Baltic networks, with Birka in central Sweden and Truso in northern Poland as regional redistribution hubs. Paviken was able to shunt off some of this trade between Hedeby and Birka, with what appears to have been an increasing degree of success for a short period after about 830. Notably, similar beads have also been found around a pair of picture stones at Buttle, suggesting that these stones may also have been raised perhaps around 850.

Mandrel and Bead from Paviken, Gotland.
Mandrel and Bead from Paviken, Gotland, ca. 750-850. Despite the abundant evidence for beadmakers at sites like Ribe and Åhus in the 700s, most Viking Age glass beads seem to have been imported in finished forms. This unique find from Paviken, however, reveals just how Viking-Age beads were made. The beadmaker would have used an iron mandrel like this one (probably with a wooden handle that has decayed and disappeared) and wrap glass beads around it. They would usually have coated the mandrel with clay, so that they could slip the bead off when it was finished. Traces of this clay often survive fused to the glass interior of the bead, although it has dissolved from the mandrel. This bead also has a single depression, which is where the beadmaker added glass of a different color to create an eye. But since these different glasses had different chemical properties, they separated as the glass cooled or aged, which is a fairly common occurrence among archaeological finds. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

At the same time, however, new styles of beads begin to appear in the Gotland collections. Among the beads from Paviken, there are a few examples in turquoise glass with few if any parallels from the ninth-century West. Paviken also has a few examples of mosaic beads—made by a special technique of stacking glass so that it has a cross-section with a desired image or pattern, then placing tiles cut from these cross-sections together and wrapping them around a mandrel, so that they make a bead—which I have seen almost nowhere else. (Western sites also have mosaic beads, but not with these particular mosaic patterns.) Presumably, this means that Gotlanders were continuing to develop their own connections east, not mediated by the traders of Birka or Hedeby. Perhaps they had been inspired by their far-traveling neighbors, or perhaps they were driven by a desire to compete, but by the mid-800s, Gotlanders were surely seeking ways to cut out the middle man in their pursuit for eastern imports.

Beads of glass and cowrie shell from Ire Grave 218A.
Ire Grave 218A, ca. 850-900. This massive necklace of 217 beads was buried with a seven year-old girl, testifying to the hopes that Viking-Age families placed in their daughters and the sorrow of their loss. Most of the artifacts from this grave date to around 900, although at least one was in a style that didn’t become common until after 950. But judging by the beads, this burial either included a few old heirlooms or in fact occurred closer to 850. A date closer to 850 would suggest that the white seashell beads were coming north in large numbers before Gotlanders established their central position in the Viking-Age silver trade. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

One of most significant symbols of their success seems to be a sudden influx of cowrie shell beads, which appear in large numbers in the decades around 900, around the same time that silver began to flood north. Numismatic studies indicate that much of this silver was mined in the Hindu Kush between present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with a large portion reminted on its way via the Jewish Khazars living north of the Caspian Sea. But these cowrie shells came from even further afield, from the shores of the Arabian Sea. Interestingly, many of these shell beads seem to have been coated with some sort of a resin, perhaps to make them shine with a sparkly gloss or maybe even to give them the false appearance of thin but resilient beads made from amber. Regardless, these beads show that Gotlanders had achieved their own direct contacts east. More importantly, cowrie shells are almost entirely absent from the Paviken collections, suggesting not only that this trading town failed and folded before the silver tide began to flow, but also that Gotland’s trade was based not on urban merchants but rather on elite enterprise.

Beads from Kopparsvik Grave 189
Kopparsvik Grave 189, ca. 900-950. Artifacts in this grave allow us to date the burial as early as 900, but based on bead styles, I’d certainly place this collection later than Ire Grave 218A pictured above. The white beads are again cowrie shells, although many of them have been coated in a resin that at least now is a dirty brown. The lumpy dark beads with eyes sometimes mixed with lines became common across the northern world during the mid-900s, and these may in fact be some of the earliest examples in Scandinavia. Their later spread across the Baltic and into the North Sea helps illustrate how Gotlanders cemented control over long-distance networks and became trend-setters along the way. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

This story is, of course, not complete. I’m exploring ways to develop more precise dating for the beads, since currently I’m relying only on beads found in contexts with other datable objects. I also need to think carefully about what, if anything, these interpretations can tell me about the Viking Age slave trade, which is the primary subject of my research. In particular, it raises questions about who controlled the slave trade, when they might have controlled it, how far they could have trafficked their captives, and in what volume. Furthermore, my research methods have caused me to examine a lot of later materials that don’t bear directly on my research questions but may nevertheless lead to better analysis through comparison. For example, the contrasting beads from the merchants of Paviken and from the elite cemeteries of Ire and Barshalder suggest networks of exchange that diverged and ultimately conflicted. In contrast, the beads from the later town of Fröjel and the elite cemetery of Kopparsvik outside Visby suggest that elite and mercantile networks converged and ultimately reunited as the Viking Age drew to an end.

Fröjel Church, Gotland.
Fröjel Parish, Gotland. After Paviken declined in the mid-800s (an observation based solely on my interpretation of the beads excavated there), a new trading town subsequently sprung up at Fröjel, apparently in the late 900s. A small elite cemetery was excavated nearby, indicating that Gotland elites were learning to live as members of more urbanized trading communities. (Fröjel Parish, Gotland, SE.)

