Alice Roberts shows how the Vikings' story has changed on TV since the 1960s, from being seen as brutal barbarians, to pioneering traders able to integrate into multiple cultures.
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On 8th June 793AD, Europe changed forever.
The hallowed monastery at Lindisfarne
on the Northumbrian coast was suddenly attacked and looted
by armed, seafaring Scandinavians.
Striking at the very heart of Christian Britain,
it also sent a shock wave rippling throughout the continent.
A new order had begun.
The age of the Vikings.
Centuries later, and that image of the ruthless, marauding Viking
still stalks our collective psyche.
But just how truthful is it?
Were they really sadistic raiders?
Or enterprising traders?
Using decades of BBC archive, I'll examine how historians,
archaeologists and film-makers have re-evaluated the Vikings over time.
I'll reveal how they've collaborated
to crack the secrets of Viking technology.
In terms of the Viking Age, it was a bit like going into outer space.
How our changing values have changed how we interpret them.
There is certainly an emphasis on the valorisation of bloody deeds.
And I'll discover how the Vikings are still with us today.
If you're angry, if you're happy, if you're ill.
-Those words as well?
-All these words come from Norse.
I want to investigate the legacy of this ancient Norse culture.
Have the Vikings simply sailed off, disappearing into history?
Or can we still detect their influence
rippling through our modern world?
This is the Timewatch guide to the Vikings.
The Scandinavia of the 8th century was not as we know it today.
With the countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden
yet to be established,
this was a land populated by scattered groups
of fishermen, farmers and warriors.
Descendants of Nordic tribes, they were not a unified people.
Not one culture governed by a leader
but, rather, disparate clans, often at war with each other.
To become the people we now know as Vikings,
they would have to leave their homeland.
To be a Viking was to take action.
In the old Norse language, it was practically an occupation -
"to go a viking" was to sail off in search of treasure and adventure.
They couldn't have done this without one of the greatest technological
breakthroughs of Europe's Dark Ages, the Viking long ship.
The one thing that unified and defined the Vikings
was their advanced naval technology.
In the years following the raid on Lindisfarne,
their iconic dragon-headed vessels
would be seen from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
So, in his definitive 1980s series, Vikings,
Magnus Magnusson put major emphasis on how central the long ship was
to their extraordinary success.
You know, to the Vikings,
running a ship came as naturally as driving a car does to us.
But with one extra dimension -
the sheer physical exhilaration of it.
To feel a boat like this, thrumming and strumming underneath you,
is really one of the most thrilling experiences you can imagine.
The genius of the longship's design
was that its keel could glide just under the surface of the water,
allowing some ships to reach top speeds of almost 30kph.
The largest could measure up to 35 metres in length,
light and narrow and, with up to 78 oarsmen,
these flexible machines could power through the waves.
The ship technology of the Vikings
had been developing slowly but surely over many centuries.
And, then, suddenly, it seems, they were there.
At Lindisfarne, everywhere,
swarming out of their fjords across the northern seas.
And they were there because they had put it all together.
They had learned to build the best, the most beautiful,
the most seaworthy ships in the whole wide world.
The classic Viking longship, as we imagine it,
had a number of advantages.
For one thing, it has a fairly shallow draught,
which means it can navigate river systems,
and it can beach wherever it really wants to.
Secondly, the nature of the construction,
the clinker-built construction, makes it extremely flexible.
So it can move with the waves,
and that gives it the technological advantage it needs
to be a true ocean-going vessel.
It's not just about the ability to travel across the sea,
it's also about the ability to get away again, quickly.
So, if you've got a ship that can move in fast, get away quickly,
then that's an ideal, amphibious assault weapon.
If it weren't for this technology,
we would simply never have heard of the Vikings.
These vessels were the engine that powered their rise.
But, in the 1980s, details were still missing.
There were many unanswered technical questions.
How did the Vikings construct these ships
and navigate such vast distances over 1,000 years ago?
