Viking activity extended from Asia in the east to Greenland and North America in the west, and from the islands far up in the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean and northern Africa in the south. During the Viking Age, exotic and exclusive goods flowed into the Viking homelands in Scandinavia and were made available, for those who could afford them, at trading places such Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang and others. Along with the material goods came ideological, political and religious currents.
A bronze pouch made fom fur, bronze and paper, currently on display at ANMM.
Among the many exotic artefacts that have been discovered at Viking-Age sites are a Persian glass beaker, an Irish cross, an Indian statuette of the Buddha, a Coptic ladle from Egypt, and shells from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean intended to be made into pendants. Such artefacts are evidence of what great melting pots many of the Viking Age communities were. Much of what we call ‘Viking-Age culture’ was in fact created from encounters between norrænir menn and other peoples.
Viking-Age society had a powerful upper class, an aristocracy of magnates and chieftains, some of whom called themselves kings, though they ruled mainly over people, not territories, via alliances based more on personal loyalty than on ethnicity. But while the society was hierarchical, social positions were not always as fixed as we might imagine. It was possible for individuals to both improve, and lose, their social status.
Domestic objects such as this antler/bone comb from Björkö, Adelsö in Sweden feature in Vikings – Beyond the legend at the ANMM, telling us much about the daily life of people in the Viking Age.
A large proportion of the population – perhaps between 20 and 40 percent – was unfree, or thralls. Locally born slaves had more freedom that those who had been captured and forced into captivity. While some unfree people were simply labour slaves, others were given significant rights. A ‘housecarl’ on a farm or estate could, if he was lucky, advance to the level of ‘bryte’, a type of farm manager or overseer.
The trade in thralls or slaves for labour was highly profitable. Indirect evidence of the trafficking of thralls in Viking-Age Scandinavia comes from archaeological finds such as shackles, neck-irons and similar restraints.