This post has been longer than most, but I write it with thanks to the staff of Gotlands Museum, whose hard work in supporting this research has been surpassed only by their hospitality in welcoming me as a guest. The researchers at the Uppsala University Gotland Campus have also generously offered me access to collections from their recent excavations, as well as fruitful conversation. It may take several years for this research to move from dissertation to publication, so I hope that during the interim, this brief summary may serve as a useful aid as they continue to develop their collections and support other students and researchers.

Making Love in an Iron Age

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about how we feel. Whether it’s at the doctor’s office or in a relationship, physical and emotional realities can be difficult to describe. Language never quite captures reality, and clichés often take the place of sincerity. But when words fail to serve us, our actions can capture the ways that we feel through the things that we do.

The gulf between unspeakable feeling and meaningful action is ever present in the archaeological record. Behind the plexiglas and placards of museum displays are artifacts taken from cemeteries and graves. These are traces of people who gathered together for a final opportunity to express the things that words could no longer say. As a scholar who works with these artifacts, it’s often hard to know exactly what they mean—but sometimes it’s all too clear.

Iron-Age burial mound at Tibble, near Tuna i Badelunda.
Most of the cemeteries I study have been destroyed by farming or modern construction—or else they wouldn’t have been excavated. This unexcavated burial mound sits atop a ridge near Badelunda in central Sweden, giving a sense for how other cemeteries in the area may have felt during their period of use. (Badelunda Tibble, Västerås, SE.)

I was recently working with artifacts from Tuna i Badelunda, a cemetery from the late Iron Age in central Sweden (ca. 600–1100 AD). No two Iron-Age burials are alike, but at Tuna, there was a clear preference for cremations, with only some of the bones being buried, often a mix of burnt and unburnt artifacts, sometimes even ships, and then surface monuments made of large stones, often laid out to resemble the ships beneath them. These graves were not for everyone, but for a rich elite who could command large numbers of mourners drawn from the dispersed settlements of the Mälaren valley. In a few places, the graves were laid in rows, suggesting that a person’s place in the community could be just as important as their individuality.

Glass beads from Grave 11 at Tuna i Badelunda.
The beads from Grave 11 at Tuna i Badelunda. The plain beads are common styles of the late Iron Age, with the bead in the back right falling out of fashion around the year 700. The decorated bead is a bit more unique, and may have been in fashion during the early 700s. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

Grave 11 is one such burial, added to a growing row of ship settings. This must have been an impressive and demanding funeral. It began amid animal sacrifices and a large cremation pyre. The pyre burned hot enough to render most of the bones beyond recognition. Once the fire cooled, someone went through the bones and selected 100 g of fragments representing the deceased human and the accompanying animals. These were then taken to the grave, where unburnt objects were added—slag that linked the deceased to objects of iron not in the grave, a single shard standing in for the whole of a pot, and three-and-a-half beads, presumably selected from a larger jewelry assemblage. Then the mourners built a mound on top of the grave, and the person who had been placed in the fire was now gathered into a community of stone.

Glass beads from Grave 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
The beads from Grave 14 at Tuna i Badelunda. Three of these beads have been melted in fire, probably during cremation. The two fragments on the left with yellow and white lines make up one complete bead. The similar fragment with only white lines on the right has its matching fragment in nearby Grave 11. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

Grave 14 came later, wedged into the row right next to Grave 11. The funeral was similar and echoed earlier events: cremation, a careful selection of bones and artifacts, the construction of a monument. There were few artifacts, although the two ends of a belt suggest that the deceased was male. Excavators also found five glass beads, leading some archaeologists to suspect this may have been a female burial, but I think differently.

Whereas the beads in Grave 11 are a typical mix for Iron-Age women in their prime—a smallish group of simple beads with one or two unique accents—the beads in Grave 14 are something different. They all have some sort of decoration, and they include no plain beads at all. These were probably not part of a woman’s necklace. Moreover, some of the beads are burnt while others are not, reinforcing the impression that these were treated as individual objects rather than as part of a group. Most importantly, one of the unburnt fragments precisely matches the fragment laid in Grave 11.

Artifacts from Graves 11 and 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
Together at last. Artifacts from Grave 11 on the left and Grave 14 on the right. In the center are matching fragments of a single bead, found with one half in each grave. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

This bead was broken along its center, and it could not have been restrung. The edges where the bead was broken are more worn on the piece from Grave 14. Between the burial of Grave 11 and the funeral for Grave 14, this fragment must have been carried and handled. It was a public token of grief, visible when Grave 11 was buried with one half and brought to a fitting end when the other half was laid nearby in Grave 14. Indeed, while the artifacts from Grave 11 point to things left out of the burial and a sense that something was missing—slag leftover from an absent artifact of iron, half of a broken bead, and a thin selection of bones—the things included with Grave 14 point toward a desire for fulfillment—a hefty 680 g of burnt bone, the matching ends of a belt, the missing half of the bead.

Two matching bead fragments from Graves 11 and 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
Token of a broken heart? Two fragments of a single bead, buried in separate graves and placed back together again for the first time in a thousand years. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

It can be difficult to speak definitively about how people in the past experienced their lives and relationships. Indeed, it can be difficult to speak of our own experiences of love and life. But in this case, it seems the signs are clear. Even in an Age of Iron, it hurt to be separated from your other half, and love could be as fragile, as enduring, and as achingly beautiful as a broken bead of glass.