As their knowledge increased,
archaeologists and historians wanted to delve deeper into the secrets
of Viking naval technology.
And one way of doing that was to perform experimental archaeology
which also made for compelling television.
By the 1990s,
a new fashion in film-making had emerged as programme-makers and
archaeologists began to work together to unlock the secrets
of Viking technology.
'Modern boats have radios, satellite navigation systems, radar.
'The Vikings didn't even have compasses.
'How was it possible?'
In 1995, one of the greatest sailors of his generation,
Robin Knox-Johnston, had a theory.
It lay in an 11th century sun compass.
He wanted to test out if this was the lost piece of Viking technology
that would finally reveal to us how they navigated the world.
The answer just may be a simple, little, wooden disc like this.
Now, a third of one of these was found in a monastery in Greenland,
and it was a long time before anyone noticed that it had got a curve
traced on it. Eventually, a navigator looked at it and said,
"Wait a minute, the curve shows
"where the sun's shadow from this pin
"has fallen during the course of the day."
They suddenly realised, if I had a rough idea of time,
I can tell where North is with this.
Once I know North, I can work out all the other points of the compass.
To sail from Norway in the east to Greenland in the west,
a Viking longship would have to have travelled 2,500 kilometres.
Knox Johnston wanted to test if he could sail along a chosen latitude,
guided only by the Sun's shadow cast on this primitive compass.
'The trick appears to be to sit for a day due east of your destination.
'Keep the sundial in a fixed position and, from time to time,
'mark where the shadow falls.
'Next day, you set out,
'which is how we came to be sitting in the English Channel
'60 miles east of the Lizard.
'No compass, and at dawn no shadow to steer by,
'Viking navigation would have to work with only occasional sunshine.'
If you look at the map of the North Atlantic,
most of the places that the Vikings went to,
from Norway across to Shetland,
to the Faroe Islands, to Iceland, to Greenland,
are roughly in an east-west direction.
And you can use sightings on the Sun
to keep yourself heading in the correct direction.
And, so, using this sun compass,
the gnomon that Robin Knox-Johnston was demonstrating,
which was found in an excavation in Greenland,
it is possible, with care and skill,
to maintain a reasonably accurate heading,
when you're heading west, or east.
In other words, do that, effectively.
If it's there, I've got to do that.
Get that shadow on that line.
We reckon that guessing the time to within half-an-hour
would be good enough.
Well, that's pretty fantastic, I must say.
I didn't think we'd be that close.
Nine cables out after 60 miles.
About a land mile.
That's fairly remarkable.
We now know a simple bit of wood and a little pin in the middle,
and a rough idea of time, cos that's all we had,
you can steer a remarkably accurate course.
That's one of the most amazing things about the Viking Age,
is that this is a phenomenon where people are taking these incredible
risks on the open ocean in ways that had never been attempted before.
And, in the process, you have a people who are the first to reach
four separate continents over the surface of the Earth.
This has never been done before.
The strength of mind and will to do that is absolutely mind-boggling.
By 2008, the era of reality television had arrived,
and Timewatch followed the reconstruction
of a 30-metre longship,
filled it with a crew of over 60, rigged it with cameras,
and prepared to sail from Denmark to Ireland.
The aim was to capture every second of what a Viking voyage entailed,
as the crew had to live, eat and sleep on the cramped, open ship.
'They're sailing 1,000 miles in the world's largest Viking longship.'
'900 years on, the ship has been painstakingly built,
'using authentic Viking tools and methods.
'Their mission is to discover just how ships like these
'made the Vikings the rulers of the sea.'
So, this footage really gives you a sense of how dangerous,
how uncomfortable, how frightening
it would have been to be on a ship like this.
Bear in mind that the people who are doing it as a reconstruction
are doing it with life jackets and protective clothing
and warm winter wear, and medical supplies,
and a safety boat and all the rest of it.
When this was happening for real in the 9th, 10th, 11th centuries,
they had none of that.
