How Do We know About the Vikings?

Much of what we know about the Vikings comes from archaeology. Archaeology is a special way of learning history where there are no eyewitness accounts. Archaeology is not just digging for evidence. One of the most important elements of modern archaeology is the forensic use of other sciences. This forensic approach to history is similar to the methods used by the police on a crime scene. The ground is examined for traces of buildings, people, and animals. The methods used to find them are many: study of air photos, the use of ground-penetrating radar or other technical devices, and excavation of the ground itself. Often the only remains of buildings are stains in the soil or stone foundations reduced to rubble. Objects found in the ground provide evidence of the people who used them, what they used them for, and when. Remains of plants, often in form of seeds and pollen, show what the environment was like, as do the microfossils of insects.

There are also scientific methods of dating such as radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology, the dating of treerings.

People leave behind evidence of their activities. From the activities, archaeologists try to determine whether they were men, women, or children, what their status in society was and how they interacted with each other. More direct information is gained by the finding of skeletons, usually in graves. The archaeologist studies skeletons the same way as a pathologist and medical examiner would to determine the cause of death, diseases, age at death, height, and physical appearance. Other scientific studies give information on what people ate. Modern DNA studies can give even more details on who the people were.

Other people’s garbage is the archaeologist’s treasure. In ancient times, there was no garbage collection. Garbage was almost always thrown out to the side of the front door. Huge piles could be accumulated this way. In the garbage piles are usually the bones and other remains of the food people ate, and lots of broken objects. From examining what the bones were one learns what animals people kept and ate. Tiny seeds tell us about vegetables and other plant foods. The objects may be broken, but they tell of activities inside the house. A broken comb, for instance, can show that its inhabitants combed their hair to remove lice, a glass bead reflects the desire for jewellery, and a broken cooking pot points to domestic life in the rooms. The location of the pile itself is often a clue to where the front door was and how the dwelling was laid out.

In the following sections it will be up to you to see how much of Viking life you can piece together from the forensic evidence.