A special word of thanks is due to my own better half, who is celebrating her birthday today without me. We’re both looking forward to being together again!

Forging a New Elite for Viking-Age Funen

During the late 800s, a new elite established themselves on the island of Funen in the Danish archipelago. Perhaps they rose from the ranks of local farmers, or perhaps they migrated there from wealthier parts of Scandinavia. But whatever their origins, they saw a need to set themselves apart from previous generations. They did so in part by burying their dead in a new set of places.

Glass beads and amber beads from Viking Age Denmark.
Beads from nine graves at Kildehuse. Like other Viking-Age cemeteries found on Funen, Kildehuse produced only a small selection of beads. These mostly date to the 900s, giving the impression that Funen was a relatively quiet place for much of the 800s. (Odense Bys Museer, Odense, DK.)

Grave ACQ at Køstrup inaugurated one of these cemeteries. The attention that ACQ received indicates that she was either a powerful matriarch or that her survivors had hoped she would become one. They buried her in the height of fashion. She wore a simple linen underdress, and on top of it, another garment dyed blue with woad. Pleats ran down the center. Not only was this a conspicuous waste of fabric in a period when textile production was labor intensive. The vertical lines also drew the eye upward from the blue garment toward the cluster of jewelry at ACQ’s breast.

Brooches excavated from Køstrup Grave ACQ on Funen, DK.
The bronze brooches buried in Grave ACQ at Køstrup, DK. Archaeologists classify these as JP 51a, referring to an illustration in an early catalog of Viking-Age artifacts. Similar brooches are often found in contexts that date from 850-950, tending toward the early part of that range. (Illustration from Lindblom 1993: 153.)

Two bronze brooches provided support, pinned to the shoulder straps. These were in a garish style that archaeologists call JP 51a. They stood out like tortoise shells with intricate designs that could catch light from any direction. When ACQ was alive, these brooches would have sparkled as she moved. Now she was dead, but her brooches still caught fresh light each time the mourners moved around her, drawing their eyes back to the dazzling objects at the center of her grave.

Reconstruction of the dress and jewelry assemblage from Køstrup Grave ACQ.
The Viking-Age dress from Køstrup, as the woman buried in Grave ACQ may have worn it. Note that archaeologists aren’t sure whether she wore the beads at the top or the bottom of her brooches. Also, the patterns at the top of the dress were likely woven with colored thread, although these colors do not survive today. (Illustration from Rimstad 1998: cover.)

Between the brooches lay a string of eight beads. This is the largest Viking-Age necklace currently preserved in the museums of Funen. ACQ’s survivors must have known that women elsewhere could boast much more impressive displays. Perhaps to make up for this lack, ACQ’s dress had a thin strip of fabric running from brooch to brooch, woven with designs to help make her modest necklace seem like part of a larger, more colorful display.

Necklace beads from Køstrup Grave ACQ.
Necklace beads from Køstrup Grave ACQ. By studying where and when similar beads appeared, we can learn more about ACQ, her community, and the networks they were involved in. (Odense Bys Museer, Odense, DK.)

Each bead has its own story to tell. The darkest bead glows purple when held to the light. Similar beads have been found in towns like Ribe and Åhus, showing that ACQ had access to developing markets. Just as importantly, these other sites reveal how quickly this style went out of fashion after about 850, indicating that ACQ was not buried much later than 860. This was a period when viking activity was drastically increasing in the west, and it would be surprising if ACQ and the new elite were not somehow connected to the plunder and wealth of this so-called Great Heathen Army. This bead, then, offers tantalizing clues about ACQ’s place in the trading and raiding that defined the Viking Age.

Grave diagram for Køstrup Grave ACQ.
Beads were just part of ACQ’s grave, which is considered the richest burial in the Køstrup cemetery. Her brooches lay off-center, suggesting that she was buried on her side. At her hip lay a knife and a key, which presumably hung on a long cord from her brooches. At her head was a small casket made of maple. She was placed in a coffin, but this must have stayed open as all these things were arranged. A discoloration at the foot of her grave suggests that a pole or wooden stake marked the spot where she was buried, which became a focal point for the cemetery around her. (Illustration from Lindblom 1993: 153.)

The other colored beads would be more difficult to date if we didn’t have the short-lived purple bead as a point of reference. Several of these styles were especially popular during Funen’s glory days two centuries before, when the shrine of Gudme attracted pilgrims and may have inspired the earliest cycles of Norse mythology. Not only do these beads suggest deliberate connections to the past; so too does the burial site. Køstrup had already been used as a cemetery once before, and even though the people buried there must have been long forgotten, they left a distinctive burial mound in their place. The people who dug a grave for ACQ and started a new cemetery right next to this ancient mound were making strong claims about their abilities to dominate both the island landscape and its mythical past.

The clear beads also tell a story. These are made of rock crystal, a common variant of quartz. I’ve found this particular style—finely rounded, a bit larger than a centimeter, and almost perfectly clear—in a few specific spots: the boat burials of central Sweden, the merchant’s colony at Hedeby, and the aristocratic hoard of Lille Karleby, a site located suggestively close to homelands of the Danish monarchy. These diverse finds show that ACQ was linked into the major changes of the Viking Age: a thriving culture which treated warships as prestigious symbols, a network of trading towns promoting urban crafts and long-distance exchange, and growing kingdoms that would soon ally themselves with the Christian church, ushering in the end of the Viking Age and the dawn of the Middle Ages.

