Thursday, April 30, 2009

Who were the Vikings? Some basic Q & A

I get these now and then. I always try to reply, even though you can see that some more basic research would have answered many of the more basic questions. I'm a (frustrated) teacher type, so try to lead an interested student to explore for themselves.

" I am a student at King Middle School. I come from Norway and I arrived in the USA January 4th, and I am staying in Berkeley, CA. for 7 months. My mom and I came because of mom’s work. I am doing an I-search on The Vikings and I wondered if you could help me and answer me these questions. ...
My inquiry for this I-search is: “Who were the Vikings, and what are they famous for?”

So - I have to make a few guesses here. 'Middle School' means you are between grade 6 and 9?
Given that you are originally from Norway, you obviously have a better background education than the other students. Most especially when it comes to anything outside the USA! Your English is excellent, and you have asked some more in depth questions.

Now, I do not know exactly what an 'I-search' is. As it is always better for a student to have to dig a little, I will be supplying you with some web site links for you to find some of the answers you are looking for.

First, I would recommend you try to get a copy of a very good general book -

James Graham-Campbell, ' The Viking World' *
(published by) Ticknor & Fields 1980

I think you would also find many of your answers in the 'Teachers Guide' I have put up on my web site.

Since there is better details on the guide above, I will only put short answers to your questions below.

Why did you decide to study The Vikings?

I was interested because of a film I saw (at about your age) 'the Vikings' with Tony Curtis, & Kirk Douglas. It was made in 1958 (!) but actually had some good details for the time it was made. When I was in art school, I started historic re-enactments, and naturally chose the Viking Age. Everything went from there...

Where did you study The Vikings?

I did not take any courses (which I think is what you mean). I studied on my own, first from books, later from going to museums. I also have learned a lot from making copies of Viking Age objects, then using them to see how they work.

When did you start study them?

Serious research started maybe into the 1980's. By the 1990's I was working on major museum projects (like the Encampment for Parks Canada).

What are some important dates in the Viking period?

A problem here (which you coming from Norway will understand). Many of the 'important dates' relate to the history in England, not actually Scandinavia - where the Norse are actually from! The two dates most commonly used are 793 (the sacking of Lindisfarne Monastery) as the beginning of the Viking Age, and 1066 (the Battle of Hastings) as the end. But of course these people did not just come out of nothing, and still were around afterwards.

The founding of Iceland (about 875) and the exploring of North America (about 1000) are also important (to me anyway). There are many important battles and famous kings over the Viking Age...

Was there any famous Viking?

Lots! (but I'm going to leave finding those to you) Some names you could look up: Harold Bluetooth , Fredys Eiriksdottir, Erik the Red, Erik Bloodaxe...

Who were The Vikings?

Ah - the important question!
Correctly speaking - going a Viking is a job. A part time job. A part time summer job. A part time summer job for young men.
As you suggested in your letter, being a Viking is being a raider. But most certainly not everyone living in all of Scandinavia was a raider! Someone had to keep the farms, make the clothes, build the ships, create the weapons. So think of the modern world - how many people actually are soldiers, even in the USA today when there is a war on? Not that many when you consider the whole country. Being a Viking was only a job for a very few people.
The people from early Scandinavia, what we call 'the Norse' had similar languages, religion, ideas about the world, writing method (the runes), taste in clothes and art work, special craft skills. These all were different than those in the rest of Europe. So people outside Scandinavia bunched them altogether - then blamed them for the raids on the churches (although other people were doing it too!)

Where did The Vikings come from?

The countries of Scandinavia - thats Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Each country (as you know) were somewhat different, and each group tended to go different places. The Danes to the south west - England and France. The Norwegians to the north west - Scotland, Ireland, Iceland (and eventually Greenland and Canada). The Swedes to the east - Russia.
Now there had been people in Scandinavia for a LONG time (longer than in England!) So there were definitely Norse people before what we call now the Viking Age.

How did The Vikings travel around?

Primarily by ship. (see below)

Is it true The Vikings came to America before Columbus?
If yes to the last question (Is it true The Vikings came to America before Columbus?), how do we know that?

Encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC

You have to be careful with the question. People living in the USA tend to say 'America' as if only the USA existed. There is no real proof that the Norse ever came to the USA itself. There IS proof that the Norse, most specifically Leif Eiriksson, did come and explore Canada - the area around Labrador, Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence.
At the top end of Newfoundland, at a place called L'Anse aux Meadows, were found the remains of a number of Norse style houses, along with a few small objects. These prove that a kind of exploration base camp was built and lived in over a couple of winters some time about 1000 AD. We know that these explorers did travel further south, as butternuts from New Brunswick were found there as well.