This unique partnership of programme-makers
and experimental archaeologists
could now give us a much closer look into the realities
of the Viking experience.
Lowering the sail prevents the wind from blowing the ship over.
But it also makes the ship much less stable in the big waves.
Never a good thing on this boat.
On most other boats, it's for safety.
Not on this boat.
They're making the sail smaller as there's so much wind right now,
we are trying to make it as... Yeah, I think it's the last rope,
so, now we can't make it any smaller.
Enduring a tortuous, seven-week experience at sea,
the crew are left in no doubt of the determination of the Vikings.
I think the Vikings were tough in a way that modern people just aren't.
And they were prepared to accept they might not make it,
in a way that modern people generally aren't.
Going into the unknown, I think,
was something which you just did at that time.
Life, whether it's on land or at sea,
entailed far more dangers and far more uncertainty
than we think ours does today.
It really helped, I think,
to bring into focus the achievement of people 1,000 years ago,
who were capable of doing that.
'The ship has travelled 1,000 nautical miles
'during 220 hours of sailing.
'And, finally, they're nearing their destination.'
Viking ships were certainly impressive.
Their speed and size demonstrated technical and military prowess.
But the decorative art which adorned them also held clues
to the Vikings' deeply held, spiritual beliefs,
and their mythologies.
In his 2012 series, Vikings,
Neil Oliver shifted our attention to this artistry
which portrayed a realm of mysterious, mythical creatures
and legends engraved within Viking culture.
The ship itself is the work of many craftsmen.
But, here, in this carving,
is the imagination and the skill of just one artist.
It's this exciting, vivid depiction
of a dragon or sea serpents twisted together,
the scales and the skin are picked out
with these carefully etched lines.
While it's one thing to be handed an object
that you can hold in your hand,
and be told that this is 1,000 or 1,200 years old,
it's of another order of magnitude
to stand beneath something like this.
This says that the Vikings were real people, with huge ambition.
This is just one of hundreds or thousands of ships
built during the Viking Age.
This is what the Vikings were capable of.
This particular ship was found within a burial mound.
Not only would these ships ferry Vikings in life,
but they would carry them on their journeys into the afterlife.
This only happened to the few.
And they would see all the valuables going in,
then the animals being killed, and put alongside.
It would have stayed with those spectators for a lifetime.
And they, in turn, would have passed stories about what they had seen,
down through the generations.
So, whoever went into the next life aboard this ship
would never be forgotten.
When you look at a ship like the Oseberg ship,
it can be quite hard to understand why something
with such a high level of investment that has gone into it
would be buried under a mound like this.
But it is really
making a statement about status, about wealth,
about the ability of a community to dispose of something
of incredible value and artistry.
It was clearly a treasured possession,
and the fact that it could be disposed of like this
really tells you something about the people who were buried with it.
The beautiful Oseberg ship revealed the spiritual beliefs
and the rituals of the Vikings,
but it also held two totally unexpected new discoveries
about their society.
As an archaeologist,
I tend to spend a lot of my time talking about powerful men.
But when the Oseberg ship was excavated,
the big surprise was that it contained two women.
And these are the remains of one of them.
In fact, the older of the two.
We tend to think of the Viking,
it's a guy, almost certainly blond, tall,
very Scandinavian-looking, a warrior.
It's not that that's inaccurate,
but that's only one element of Viking society.
We know that women were present during the raids,
they formed a very important component of Viking settlements.
They were a very influential force in Viking Age society.
And analysis of the second woman makes things even more complicated.
While there is every reason to believe that the older woman
was Scandinavian born and bred,
analysis of DNA taken from the younger woman's skeleton
at least allows for the possibility
that she was from as far away as the Middle East.
So that, by as early as the end of the 8th century,
the Vikings were doing much more than just causing trouble
for their neighbours, like the people in the British Isles.
They had contacts into the east and Eastern Europe.
These investigations were revealing new insights into women's position
in Viking society, and how they navigated vast distances,
and even the onboard experience of a Viking voyage.