For reconstructions of ACQ’s dress, see:

For further information about Køstrup and Grave ACQ, see:

  • Charlotte Lindblom, “Køstrup – en nordvestfynsk vikingetidsgravplads,” Fynske Minder (1993): 143–168.
  • Charlotte Rimstad, “Vikinger i uld og guld,” Speciale (Copenhagen: Copenhagen University Forhistorisk Arkæologi, 1998).

For the reference catalog for Viking Age jewelry, see:

The Limfjord in the Viking Age: Centralization and Catastrophe

The Limfjord cuts across northern Denmark, offering a short and well-sheltered route from the North Sea to the Baltic. As maritime traffic picked up in the late 600s, ships began to ply the Limfjord more often. Traders coming from the commercial centers of the Frisian coast were taking their enterprise north, and by 705, they established a seasonal trading camp at Ribe in western Denmark. It gave them a final base before braving the North Sea into the Baltic. They carried beads with them wherever they went, and a few of their beads ended up in the young Limfjord settlement of Bejsebakken, indicating that they were using this route for their traffic by about 750.

Beads of orange, red, blue, and green glass from the Iron Age, from the cemetery at Lindholm Høje.
An elite circle of society made their home along the Limfjord as early as the 400s, rising to prominence just as Roman governance ebbed in the West. These beads were likely made in the Byzantine Empire and headed north into the Limfjord between 540 and 660 AD. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

In the mid-700s, the seasonal camps of southern Scandinavia had just started to transition into a more permanent network of trading towns. Ribe might have led the way, perhaps around 750. Åhus, Ribe’s sister site in southern Sweden, made a similar transition before 790. And the Limfjord was likewise affected, with a new settlement picking up at Sebbersund at about the same time.

A “wasp” bead from Sebbersund, ca. 760–790. One of the earliest artifacts from Sebbersund, which would later develop into a major trading port for traffic taking the Limfjord between the east and west coasts of Jutland. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

What these three sites show us—Ribe, Sebbersund, Åhus—is that on the very cusp of viking raids on England, Ireland, and France, a stable network of settlements had just recently been formed in Scandinavia. These settlements offered a reliable route for shipping goods out of the North Sea and into the Baltic, and the Limfjord was the linchpin that held this network together.

But the sites of the Limfjord share a common problem with many sites from the Viking Age. Although we have a large number of artifacts that can tell us about the early and late periods of these places, there’s not much to fill in our knowledge of the middle decades of their existence.

A model of the Lindholm Høje cemetery and an adjacent settlement, as they may have looked during the early Viking Age, ca. 800.
A model of the Lindholm Høje cemetery and its adjacent settlement, as they may have looked during the early Viking Age, ca. 800. Lindholm Høje sits atop a hill overlooking the Limfjord, and in windy weather it sounds just like the sea. Many of the graves have stones around them, laid out in the shapes of ships—a strong indicator of just how important sea travel was for the early Viking Age residents of the Limfjord. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

The early phase ended sometime in the mid-800s, as the flow of glass beads into Sebbersund ground to a halt. A single coin minted by Louis the Pious between 822 and 840 was lost at the fledgling settlement of Aggersborg, indicating that the Limfjord was briefly but abortively linked into the coin economies of Western Europe. And the pagan cemetery at Lindholm Høje was first restructured and then subsequently abandoned after almost 500 years of continuous use. Local communities were reinventing who they were by redefining the ways they lived and died.

Blue and yellow drawn beads of early Islamic glass.
Tiny drawn beads are some of the last datable artifacts from the early phase of settlement at Sebbersund. These beads probably date to 800–850 and were made in the Eastern Mediterranean—probably in the early caliphate’s glass factories in Egypt or Syria. Similar beads have been found at places like Ribe and Hedeby, which also developed into important trading towns during the Viking Age. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

When archaeologists regain clarity in the mid-900s, the Limfjord region looked completely different. Sand dunes had covered the pagan burials at Lindholm Høje, and the residents of Sebbersund had begun to bury their dead alongside one of Scandinaiva’s earliest churches. The town of Aggersborg was burned to the ground, and on top of its ashes, the Danish king Harald Bluetooth had built a huge Trelleborg-style fortress.

Viking Age combs from Sebbersund, Jutland, Denmark.
My research focuses on east-west routes during the early Viking Age, but the Limfjord was also an important north-south route. It seems that during this period, the Limfjord also had a channel leading north to Norway. Antlers taken from reindeer and caribou from northern Norway—perhaps traded from the nomadic Saami tribes—were crafted into fine combs at places like Sebbersund on the Limfjord. People proudly carried these items as badges of their good hygiene and their ability to acquire exotic goods. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

Aggersborg dominated the maritime crossroads between England, Norway, and the Danish archipelago. Its walls stood 240 meters apart, enclosing 48 longhouses, each 32 meters in length. It was a remarkable sign of Danish royal power for anyone traveling through the Limfjord. Harald Bluetooth’s great-grandson Harthacnut installed a royal mint nearby at Aalborg. And one of his successors used the fort as a gathering point for his fleet—part of a failed attempt to invade England in 1085.