Vikings - North Atlantic Saga

Other objects from the Norse have been found in Canada's high Arctic. There is also timber pieces found on Greenland that originally came from Labrador. Remember that there were Norse people living in Greenland from about 980 through to at least 1420 AD!

Where did The Vikings travel?

all by ship!
West - as far as Canada (New Brunswick)
North - they already lived in the north!
East - to Russia, then down the rivers all the way to the Middle East
South - along the coast, down past Spain and into the Mediterranean Sea

What were thralls?

Thrall is another word for slave. Now, talking to someone from the USA, you have to be careful here. Slave in the Viking Age does NOT mean the same thing as slave does to a modern American.
First, the Norse made slaves of people just like them - other white people living in the same part of the world. Like the English and the Irish. Sometimes it was Norwegians grabbing Danes (or the opposite).
Thralls lived at the bottom of the pile - but might very well have lived in the same long house that the 'masters' did. Thralls might earn their freedom through hard work. Sometimes a person might have to serve as a thrall for a time as part of a legal judgement. So in some ways you can think of being a thrall more like a job. A really bad job, but still a job.

How did The Vikings live?

Big question:

World of the Norse

As you might guess, it depends on where and exactly when. Many people in the homeland countries lived on large extended family farms. Most farms were raising animals. Houses were very large - with a lot of people packed into the space. The individual farms were often fairly far apart.
At the beginning of the Viking Age there were not very many towns, but more of these started and got larger over the 200 years. In the towns houses were long and narrow, and packed in tightly to each other.

Who went on the trips?

Raids would be all men
Merchants would primarily be men, but might have their wives along (smaller crews as well)
People also used ships to settle new lands. On those trips it would be whole families with their livestock.

How were children and women treated by the Viking men?

A woman had more rights under the law in the Viking Age than a woman living in the USA did in 1900! A woman could divorce, own property, pick her husband and there were laws against assault. Not equal rights, but maybe 60 % of what a man could do.

Up until modern times, there was no such thing of childhood like we think of it. People were expected to do as much as they could, and if they were responsible they were treated 'as an adult'. A girl would be thinking of marriage by 16 (maybe younger). A boy who was large enough might go on his first raid at 14. No school of course, you would learn by working with your parents.

Who was Leif Ericson, and why is he so famous now?

Leif is the son of Eirik the Red. Leif is the one who commanded the first large exploration of 'Vinland' (what he called it). The largest of the houses built at L'Anse aux Meadows is thought to have been his own house.
Of course he did not 'discover' North America - as there had already been people living here for a good 10,000 years!
Its important to remember that the Norse did not try to make a colony or seriously 'settle' in North America. It was just too far and there were not enough people living in Greenland to spare.

What did The Vikings do?

Not sure exactly what the question is?
The Norse were master ship builders and fearless seamen.
They were extremely skilled at all kinds of textiles and metalwork.
Our days of the week are Norse (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)
Much of our ideas of law come from the Norse.

Did the Vikings just travel around to see The World, or did they have a hobby or goal to reach each time they went out on the Sea?

This is a hard question, as it is always a guess to know how people thought so long ago. In the past folks almost always believed different things that what we think is true or right today.
The Norse were very practical, very adaptable. They did travel far, and were not afraid to voyage to new seas and lands. But I would think they would always have a firm idea what they were trying to do.

How did The Viking boats look like?

Viking Ship Museum

thats the web site for the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde Denmark - your best place to start on ship information.
I also have some images I took there on my blog

In which part of the country did The Vikings live and where in Europe/Scandinavia did they live?

I answered that partially under 'where did they travel'
At one point there were so many Danish people who had moved to England that the most of that country was called the 'Danelaw'. Danish law was more important than English!
Many cities in Ireland were in fact started by the Norse - Dublin, Cork, Limerick
Iceland and Greenland of course
Part of France is called 'Normandy' - Land of the Northmen
Russia's name comes from the group from Sweden called the 'Rus' who took it over.

Monday, April 27, 2009

History (versus or plus?) Archaeology

Why is there such a rift between those studies that are considered 'History' and those from 'Archaeology'? Readers may find this short essay by Daniel Lord Smail of interest. (Pointed out by 'Lodin' posting to the NORSEFOLK discussion)
Read the full article on History Today

The Great Divide

Why do we have history and archaeology? In the light of our understanding of ‘deep time’ Daniel Lord Smail argues that it is high time that the two disciplines were reunited.

