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.

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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!