Ship stone setting from the Iron Age and Viking Age cemetery at Lindholm Høje, northern Jutland, Denmark.
A ship setting from Lindholm Høje. The weather in northern Jutland often mixes fog and wind, giving the impression of the spray of the sea. Many graves at Lindholm Høje have these ship-shaped stone settings, and it’s easy to imagine the dead were thought to sail off into the afterlife, much like the mythical Baldr, son of Odin. Sand dunes covered these graves during the 900s, until they were uncovered by archaeologists a thousand years later. They make an unearthly site to visit today. (Lindholm Høje, Nørresundby, DK.)

The Limfjord had evolved from a wayside for Frisian traders into the locus of Danish royal power and imperial ambitions. But sometime shortly before 1200, the shifting sands of the Jutland coast closed its access to the North Sea. This was no minor crisis. The Limfjord, once a proud commercial highway and the mustering place for armies, had turned suddenly into a brackish backwater. The suddenness of this change offers a grim reminder that even small environmental changes can rend a political and economic fabric that had been centuries in the making.

Glass beads from a cremation burial at Lindholm Høje, Denmark.
Lindholm Høje has 549 identified graves, spanning from the fifth to tenth centuries. It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in Scandinavia. Many of the dead were cremated together with their grave goods, so it’s difficult to identify a large number of the artifacts. Nevertheless, the number of blue beads in this group, and the complex mosaic patterns still visible on the big lumps of melted glass, allow us to assign this particular grave to the early 700s. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

Consuming Beads: A Tentative Chronology of the Viking Age

This week I finish the second stage of my research, so I’d like to take a few moments to sum up what I’ve seen. In previous posts, I’ve documented highlights from my visits to Copenhagen, Lund (SE), Bornholm, and Schleswig (DE). Since then, I’ve been on whirlwind trips to Ribe, Aalborg, Odense, and Langeland. At this point, I’ve completed a survey of over 6,000 beads from the Viking-Age, a large number of which have yet to be published.

Has it all been worth it? I’ll let you decide. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll sketch a quick chronology of early Viking Age bead consumption as it now appears to me. I’ve seen pre-Viking Age beads from ca. 700 at central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, as well as from the trading camps of Ribe and Åhus. And I’ve seen beads from the full flush of the Viking Age from the burgeoning emporia of Hedeby and Sebbersund, as well as from the small cemeteries of the Danish archipelago. These early and late beads look dramatically different, and not only do they come from different places, they also come from different kinds of places. Between 700 and 900, a whole new set of consumers gained access to necklace beads, and they were using them in a whole new set of ways.

Phase 1 (660-700). Scandinavian society revolved around central places during the early middle ages, otherwise referred to as the Germanic Iron Age. Elites who built their power at these sites distinguished themselves by showcasing exotic objects made from materials like glass and gold, which could not be obtained locally. They left glass and gold as votive deposits at places like Sorte Muld and Uppåkra, and they buried them with them when they died. Their societies stabilized with the rest of Europe as northern climates recovered from the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, while the enduring strength of Eastern Mediterranean economies meant that access to exotic goods remained consistent throughout this period. This consistency contributed to a conservative sense of fashion, with styles of clothing and jewelry changing only slowly. Beads tended to be simple but made from high-quality glass. Favorite colors like blue, green, and white would have complemented the prominent blues of women’s dresses.

Beads attributed to Bækkegård Grave 109, ca. 630–660. Similar necklaces featuring white, blue, and green glass beads were common from 630–800. This necklace also included decorated beads, but these were all mixed up during shipment and can no longer be assigned to particular graves.  (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 2 (700-760). Western Europeans built on the improving climate with agricultural reforms and commercial enterprise. North Sea merchants carried this prosperity into Scandinavia by partnering with Danish elites to establish a trading camp at Ribe, a sheltered spot where coastal traders could exchange wares with the deep-sea merchants who traveled around Jutland into the Baltic. Soon the camp at Ribe had a companion market at Åhus in Sweden. The old elites must have watched these sites carefully, but craftspeople increasingly worked on their own terms, outside the patronage networks of central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. They engaged in traditional work with local materials like amber and antler, and for the first time Scandinavian craftspeople also gained proficiency with glass. The new markets secured steady access to this exotic good, while aspiring elites were eager to consume the new fashions being made. These beads—typically a translucent blue glass decorated with red, white, and yellow rings—moved out from the fledgling markets and into the most prestigious circles of Scandinavian society.

Blue beads with decorated with complex lines of red and white, probably made in Ribe or Åhus and buried among elite families on Bornholm, 700–760. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 3 (760-790). This seems to have been a period of retrenchment. The glass in Ribe and Åhus came from major production centers in the Near East, which prospered as the Islamic conquests put an end to the perennial conflicts between Byzantium and Persia. But the caliphate overextended, and in the 750s, it began to break apart. Distant provinces revolted and a major coup rocked the center. This interrupted the supply of new glass to Scandinavia, where glassworking faltered. The ubiquitous blue beads disappeared and were replaced by thin ‘wasp’ beads—a style that maximized length and minimized material. Many of these beads were black with yellow rings, but they appeared in other colors as well. Access to glass was the determining factor, and bead makers weren’t terribly concerned with color. From this perspective, the late 700s were bleak. Ribe’s trade restructured and Åhus may have been abandoned. Craftspeople and merchants dispersed to a looser but more robust network of smaller trading sites. Some of these would later flourish, but in the uncertain years of the late 700s, most remained ramshackle affairs that have left few archaeological traces.