The bodies of evidence now available to students of the human past are growing by leaps and bounds. To the pot shards, texts and phonemes of Collingwood’s day {1930's} we have added genes, isotopes and other traces. Imagine each as a filter in a different colour. Using just one, you see your subject in an unreliable light. But now layer them one on top of the other and peer through the ensemble and, if you do so, the bright light of the original can be reconstituted to some degree. So if you want to find out what was really going on in Anglo-Saxon Britain you need to layer any texts at hand on top of the coins and the shards, the ceramics and the glassware, and then add the chemical traces of spices left in pots, the isotopes of carbon and nitrogen left in bones and the modern distribution of genes. The result isn’t a truth but it is a more robust understanding of something we did not know before. And it is a vision of the historical enterprise that is indifferent to specialisation and method.

Daniel Lord Smail is Professor of History at Harvard University and author of On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press, 2008).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Forging Elements - 'Kelp'

The overall concept for the current Reade-Maxwell House commission is 'Sea to Shore to Sky'. The project entails a number of individual stair railing panels, running up an open layout from basement to second floor. The lowest section is up from the basement, along a wall made up windows. This is the 'undersea' portion of the concept design, using a series of aggressively forged elements inspired by sea kelp:

This segment fairly long (9 1/2 minutes - 10 MG)

I shot short clips of the work in progress. Each element starts with a length of 1 x 1 x 1/8 inch mild steel angle. A total of eleven 'heat' cycles are required to complete the forging of each element. Producing the 30 pieces required for the panel, involved an estimated 10,000 individual hammer blows. The work ran over roughly six 'shop days' - when all the other mechanics of running the Wareham Forge were factored in.

Why hand forged work costs what it does...

The finished railing segment is quoted at $250 a linear foot (thats painted and installed by the way). This may seem to some a steep price. Take a look at the amount of physical (skilled) work involved in the creation of each element, consider the amount of time required, then apply that to the final price of roughly $2000. Factor in the raw experience required to be able to do this work in the first place.
It will take over two weeks in total to create this single finished panel. Remember that price is the gross, it has to include cost of materials and actually running my workshop for that two weeks as well. (Any 'take home' is only a small portion!)

What do YOU get paid for two weeks work?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Winter Weathering - Icelandic Destruction!

Question : How might an Icelandic styled smelting furnace survive a winter?
Answer : Quite poorly - to its destruction!

Long time readers know that my team here from DARC is working towards a full scale re-construction of an Icelandic styled iron smelter, based on Kevin Smith's excavations at Hals (from the Viking Age)

An interesting piece of the puzzle was seen this spring, when the snow finally came off here in Wareham. Now admittedly this is Central Ontario, and this winter was unusual. There were at least three separate snow dump and thaw cycles this year. Almost much snow as a typical year came down from early November through to mid December, followed by a thaw that melted most of the ground cover off just after Christmas. This was repeated in January, with a finial dump which is still not totally melted at the point I am writing this in Mid April.

The result is even more freeze and thaw damage than is typical, and the two smelters still standing in our working area clearly demonstrate this. Both were covered with a metal drum to prevent direct rain damage, and to prevent snow from filling the shaft.

First is one of our standard 'Norse Short Shaft', furnaces, half earth banked. This furnace was built and fired in early October last fall. The first image shows the rough condition of the structure at the start of the bottom extraction process. The second shows considerable spalling off of the front wall as winter damage. I estimate that the furnace has lost almost 50% of its thickness of about 8 cm. It should prove possible however, to simply patch and continue to use this furnace, as there is virtually no damage at all to the inner, sintered, surface of the shaft.

Compare this to the condition of the Icelandic pattern furnace, built and fired in early November last fall (and set about five feet from the other one).
This furnace has walls only 3 cm thick roughly 1/3 as thick as the other smelter. When the furnace was used, the whole exposed front face was badly cracked, so it was decided to simply remove the segment above the bellows plate and tap arch when measurements were being made (image to left). Over the winter, the entire structure disintegrated, and the soil surrounding the cylindrical shaft has slumped into the resulting hole (image to right). The circle of stones originally surrounding the top of the shaft have come to rest on a layer made up of broken, sintered furnace wall from the upper part of the shaft (image at centre).

