A study by the University of York has revealed the Viking trade connections between the borders of Northern Scandinavia and Continental Europe.
The study focuses on trade connections in the town of Hedeby, an important trading settlement in the Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries) near the southern tip of the Jutland Peninsula in Germany.
Hedeby is first mentioned in the Frankish chronicles of Einhard (in the service of Charlemagne), but was probably founded around 770 AD. It is the most important archaeological site in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. In 2018, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Hedeby’s status as a primary trading center can be attributed to its strategic geographical location on important trade routes linking the Frankish Empire and Scandinavia north-south and the Baltic and North Sea east-west. (The Frankish Kingdom was the largest post-Roman barbarian kingdom in Western Europe. It was ruled by the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties in the early Middle Ages. It was among the last Germanic kingdoms to survive the Migration Period.)
Hedeby was also a major center of antler working; most of the 288,000 antler finds recorded to date are waste material from the production of hair combs.
Analysis of the collagen in the combs revealed that 85-90% of the combs were made from reindeer antlers in the 9th century AD. The fact that the combs or antlers were imported from northern Scandinavia points to new evidence of contact between Hedeby and the northern regions of central and northern Scandinavia.
Dr. Steven Ashby said, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York “The work at Hedeby is particularly interesting, as it tells us about connections between the mountains of upland or arctic Scandinavia and this large town at the gateway to continental Europe, and points to a window in the 9th Century when these northern links must have been particularly strong.”
Goods traded by Vikings
The Vikings traveled widely, both raiding and trading. Scandinavia’s environment was relatively cool and not conducive to large-scale agriculture. This meant that Viking communities tended to be small and mobile, which made it easier for them to travel long distances to trade. Unlike the empires they traded with, the Vikings were not a single political community, but they shared many cultural traits, such as a common family of Norse languages.
Goods that are easy to obtain are usually cheap. Due to the limited transportation technology of the Middle Ages, it was not profitable to transport cheap goods over long distances. Luxury goods were rare and expensive, and the purchase of luxury goods was often linked to social status. During the time of the Vikings, resources such as timber, amber and furs were widely available in the Baltic region. Viking traders obtained these products from the local population, sometimes by force, sometimes through trade. They transported them to markets further south, such as Bulgur or Kiev, or even as far as Constantinople or Baghdad, where these goods were not locally available. In return they received silver coins, silk, glass and other manufactured goods that they could not produce themselves.
The Vikings were skilled shipbuilders and used these vessels for military and economic purposes. The typical Viking longship had both sails and oars and was also very light, with the bottom of the ship not going far below the water surface. This made Viking ships ideal for river transportation in shallow waters.
Almost all of the geography between the Baltic Sea and the Black and Caspian Seas was suitable for river transportation. This gave the Vikings an advantage because they had the technology to exploit the geography of direct trade routes.
Archaeologists have found large quantities of silver coins along the most used trade routes in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions. Most of these coins are from the Abbasid Empire and were made in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This tells us that the Vikings traded directly or indirectly with the Abbasids.
At the end of the trade, the demand for the resources of the Baltic region continued but the Vikings gradually disappeared. The trade in the goods they traditionally carried was taken over by new groups. As long as there was demand for Baltic goods, people found ways to trade them profitably.
Cover Photo: Combs from the Viking trade connections research. Mariana Muñoz-Rodriguez