Wasp bead from Sebbersund, ca. 760–790. One of the earliest artifacts from Sebbersund, which would later develop into a major trading port for traffic taking the Limfjord between the east and west coasts of Jutland. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

Phase 4 (790-820). Glass imports renewed during this period, and the loose network of small sites began to consolidate around a few urban nodes. These sites show intensifying relationships with the Near East, no longer mediated through Francia and the Western Mediterranean. Islamic coins were circulating in Scandinavian markets by the 780s, and in the 790s, bead imports spiked. These beads came in a few standard styles made from drawn glass, which couldn’t be replicated in the north. Scandinavian glassworkers could make exquisite beads by heating glass and wrapping it around a mandrel, but they lacked the technology or expertise to blow glass, draw it into tubes, and form it into a desired shape. Bead imports proliferated at Ribe and the revived settlement of Åhus, but they’re curiously rare at elite sites and cemeteries. In part, this is because a large number of the beads lacked perforations, which raises questions about what exactly they were being used for. Overall, it seems that although craftspeople were still occupying traditional places, Scandinavian connections and consumption patterns were beginning to change.

Drawn beads found in a craftsworking site at Åhus, ca. 790–820. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, SE.)

Phase 5 (820-860). During this period, a new set of settlements left the old ones behind. Elite women stopped losing their beads at the central places of the Germanic Iron Age, which gives them a sense of abandonment. Ribe and Åhus also disappear from the archaeological record—if these communities persevered, they moved to new sites yet to be identified. Meanwhile, a different set of settlements began to take off. Places like Sebbersund and Hedeby had been among the trading posts that popped up in the late 700s, but only in the mid-800s did they became complex and densely populated sites. Their expanding trade included a new style of drawn bead—tiny rings of blue, yellow, white, and black. These beads rarely made it into elite graves, although hundreds were found in the so-called Hedeby harbor purse. This set of beads was found packaged with a handful of coins, suggesting that they might have served a monetary function as well. If so, they add a new dimension to our understanding of this period. Islamic coins were still rare, and most coins from this period came from Western Europe. But the Hedeby harbor purse suggests that Scandinavians were also forging connections east, well before the silver fever began in the 850s.

A selection of the 600 small drawn beads found in the Hedeby Harbor purse with seven silver coins, ca. 820–860. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Phase 6 (860-900). This was another period of extreme disruption in the Islamic world, as short-lived caliphs struggled to control the Turkish slave-soldiers whom they had empowered. Silver imports slowed, as did glass. Meanwhile, Christianity was taking root in Scandinavian towns, and the new Christians quit burying their dead with grave goods. This led to a declining demand for beads in some places, even as a new demand sprang up in the Danish archipelago. A form of Norse paganism was taking shape there, building its mythology around the old cultic site of Gudme. People in the area started burying their dead with grave goods like necklaces, even as their Christian counterparts were giving it up. These cemeteries tend to be modest, suggesting limited material wealth, but several graves contain an extra body—presumably a slave sacrifice. These island burials contrast to the trading towns, which evidence economic distancing from the Islamic world and cultural convergence with the West. The appearance of glass beads in the Danish archipelago conversely suggests that not only did some Scandinavians maintain contact with the Islamic world, but that these Scandinavians also had access to extra human bodies—at the same time that vikings were reaping captives from the west and Islamic elites were seeking a new source of slaves for their harems and armies. This gives much food for thought about the role these island communities played and the potential extent of human trafficking in the Viking Age.

Stengade Grave BØ, ca. 950-1000. A woman aged 40–50 was buried on the island of Langeland with this set of beads, typical for the late Viking Age. There are some ‘retro’ styles, like the blue and white beads, but the quality of glass is different and they have corroded much more quickly than glass from the early Viking Age. There is also a pair of amber pendants, which are often found in cemeteries, like Stengade, where Thor’s hammers are also found. (Langelands Museum, Rudkøbing, DK.)

I must note that this chronology is only tentative—a working framework as I continue to analyze data and conduct new research. In particular, I am uncertain about the changes of the late 700s and whether this should be seen as a period of retrenchment, at least with regard to long-distance trade. Nevertheless, the glass evidence points to strong connections with the Islamic world beginning around 790 and intensifying in the early 800s. This indicates that these connections existed well before Scandinavians began to import Islamic silver in large quantities. Moreover, the ways in which the glass was being used gives us clues to what Scandinavians were doing to acquire it.

The Hedeby Harbor Purse

It was probably in the spring. Winters were cooler then, and when the waters froze, merchants could travel by sledge or by sleigh. Those who had drifted south in the fall would travel the ice roads north with wares brought in from Byzantium or the East, even as the first few hides and antlers began to trickle down from the nomadic tribes of the tundra. At a few small places scattered across northern Europe, people gathered to participate in a world of exchange that, with the Norse camp established at L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000, became truly global in scope. It was a good time to have a purse full of change, and a bad time to lose one.

