Picture from the excavation of the Oseberg
ship burial in 1904. (Click for larger image)
In 1904 one of the greatest archaeological finds
ever in northern Europe was made at a farm in the shire of Vestfold in Norway. The farmer, Knut Rom
, being of the curious sort, had been doing some digging on a mound on his property, that he suspected to be a Viking age burial mound. He was proved right beyond his wildest dreams. After alerting Professor Gabriel Gustafson
of The University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo of his initial finds, a team of archaeologists uncovered a remarkably intact ship burial, with numerous grave goods, such as a ceremonial waggon, and the remains of two women, on of whom, at least, had the social standing to merit such an elaborate funeral.
Now DNA tests have revealed that one of the women was not your typical Viking princess, but was in fact from an immigrant family, from the lands by the shores of the far away Black Sea.
The Oseberg mound in Vestfold, Norway.
We tend to think that other than the migrations that did in the Roman Empire, populations were pretty static in their make up before the invention of modern mass transport and the massive waves of immigrants in the last couple of decades. And at times that has been true. But large scale long distance trade, and the movement of people that go with it, are hardly modern inventions. And few people had such motive and the prerequisites to engage in such trade, as did the Scandinavian Vikings.
Detachable carved ship
prow from Oseberg.
(Click for larger image)
Their homelands were poor in arable land and subject to harsh winters. Then, as indeed now, they dreamt of southern climes and the easy life. And they had the boat building technology, and skills at navigation, which made such ventures possible. The debate has been running for a long time, whether they lived up to their stereotypical image as rampaging berserkers, set on rape and plunder, or if they were mainly peaceful traders. The truth, as with most things, is probably a little of both.
If you came across a group of them, and you were well armed and someone they wanted repeat service from, they would be happy to take your silver in fair trade. But come across the same people, when you carried more purse than power, and they might be more than happy to take your goods off your hands at the ultimate wholesale price.
In general the Danish and Norwegians were more focused on maritime ventures to the west, to France, Britain, Ireland, the islands in the north Atlantic and even North America, in vesterled
, while the Swedish Vikings mainly went in østerled
, to the east
, plundering, trading, and even establishing the kingdom of the Kievan Rus, the seed of latter day Russia.
Viking lands and routes of trade and conquest.
(Click for larger image)
One of the earliest detailed descriptions of the Vikings in fact relates to these Rus traders. In 921 AD Arab Muslim writer and traveller Ibn Fadlan
was sent as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir
in Baghdad to the Volga Bulgars
by the Black Sea and the Caspian. The mission itself was something of a bust. But while there Fadlan recorded his encounter with a band of traders from the North, whom he called Rūs, or Rūsiyyah.
And while he admires their physique, which he compares to palm trees, he has less flattering things to say about their hygiene (it should say something about the level of personal grooming in Europe at the time, that we know from other sources that the Vikings compared favourably to other Europeans in this regard). His adventures were the inspiration for the novel "Eaters of the Dead"
by Michael Crichton
(filmed as "The 13th Warrior"
with Antonio Banderas
as Ibn Fadlan
In part his description of the customs of the people he encountered, who may have absorbed certain local customs along their travels, are at odds with near contemporary explorer, the Persian Ahmad ibn Rustah
, who travelled to their city of Novgorod in present day North-Western Russia. This is his description of the ruling Scandinavian military aristocracy there:
"As for the Rus, they live on an island […] that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; […] They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and […] sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands […] When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, 'I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.' [...] They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade. They have many towns. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge."
Taking all this into consideration, it becomes less of a mystery how some Viking chief might end up with a wife whose family came from the shores of the Black Sea, or even have family there himself.
Professor Per Holck
The reason we now know that one of the women buried in the ship burial at Oseberg had links to the east, was a breach of conduct by an academic. When it was decided, in 1947, that the bodies would be reburied in the mound at Oseberg, professor of anatomy Kristian Emil Schreiner
"appropriated" a tooth from the youngest woman in the grave, thought to be about 50 years old at the time of her death, and a skull fragment from the older, who was about 80.