But the big question for historians still
was what motivated them to make these treacherous journeys?
Their raid on the monastery in Lindisfarne in 793
heralded the beginning of a relentless campaign of attacks
on the vulnerable coastline monasteries
dotted around the British Isles
and, by the end of the century, continental Europe.
The Vikings' repeated raids on monasteries gained them a reputation
for incredible savagery, and this echoes down the centuries.
In the early days of television,
this is often what the programme-makers chose to focus on.
'In the 8th century,
'the men of Norway, Denmark and Sweden built themselves fine ships,
'and began to look about them with greedy eyes.
'The Vikings worshipped Odin and Thor, and hated Christ.'
Ha! Did the Vikings hate Christ?
No, no, the Vikings didn't hate Christ.
I just don't think they really cared all that much.
You have to remember that what we know about Viking belief
was that it embraced a whole pantheon of gods and spirits
and other supernatural creatures.
So, the idea that there was something particularly bizarre
about Christ, it doesn't really make any sense.
I'm sure he was recognised as just another god, like all the others.
But they certainly didn't see anything special about Christianity,
and there was nothing special about Christian holy places.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts the Vikings as wild heathens
on a mission to destroy the Church,
while some monks even believed that these savage Norsemen,
who'd suddenly appeared on the horizon,
were God's punishment for wayward Christians.
In reality, the Vikings simply viewed monasteries as easy targets.
They were accessible, undefended, and filled with silver and gold.
That 1965 broadcast was part of a time when we were almost
still thinking in the backgrounds of our minds
about the Second World War, about invasion,
and about people coming across the sea to take things
and to destroy, and we're sort of imposing that on the distant pass.
By 1980, our views had changed.
We'd previously taken the monks' version of events
as the definitive accounts of Viking raids,
but Magnus Magnusson pointed out
that the Church was spinning history,
attempting to paint the Vikings as the ultimate pagan barbarians.
One of the more preposterous claims was that after a Viking host
had sacked the great monastery of Clonmacnoise here,
their chieftain placed his wife upon the high altar,
where she chanted heathen spells and oracles.
Now, this chieftain was a certain Turges or Turgesius, a Norwegian,
who it was claimed had assumed the sovereignty
of all the foreigners in Erin.
He's credited with the foundation of Dublin and other Viking towns,
but to his discredit it's said that he set himself up as some sort of
pagan abbot, or a high priest of Armagh, which he'd also pillaged,
and that he tried to convert the whole of Christian Ireland
to the worship of the Norse god Thor.
Now, this is patently absurd,
the Vikings were the most unfanatical of believers,
notable for their total lack of missionary zeal
and modern Irish historians now tend to think
that both Turges and his demonic wife
are nothing more than a fevered, monkish fiction.
I think there was a growing awareness
that the monastic chronicles,
although they reflected a true impression
of how the monks themselves were feeling at the time,
that that was only part of the story and a growing realisation
that we have to be quite critical of our historical sources,
that they might not... You can't just take them at face value.
The Vikings do seem to have had less of a taboo, if you like,
about attacking churches, smashing up shrines, killing church people,
men and women,
than their contemporaries in Irish or British society.
However, they were by no means the only ones who were indulging
in violence to get their own way.
That was very common across early medieval Europe.
We're not talking about the age of developed countries
with the rule of law, nation states. This was just starting.
They were in quite a mixed and fluid situation,
and they were using violence to get their own way,
but, really, everybody else was as well.
By the end of the 20th century,
historians had established that the Vikings' notoriety
was partly built on medieval Christian propaganda.
But archaeological finds showed us
that their fearsome reputation was still justified.
One dark, uncomfortable truth about Viking raids can't be denied.
They didn't just steal ecclesiastical silver,
they stole people.
The Vikings built much of their wealth on the slave trade.
In his 2001 series, Blood Of The Vikings,
Julian Richards found that the city of Dublin owes its very existence
to the Viking appetite for the buying and selling of human beings.
