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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4 thoughts on “Gotland during the Viking Age

  1. Dear Mr. Delvaux,
    thank you very much about this post. I´m not sure that the glass is coming from Middle East to the Northern Europe during time of Vikings. I think the people in Northern Europe had an own production of glass many many years ago. Why I think this one?

    The peoples in Scandinavia began 9000 years ago to to melt iron, copper and other metal. The technology to melt glass are the same to melt metal. In both cases the peoples need a hot fire only. To melt glass you need sand, ash and water only. Of course this exist many thousand of years ago in Scandinavia also.

    Last year archaeologists discovered on the Sandby Borg on Swedish island Öland an old glass work. This glass work on Sandby Borg are around 1500 years old. Last friday the Swedish newspaper Barometern reported on a fund of glass from Iron Age near Högsby on river Emån. Högsby are opposite of Öland.

    So I think that the peoples in the South East of Scandinavia made themselves glass many many years ago.

    With kind regards

    Gunter Flügel

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    1. Dear Mr. Flügel,

      Thank you for mentioning Sandby Borg, which is one of the coolest sites currently under excavation. It’s a phenomenally rich fortified settlement from the Baltic during the Roman Iron Age, and the massacre that ended occupation there is one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries I know of. To top it off, they’ve got an excellent web page for anyone interested in the site (in Swedish and English).

      As I understand it, the archaeologists are interpreting the finds there as evidence of a glass workshop ca. 600 AD, but they still assume that the raw material was imported from the Roman world. This fits well with the photos they’ve posted online, which certainly look more like evidence of glass working rather than glass production. They claim that this is the earliest evidence for glass working in Iron Age Scandinavia, but I don’t think we should assume this was the beginning of a continuous tradition of glass working in Scandinavia. On the contrary, the bead makers who came out of Ribe and Åhus in the mid-700s seem to have been reviving a craft that had largely been abandoned or forgotten.

      Glass production itself was also moving west and north during the early middle ages. There are a few sites from England that may date from the late-600s. I heard a paper a few years ago suggesting that glass production began near Venice as early as 800, although I haven’t seen this in print yet. And Volker Hilberg has recently written on what appears to be a furnace for glass production at Hedeby, dating to the mid-800s. But in all these cases, glass production was on a small scale, perhaps more often recycling rather than primary production. And at least in England, it should be connected primarily to ecclesiastical use—such as in church windows—rather than trade and aristocratic dress.

      During the Viking Age, the major glass production centers remained largely limited to the Near East: Egypt, the Levant, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Part of what makes the Scandinavian glass so interesting to me is that—just like the coin imports—the changing glass imports reflect substantial shifts occurring with the breakup of the Roman and Persian empires, the rise of the Islamic caliphate, and fragmentation under Abbasid rule. But that’s another story.

      Thanks again for your comments, and I look forward to learning more about the new excavations at Högsby!

      Warm regards,
      Matt

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