By analysing partial DNA extracted from the tooth, professor Per Holck
at the anthropological division of the anatomy institute at the University of Oslo was able to establish the connection.
"Our results so far have been very interesting. Further analysis of the remains of both women would hopefully allow us to establish whether the two were related. What we already know is that the ancestor to the younger woman came from the the area around modern day Turkey and Iran,"
said Per Holck
. He has also found that their diet was heavy on meat, but that they ate comparatively little seafood. The full findings will be presented in an article in the British magazine "European Archaeology" later this year.
Archaeologist Lena Fahre and the
head of the Midgard Historical Centre,
Terje Gansum. (Click for larger image)
In the meantime, Holck
, and other scientists are advocating that the remains, and the mound, be re-excavated. Not only would this yield further samples for analysis. But it would also allow archaeologists to uncover clues that the original archaeologists, using rather primitive methods, would have overlooked in their focus on getting to the more ostentatious finds. There's also the consideration that the remains were re-buried in an air-tight aluminium coffin, which may lead to them being ruined, if they aren't already.
"This is the first DNA profile we have from a Viking skeleton,"
says Lena Fahre
, archaeologist and spokeswoman at Midgard Historical Centre. She admits to having initial doubts about re-excavating the mound. "It is after all a grave, and you can't just dig it up on a whim. But now that we know the wealth of information it could yield, the situation has changed."
The carved prow of the"In the past, an archaeologist could know the basics of every aspect of their field. Today we have to avail ourselves of the expertise of people like professor Holck, whose field is anatomy, and the help of KRIPOS [Norway's National Bureau of Crime Investigation]. These DNA finds constitute a strong argument for re-opening other burial mounds as well. This new technology can give us a wealth of new information about our past. And further advances in technology in the future might yield more still. It is imperative to secure samples before it is too late."
Oseberg ship is uncovered.
(Click for large image)
She adds that when the bodies were re-buried in 1947 it was done as a Christian ritual - "A mockery of two pagan women from the Viking Age."
Until now, the common assumption for many years, though less and less in vogue among historians and archaeologists, has been that the older woman in the grave was Queen Åsa
, mother of Halvdan the Black
, and grandmother of Harald Fairhair
, the first king of the united Norway, and that the younger woman was her servant, who went to her death with her mistress. Dendrochronological analysis, or tree-ring dating, of the timbers used to build the burial chamber, shows that they were felled in the autumn of the year 834 AD.
If further samples should reveal that both women shared this foreign ancestry, it could lend at least some credence to the theories of the late Thor Heyerdahl
, whose last years were spent initiating excavations in Azov, near the Sea of Azov at the northeast of the Black Sea, where he hoped to find the origins of the Norse gods
Just as Heinrich Schliemann
had once assumed that the events related in "The Iliad"
were true historical accounts, at least in part, and went looking for ancient Troy, and found it, his theory was that the same was true of the sagas of the old Norse kings.
In the 13th century the Icelandic politician and writer Snorri Sturluson
, the sagas of the Norwegian Kings and their forebears into the mythic past (like the noble families of ancient Greece and Rome, they claimed do have descended from the gods, in this case Odin
The Christian Snorri
related the story of the gods in a way that made them out to be heroes from the past, who were then elevated to godhood by later generations.
The Norse god OdinThe country east of the Tanaquisl in Asia was called Asaland, or Asaheim, and the chief city in that land was called Asgaard. In that city was a chief called Odin, and it was a great place for sacrifice. It was the custom there that twelve temple priests should both direct the sacrifices, and also judge the people. They were called Diar, or Drotner, and all the people served and obeyed them. Odin was a great and very far-travelled warrior, who conquered many kingdoms, and so successful was he that in every battle the victory was on his side. It was the belief of his people that victory belonged to him in every battle. It was his custom when he sent his men into battle, or on any expedition, that he first laid his hand upon their heads, and called down a blessing upon them; and then they believed their undertaking would be successful. His people also were accustomed, whenever they fell into danger by land or sea, to call upon his name; and they thought that always they got comfort and aid by it, for where he was they thought help was near.