But what was it in Ireland that attracted so much Viking commerce?
The usual trade items that the Irish dealt with
throughout most archaeological periods
would have been animal hides and wool, for instance,
but there's also little doubt that a very significant proportion
of the trade was in the form of slaves.
There's a hint of the scale of this trade in the Annals of Ulster
The chronicler writes about the Viking rulers of Dublin,
returning from an expedition to Scotland.
'Amlaib and Imar came back to Dublin from Scotland
'with 200 ships and they brought with them in captivity to Ireland
'a great prey of Anglos, Britons and Picts.'
Now, that must have been a very large haul of slaves
and they were being brought back to Dublin because
it must have been functioning as a sort of a slave emporium
within the western Viking world.
The Viking farmsteads are characterised by their huge size
and slave labour would have been needed to operate those
to their maximum efficiency.
The likelihood is that they were shipped on,
perhaps to Arabic Spain, but certainly over to Iceland,
to the Viking farmsteads in Scotland,
and probably back to Scandinavia itself.
And there are even objects that could have been used in this trade.
We have slave chains,
they are large collars which are big enough to go around a person's neck
and, attached to them, a long chain,
exactly similar to the sort of slave chains which are associated
with 18th century African slavery, for instance.
Men from all over Europe were being sold here for 12oz of silver,
and women for eight.
We know that slavery took place across Europe at the time
in most societies. So, they weren't that unusual,
they were probably particularly enterprising slave traders.
They may have been particularly brutal ones.
If you're dealing in human beings,
there is inevitably an element of violence
in your means of acquiring that commodity.
So you can conceivably have a scenario
where the very same individuals who are raiding a coastal community
on mainland Ireland, are taking monks,
they're taking women and children from their homes
and then selling them at the nearest market they come to.
That the Vikings were formidable raiders is undisputed,
but historians' continued questioning of sources
has revealed that their practices were little different
to those of their Dark Age contemporaries.
As the 1980s began,
the focus on the violent raider had shifted and an entirely different
version of the Viking was now being presented to us.
Accumulating wealth through plunder and conquest
is just part of the Viking story.
They built on that success to create a huge international trade network.
The '80s was an age of enterprise, deregulation and entrepreneurship
and our interpretation of the Vikings changed with the times.
Magnus Magnusson presented us with a Viking for the new decade,
not the grizzled slave owner, but an industrious,
aspirational, global trader.
Wealth, money, cash.
Coins and bullion from the rich silver mines of the East.
It all comes from one remarkable island in the middle
of the Baltic, called Gotland.
Gotland was the Midas island of the Viking Age.
Everything that Gotland has touched turned to gold or silver,
the sheer quantity is incredible.
You know, sometimes the most significant historical documents
turn out to be disarmingly insignificant,
like this little piece of whetstone, for instance,
which was found here on Gotland.
It's got a runic inscription on it,
not meant to some momentous message for prosperity.
Frankly, just a doodle done in an idle moment.
But how momentous it's turned out to be.
It says, "Ormiga, Ulfar,
"Greece, Jerusalem, Iceland, Serkland."
Which means, in effect,
"Me and my mate, Ulfar, we've been to Byzantium,
"to Palestine, to Iceland and to Arabia."
Just imagine it, a veritable Cook's tour of the Viking world
of that time.
And Ormiga wasn't even boasting about it,
I think he was just doing his expenses.
But the Gotlanders have always felt that they're
the centre of the world,
and, in Viking times, queening it over the trade routes
of the Baltic here, they really were.
And this little throwaway piece of stone actually proves it.
In the 1980s, we see the idea of the Vikings as being adventurers,
privateers, if you like.
They were out there grabbing what they could,
sailing past the customs men and not paying their dues,
getting away from the nanny state and doing these exciting things
on the open seas, in some cases quite brutally.
And I think that chimed with the times, really.
