Life of the Vikings

WCU Professor Leads International Team on Viking Research
June 25, 2016

The word “Viking” conjures up very specific images: horned helmets, longships and lots of pillaging. 

The Norse culture, however, is far more complex and revolutionary than the stereotype suggests. The Vikings were expert seafarers and tradesmen, skilled craftsmen and possessed a religious pantheon that’s still iconic today.

For all we know about the Vikings and their culture, there is plenty more to learn, and Western Carolina University history professor Vicki Szabo is investigating how the Vikings interacted with their environment. Specifically, she is directing a team of 14 researchers from seven countries who will investigate how the Vikings interacted with and used marine mammals like walruses, seals and whales.

Vikings carrying a shipA great deal is known about how the Vikings interacted with the natural world and animals on land. They collected amber—fossilized pine sap—from the coast and salt from the nearby sea. They hunted beavers, bears, otters and other animals for furs and wild fowl for down.

The sea, however, was a major component of Norse life. Archaeologists know seafood was a major component of the Viking diet. Their longships helped them explore as far west as Newfoundland and their wide-bodied trading ships, called knarr, were engineered to sail even against the wind and took Norse traders as far as Baghdad. Even the stereotypical Viking raids—of which there were many—normally involved a quick attack from the sea and a quick escape back to the sea.

Thus to build a complete, robust picture of Norse culture, learning how the Vikings interacted with marine life is an imperative.

A large piece of the project, Szabo says will be identifying exactly what species of marine mammals the Vikings hunted and in what quantity. To do that, Szabo is enlisting help from Western Carolina University’s forensics department. Bones are frequently found in archaeological digs at Viking settlements in midden pits and garbage dumps, and often, biologists can identify them by comparing them to modern skeletons.

But when the bones are broken down or very similar between multiple species, making an identification is tricky. The bones, however, still cling to tiny pieces of DNA, and the forensics department can still analyze that DNA and try to piece the tiny fragments together, even though the DNA can be 1,000 years old.

WalrusOnce Szabo and her colleagues learn what animals the Vikings hunted, the question becomes, what did they do with those animals? Previous artifacts showed that the Vikings traded ivory from walrus and narwhal tusks, and ate marine mammals during periods where food was scarce. But when and in what quantity these mammals were taken remains a mystery.

What adds intrigue to that question is that the Norse civilization experienced a period of dramatic climate change. In the early period, known often as the Viking Age, Europe experienced a few hundred years of relative warmth, called the Medieval Warm Period. Centuries of bitterly cold winters, however, followed that time in what is now known as the Little Ice Age.

Szabo says she hopes to trace patterns of what marine animals were used at specific points in history to determine how the onset of colder winters influenced the Norse usage of marine mammals.

This research even has some potential conservation impacts. The Vikings lived and hunted before industrial-scale fishing operations began to impact the oceans’ animal populations. By tracking what the Vikings were able to hunt and where they were able to hunt it, biologists can put together at least a rough picture of marine mammal populations prior to human intervention. This is significant because if we hope to someday restore the ocean to something resembling its natural state, we need to know what the ocean’s natural state is.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation. Szabo and her colleagues will work in Iceland, Greenland, Scotland and North America until 2018.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.