(Click for large image)
In those times the Roman chiefs went wide around in the world, subduing to themselves all people; and on this account many chiefs fled from their domains. But Odin having foreknowledge, and magic-sight, knew that his posterity would come to settle and dwell in the northern half of the world.
By long trek he and his people arrive at last in modern day Sweden, where they impose themselves on the old order by force and superior knowledge.
Odin took up his residence at the Maelare lake, at the place now called Old Sigtun. There he erected a large temple, where there were sacrifices according to the customs of the Asaland people.
People sacrificed to Odin and the twelve chiefs from Asaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after.
There are of course many possible explanations for this; echoes of ancient migrations from the east, Snorri
's wish to tell the stories, along with the genealogies, without falling foul of the church, inspiration by classical authors, and a wish to trace the history of his people to the cradle of civilisation in the east, as the Romans did in Vergil
, and many more besides.
The question of where the god Odin/Wotan originated from is in itself a fascinating one. The Norse religion was at its core a variant of the common Indo-European storehouse of myths and legends found in Vedic Hinduism in India, pre-Zoroastrian Persian mythology, the Greek Olympians, the Roman pantheon, and many more besides.
Just about all of them had a King of the Gods, derived from a proto-Indo_European Dyeus Piter
the "Sky Father" or "Day father", from which the Roman Jupiter
, the Greek Zeus
, etc. is derived. The Norse mythology has this figure as well. But by the time we have any records of it, he has been dethroned, and most of his attributes taken over by the new king of the gods, Odin
. He is the rather shadowy god of war, Tyr
. And he is not of Odin
's people, the Æsir, but the older gods they had partially displaced, the Vanir.
All we know is that at some point a new god, perhaps influenced
by the Celtic god Lug
, "staged a divine coup".
thought there was enough of a kernel of truth to the story, and set out to find evidence for it
The restored OsebergI'm personally convinced that Snorre recorded oral history rather than a concocted myth, and I think it's time to look for the land that my Scandinavian ancestors came from and not merely where they subsequently went on their Viking raids and explorations. They certainly did not come out from under the glaciers when the ice-age ended so they must have immigrated from the south. Since their physical type is referred to as Caucasian and their very own descendant preserved an itinerary from south of the Caucasus and north of Turkey, I suspect that the present Azeri people and the Aser of the Norse sagas have common roots and that my ancestry originated there.
ship, in the Viking Ship
Museum in Oslo.
(Click for larger image)
This would mean that Azerbaijan and not northern Europe was the spreading center of the Caucasian people buried in northwestern China some 4,000 years ago and now discovered by Chinese archaeologists who theorize (probably wrongly) that they came from northern Europe because they were tall, blond, blue-eyed and with Caucasian features. According to modern scholars in Azerbaijan, there used to be a strong blond and fair-skinned element in the aboriginal Azeri population, as illustrated by the stone-age hunters at the Gobustan Museum. Subsequent invasions by Romans and Arabs have somewhat modified the original Azeri type.
As to the remarkably high level of culture evinced by the 4,000 year old mummies in China, no people in Northern Europe had reached a corresponding cultural level at that early time. But the merchants of Azerbaijan could have, due to their long-range trade by skin-boats with Babylonia.
At this point he was well into "Indiana Jones" territory, and the academic establishment told him so
in no uncertain terms, accusing him of peddling pseudoarchaeology to the healing crystal crowd. And most likely they are right. But then again they said that about Schliemann
No matter what the truth turns out to be, there should be inspiration enough for at least three Dan Brown
novels buried here, as well as some DNA.