Artifacts from the Wikinger Museum Haithabu are currently getting packed up while the museum is renovated, offering a unique opportunity to study artifacts usually on display. This necklace of rock crystal and carnelian beads from Grave 81 (ca. 860) shows an early Viking Age appetite for Iranian or Indian imports. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Fortunately for us, one purse did slip overboard in the bustling port of Hedeby, a harbor town located at the base of the Danish peninsula on an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The Danish kings kept a close eye on this town, with its sea routes linking in one direction through the Baltic to the Russian riverways and Central Asia, and in the opposite direction a fortified route linking to the Frankish and Frisian traders who sailed from the North Sea coast. It was probably one of these petty kings who set up the first mint at Hedeby, perhaps as early as 825. Six coins from this mint ended up in the harbor purse, along with a single coin bearing the motto “Christiana Religio” and the name of the Frankish king, Louis the Pious (r. 813–840).

This group of coins points to a purse lost sometime in the 830s, although at least one researcher has argued that, based on where the purse fell, a later date is also possible—perhaps during the course of the 900s. But the coins weren’t alone. In a compact area of 0.125 m2 (about 1 ft2), the coins were accompanied by an outstanding collection of 600 microbeads. These beads come in only four colors—white, green, blue, and black—and the beads weigh on average a mere 0.11 g (0.005 oz). Altogether, the 600 beads weigh only 68.4 g (2.4 oz)—you could find more beef in a Big Mac!

The 600 beads of the Hedeby harbor purse come in four basic colors and six or seven standard types. Such a high level of uniformity for such minuscule objects is rarely seen before the Industrial Age. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

So the coins point to an early date and a merchant with western connections. But the placement of the purse suggests a later date and raises the possibility that these coins were old heirlooms—not currency. What do the beads say?

For the sake of space (and to leave some surprises for my dissertation!), I’ll limit myself to two observations. First, the beads are remarkably uniform. Each of the four colors gathers into a narrow range of hues, suggesting a consistent use of raw materials and glass production techniques. And the sizes and weights of the beads seem to cluster, too, although the values are very small—beads in the smallest group average only 0.04 g—so I need to assess how much measurement errors might be affecting my cluster analysis. At any rate, the uniformity of these beads shows a degree of standardization rarely seen in the pre-modern world. And the stark contrast between these mass-produced beads and the individually-made handicrafts of older towns like Ribe and Åhus suggest that these beads contributed to a rising aesthetic, and perhaps even an associated ethos, that privileged simplicity and order over variety and experiment.

Approximately 600 small beads found in a purse with seven silver coins. Small change of the Viking Age? (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Second, these beads are all made with an identical technique using drawn glass. Workers heated the glass in a furnace, blew a bubble of air into the molten mass, stretched the hollow glass into a tube or a straw, cut the tube into discs, and melted the discs in an oven to smooth out the edges. Glassworkers were using furnaces in Hedeby by the 850s, apparently making their own glass from a Frankish recipe and using it mostly for tableware and perhaps windowpanes. But the technique used for making these beads should more likely be associated with the traditional glass production centers of the Near East: Egypt, Syria, and Iran. This gives us an interesting point of comparison for Ibn Fadlan’s famous statement (ca. 922) ridiculing Norse traders in Russia who would pay the outrageous price of a silver coin for a single Eastern bead—the merchant who lost his purse at Hedeby had seven silver coins and 600 imported beads. This suggests that if imported beads did have a monetary value when the purse was lost, it was of a different order of magnitude than the one which Ibn Fadlan describes: beads were little more than small change for at least one merchant in Hedeby harbor.

Similar beads from throughout the settlement show more variety in color, meaning that although production techniques were consistent, access to raw materials was in flux. Could these Viking Age beads from Hedeby be a record of 9th-century upheavals in the distant Islamic world? (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

For now, that’s all I can reliably offer: new bead styles reflected changing cultural values, the appearance of highly standardized beads in the harbor purse echoes written accounts that beads were being used in monetary contexts, and this particular collection of beads and coins points to business connections that traveled both east and west. In coming weeks, I’ll examine beads from mid- and late Viking-Age cemeteries in Denmark, and I’ll keep an eye out for similar beads made from cut glass. Perhaps I’ll find some buried with a coin or jewelry that can be dated by style, and I’ll have the basis for offering my own date for the harbor purse. And our understanding of the Viking Age will move one step further.

I’m still at work in Hedeby, gathering information on beads from a variety of contexts. I’ve been focusing my efforts especially on beads which are usually found in the exhibits, since these are being packed up for temporary exhibition at the Museum Sydøstdanmark in Vordingborg, DK, while the Wikinger Museum Haithabu gets a facelift. I’m especially grateful for the staff and researchers of Schloss Gottorf, who have offered me generous help and fruitful conversations.

Treasures of the Lille Karleby Hoard

This Christmas season—and especially New Years—in Denmark were like nothing I’ve ever seen, so this post is a bit of a throwback to the week before Christmas, when I was looking at beads from a hoard from Lille Karleby, about an hour west of Copenhagen. This spectacular mix of silver, bronze, glass, and stone registered only a faint beep when Søren Bagge first ran his metal detector across it in September 2015. Bagge had found a few Arabic coins in the area, but when he nicked his finger on a silver pin lodged in a silver cup, he knew he’d found something big. He contacted the nearby museum in Roskilde, and professional archaeologists were soon on the way. They built a plaster cast around the hoard so they could pull it out complete and then excavated the artifacts in a laboratory where everything could be carefully recorded and preserved. Bagge earned a finder’s fee for reporting the hoard, but for scholars and museum-goers alike, this hoard represents an invaluable treasure of the Viking Age.