The supporting structure at Halls was made up of stacked layers of grass sod, which certainly would have been more stable than the loose earth backing used for our initial test furnaces. The fact remains that the thin clay cobb lining, at best partially sintered, would be unlikely to survive the riggors of an Icelandic winter. This may have a bearing on the remains found at Hals, since at the very least it suggests an individual furnace structure would only prove usable, without heavy rebuilding, for any more than a single summer season.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Layout of the Wareham Forge

This is a short overview of my primary workspace. It will be of greatest interest to other working smiths - or those thinking of setting up their own working space.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Viking Age Tents - Oseberg evidence

(I have not been posting regularly or evenly over the last month, and see my readers are suffering because of this. As a tid bit, I offer this - prepared for my recent session at Forward Into the Past)

Image above - the tent frame pieces found in the Oseberg ship burial (circa 825).

This is a direct scan of the illustration from the original primary report. This was published back near the turn of 1900, in Norwegian, and follow that older style (massive text, few illustrations, hardly any photographs).
I have taken the scaled drawing and shifted the individual pieces around to match them by length and to group them into possible tent frames. (The original order in the drawing is indicated by the letters). What you get is a clear set of nine beams for the first tent. One set would require four similar sized (here with matching carvings) plank uprights, with another pair of bottom end planks. The triangles formed by each group of three would be joined by three beams, an upper ridge pole and a pair on each bottom side. The ridge pole does not need to be the same length as the lower beams (those two have to be identical). If the lower beams are longer, the tent frame will angle in towards the top, which does improve the stability of the structure (but uses more cloth for the cover).

There is a second possible grouping for a slightly smaller tent frame. At least there are clearly a matched group of four carved uprights. When assembling the other pieces, its clear that these do not match up in lengths into a completed frame.

If readers are interested in building a version of these artifact tents for themselves, I have (long) had a set of plans published over on the Norse Encampment web site. This is for a 10 x 10 base version (considerably smaller than the original above).

Monday, April 06, 2009

'Bridges & Doors'

I will be participating (in a small way) in this gallery exhibit of the work of friend Laura Travis, opening TODAY (April 5) at AS220 Project Space in Providence Rhode Island. Laura is a fellow member of An Droichead / the Bridge, and has made space for a number of pieces by other group members Catherine Crowe and Brenda Roy.
(some more exhibit details on Laura's AS220 Project site)

What I am contributing:

'Offering Bowl'
forged bloomery iron

" This piece was forged from an iron bloom created at the 2005 Early Iron Symposium. The bloom was intentionally only loosely compacted to the starting billet. The purpose was to allow fractures to develop, especially along the edges of the form. In this way the genesis of the material would be revealed. "
(more details on this earlier blog posting)

Layer Test Seax
forged bloomery iron

" This knife was forged from a fragment of an iron bloom created at the 2005 Early Iron Symposium. In this case the metal was subjected to a number of simple folds and welds. Before the last fold, the billet was drawn to a bar and lightly twisted. The finished blade shape is inspired by both the classic 'seax' pattern, as well as single piece kitchen knives from Roman Britain.
The finished blade has been lightly etched, as would be done for a layered steel blade. The purpose of this test piece was to determine in the slight variations in carbon content within the starting iron bloom and from the welding process might create any visible patterning on the surface. "
(more details on this earlier blog posting)

'Hanger for my Fall Coat and Hat'
forged mild steel
(no image available)

" A piece created for presentation at Quad State 08, on the theme of 'clothes hangers'. Structural materials (angle) is agressively forged to create a pair of feather like elements that flank the central support. The finish is dark brown with copper highlights. "

Friday, April 03, 2009

Lectures on Saturday!

Forward Into the Past
17th Annual Symposium
Saturday April 4


'Exploring the Viking Age in Denmark'

In spring of 2008, Darrell undertook a two and half week trip to Denmark. The primary reason was to attend the 'Iron Seminar at Thy' - meeting and working with other experimental iron smelters. Much of the rest of the time was spent in museums, especially focused on the Viking Age collections. This illustrated talk will be an overview of what was seen and experienced, both in the museums and while traveling across Denmark.

'Towards an Icelandic Smelt'

This session is a field report on the current experimental archaeology series being undertaken by DARC. Recent excavations by Kevin Smith at the Hals in Iceland have uncovered a Viking Age 'industrial' iron processing site. Using clues from the archaeology, is it possible to re-create the physical iron smelting methods which may have been originally used?

'To build a Tent - Camping in the Viking Age'
(joint session with Meghan Roberts)

So there you are, Norse and in need of some overhead cover while traveling. What do you do?
A 'friendly argument' presenting two alternate points of view : the A frame versus the Geteld. We will each make our case historically and practically, plus take a look at the evidence for some alternatives. Includes a discussion of plans, materials and construction tips for would be tent makers.
These are my tentative lecture topics (at this point) stay tuned for details...

