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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.