A small selection of artifacts from the recently discovered Lille Karleby hoard, currently on display at the National Museum of Denmark. Items include brooches, pendants (bottom right), silver beads (bottom left), and beads of glass and amethyst (top right). The amethyst bead might be the oldest item in this hoard, and it was probably imported to Scandinavia about 200 years before finally being buried sometime around the late 800s. Some close ups are available here. (National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

The hoard must have been a treasure for the people who buried it as well. Altogether, excavators recovered almost 400 artifacts, of which 305 were beads. Eighteen coins were included, most of which had holes in them so they could be worn as jewelry. An additional 53 artifacts are described as pendants of bronze or silver. Such an accumulation of wealth fits into the bigger picture of increasing economic prosperity and social stratification in the early middle ages. But the fact that so many of these objects were made to be worn by women testifies that male traders and raiders weren’t the only agents of change in the Viking Age.

The beads from Lille Karleby contrast strongly with other beads I’ve recently examined. These come mostly from the religious sites and central places of Uppåkra in Sweden and Sorte Muld on Bornholm. Both sites represent the old wealth of the Iron Age, with a large number of beads that can be dated to a Baltic economic boom between 400 and 600 AD. Judging from the beads and from other finds, prosperity continued at both sites until well into the 700s, with a handful of artifacts that can reliably be dated to the heart of the Viking Age. The youngest beads from these central places include some minor overlaps with the craftworking settlement at Åhus, which saw its brief peak of activity around 800 to 850.

On the left are a selection of beads found in the settlement of Åhus from the early 800s. Very few similar beads turn up at old power centers like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, suggesting that these places were already in decline. Only one similar bead was found in the Lille Karleby hoard (right), suggesting that its owners were only starting to accumulate their wealth at the exact same time. (L: Åhus beads from the Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden. R: Lille Karleby bead from the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

The Lille Karleby hoard shares some of the same overlaps with the settlement at Åhus that can also be seen at Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, particularly the blue segmented beads that were so popular among Baltic craftsworkers. And while the Lille Karleby hoard has some heirloom artifacts—such as a single large amethyst bead that was a popular kind of import way back in the 600s—it lacks many of the more common pre-Viking Age beads that were scattered across Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. So although the people who buried the Lille Karleby hoard showed some interest in gaudy antiques, their beads give the strong impression of being mostly made of new wealth. When the first generations of vikings started heading west, they represented a new class of elites, and these were the things they sought to acquire.

The beads themselves give us tantalizing clues about where this new wealth came from. In particular, I counted a remarkable sixteen beads of rock crystal (clear quartz) among the 192 beads that I examined. This is a much higher percentage of rock crystal than I’ve seen at earlier sites. And the quality of rock crystal is different, too. Earlier examples are large, roughly cut, and have a yellowish hue. The Lille Karleby beads are purer, finer in size, and more carefully rounded. I’m still sorting out the research on Viking Age rock crystal, but most medieval rock crystal came from quartz mines in Iran or India. The dramatically different appearance of the old and new quartz beads is certainly one indicator that their sources were changing—trade routes with the Islamic caliphate were changing in tandem with increased viking activity. The implication, then, of the Lille Karleby hoard is that viking activity helped create a new class of Scandinavian elites capable of changing global trade networks.

On the left is an early rock crystal bead that had been buried in a grave on Bornholm. Its yellowish hue comes from imperfections in the quartz, and it’s roughly cut with flat ends and a broad perforation. The bead on the right is from the Lille Karleby hoard. It’s a bit smaller, but it’s so smooth and so clear that you can see the dirt still inside the interior perforation. These differences in the quartz suggest different sources, and thus different trade routes. (L: Bead from Nørre Sandegård at Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark. R: Bead from Lille Karleby at the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

What could the owners of the Lille Karleby hoard have been trading for these beads of rock crystal and over 200 beads of Near Eastern glass? Presumably not silver, since they were importing Arabic coins as well. But the coins in the hoard represent connections both east and west, suggesting that the people who buried this hoard had connections not just to the Near East and Central Asia but also out into the North Sea.

I’m still waiting to see the analysis of when these coins were minted, but from what I’ve seen so far, the hoard was probably buried sometime around the late 800s. This was a period when viking activity began to spike and Scandinavians began to set up permanent settlements across Western Europe. If this uptick in raiding and colonialism can be connected to the Lille Karleby hoard—and I think it should be—then we need to think carefully about what viking raiders might have been trafficking east so that their partners in the Baltic could acquire glass and semi-precious stones from Asia and the distant Abbasid caliphate.

Two beads from the Lille Karleby hoard. The one on the left is common enough—a mosaic bead made from four tiles of glass (two with flowers, two with concentric circles) and capped with a red stripe on each end. The bead on the right is a bit of a mystery. The beadmaker started with a simple blue bead and then traced patterns all around it, mimicking the design of the bead on the left. Was this a rough draft, meant to advertise a beadmaker’s abilities without wasting precious mosaic glass? Or was it a commissioned fake, as the beadmaker tried to match a preexisting mosaic bead despite lacking the necessary raw materials? (National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)