For more information on the event go to the FITP web site

Ancient Iron Working Discovered...

(I am in the middle of trying to replace my rapidly failing 96 Astro, so not as active here as I might be this week.)

This piece forwarded to me by fellow member Brigitte Wolfe:

Excavation in Turkey set to rewrite history of Iron Age



Japanese researchers digging in Turkey have pushed back the start of the Iron Age, until now presumed to have begun around 1500 B.C., with the discovery of fragments of an iron tool that predate previous finds by several centuries.

The implication of the excavations at Kaman-Kalehoyuk, about 100 kilometers southeast of Ankara, is that the history of iron tool production may have to be rewritten.

Researchers of the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan have worked the Kaman-Kalehoyuk site since 1985.

They said iron fragments believed to be part of a blade were found in a geological layer dating from 2100 B.C. to 1950 B.C.

Until now, the first use of man-made iron tools and weapons was believed to have been around 1500 B.C. by Hittites who lived in the Anatolian Peninsula.

The iron fragments were found during excavations in 2000. The artifact, which is in pieces, would have a total length of 5 centimeters if connected. Although the tool was badly corroded, an X-ray of a cross section produced an image of a sharp edge.

Researchers believe the tool was a single-edged dagger.

Another fragment, a piece of iron slag, measures 2 centimeters in diameter.

Two rocks containing iron were also found, suggesting that iron workshops existed at the site.

Located in Tokyo's Mitaka city, the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan was established in 1979.

During excavations that wound up last year, researchers discovered iron from a geological layer from before 1500 B.C. However, they said there was a chance the artifact had settled from a later period.

Hideo Akanuma, a senior curator at the Iwate Prefectural Museum, began analyzing the metal fragments last year.

According to Akanuma, "The discovery of iron in different stages of processing as well as its raw materials from the same geological layer is conclusive evidence that iron processing occurred at the site."

The Hittites are credited with being the first race of people to artificially create iron.

Iron tools emerged in China from around the seventh cent B.C. and spread during the Warring States Period of the fourth century B.C. The technology is believed to have reached Japan around the Yayoi Pottery Culture era of 300 B.C.-300 A.D.

Sachihiro Omura, who heads the Japanese Institute of Anatolian Archaeology at the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan, said, "After iron production began in the Anatolian Peninsula, the conquering Hittites, who invaded from the north, used iron to make their weapons.

"By protecting the secret of iron production, the Hittites were able to build an empire that extended across the Orient," he said.

Source: The Asashi Shimbun (27 March 2009)

Ironware piece from Turkey found to be the oldest steel

Japanese researchers digging in Turkey have pushed back the start of the Iron Age, until now presumed to have begun around 1500 BCE, with the discovery of fragments of an iron tool that predate previous finds by several centuries. The implication of the excavations at Kaman- Kalehoyuk, about 100 kilometers southeast of Ankara, is that the history of iron tool production may have to be rewritten.
Archaeologists from the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan excavated the artifact - which is in pieces and would have a total length of 5 centimeters if connected - at the Kaman-Kalehoyuk archaeological site in Turkey, about 100 kilometers southeast of Ankara, in 2000. The ironware piece is believed to be a part of a knife from a stratum about 4,000 years old, or 2100-1950 BCE, according to them. Another fragment, a piece of iron slag, measures 2 centimeters in diameter. Two rocks containing iron were also found, suggesting that iron workshops existed at the site.
An analysis at the Iwate Prefectural Museum in Morioka showed that the ironware piece was about 200 years older than one that was excavated from the same site in 1994 and was believed to be the oldest steel so far made in 20th-18th centuries BCE. The ironware is highly likely to have been produced near the Kaman-Kalehoyuk site as a 2-cm- diameter slag and two iron-containing stones have also been excavated, Kyodo news agency quoted the archaeologists as saying.
Hideo Akanuma, an archaeologist at the Iwate Prefectural Museum, said the fresh finding led to a change in the history of iron and steel production, noting that such production was earlier thought to have begun in the Hittite kingdom dating in the 14th to 12th centuries BCE.

Source: The Hindu (26 March 2009)

My own notes place the first human smelted iron artifacts at 2500 BC - an iron dagger blade from Anatolia, Turkey. The oldest worked iron object as made from meteor iron, dated to 3800 BC, found in Egypt.
Meteor Iron would certainly have been found and worked well before the discovery of the smelting process. This source material is easy to distinguish, as non-terrestrial iron will have anything from 7 - 15 % nickel content. It was not until the late Victorian period before modern metallurgists could produce this kind of nickel content.

February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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