They're almost a Thatcherite Viking, if you like,
a sort of "greed is good" Viking,
which is very much in tune with the spirit of the age.
The Vikings began to establish themselves as the foremost traders
of their era, as they opened up new markets abroad.
Filling their ships with distinctive northern European goods -
amber, animal furs, honey and walrus tusks to barter with -
it was the exotic trading capitals of the East that the Swedish Vikings
would set their sights on.
But, in the 20th century, much of their activities in Russia
had been kept hidden from us behind the Iron Curtain.
One big thing, of course, about Eastern Europe and Russia
is the new knowledge and access we've had to it
since the end of the Soviet Union, in the period 1989 to '91.
Since then, it's been a lot easier to go to Russia
and find out this kind of information than it was at the time.
In the 1960s, we knew very little really, compared to today,
about what had happened in that area.
They used the sea as others used the land,
using waterways and sea lanes as trails and highways.
Even the word "Norway" does not mean a piece of land.
It means, "a sea road", "the way north."
Scandinavians travelled up rivers into Russia,
to the Black Sea and Byzantium.
And along the coasts of Europe, to France,
Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean.
When we started to have more of a global view of the Viking Age,
we realised that these long-distance trade networks
were being formed that stretched all the way from Ireland in the east,
all the way to Constantinople.
We began to see how interconnected the Viking world was.
By 2012, historians and television crews could go deep
into Russian territory to explore the true extent
of the Viking trading system,
something that would have been impossible during the darker days
of the Cold War.
Neil Oliver discovered the challenge facing the Swedish Vikings
as they began to move east through the waterways
and frozen terrains of Russia.
By navigating the Russian rivers and lugging their boats when necessary,
the Vikings could transport themselves all the way
from the Baltic to the Caspian and the Black seas.
It's time-consuming and it is laborious, but, you know,
there's enough men here to move a boat this size,
so the system does work.
Well, the thing that really sets the Vikings apart from anybody else
is their use of not just the sea, but also river systems.
The rivers are difficult to navigate, they're not continuous,
so you can't just go all the way in one boat.
There would have to be transhipment points, and at these points they
developed towns, places like Kiev, Novgorod.
It became a functioning society that was linked into trade and transport.
The arriving Vikings made such an impact
that their merchant peers gave them a special title.
They called them "the Rus,"
which means something like, "The men who row."
And it shows how influential they became, because, after all,
this land is now called Russia.
It's remarkable to think that one of the biggest nations in the world
gets its name from the Vikings, who navigated its waterways,
setting up trading posts and colonies as they went.
But for the Vikings to build a truly global trading network,
they had to come to the gateway to Asia.
Between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean
lay the greatest marketplace on Earth -
Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.
For a Viking, this would have been all but overwhelming,
because this is on a completely different scale from anything
he would have witnessed before.
Instead of hundreds of people, here it would have been thousands,
or even tens of thousands, and from all over the world.
And then there are all the exotic sights and sounds and smells.
It's all but an assault on the senses.
Nowhere captured the imagination of a Viking trader like Constantinople.
Filled with silks and gold,
this city had once been the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The trouble was that Constantinople was tightly controlled
with strict trade quotas, taxes and even immigration rules.
But by the early 900s, the Vikings had been granted access.
With a foothold in Constantinople, the Norsemen had now cemented
their reputation as arguably the world's greatest traders.
These long-distance trade networks were really sustained through the
export of things like furs and hides, amber, wax,
coming down from Scandinavia,
huge amounts of Arabic silver going back the other way,
along the Russian rivers.
And massive, massive quantities of Arabic silver is one of the
most distinctive features of the Viking Age.
So trying to account for how all that silver entered Scandinavia,
that's not through raiding, or at least not raiding alone,
that's because of the trading networks of the Vikings.
Any Viking who had spent three months or more in the city
was entitled to buy silk up to the value of two slaves,
and that silk was so valuable,
it made the perilous river journeys to get here more than worthwhile.
A merchant could earn, in just a year or two,
more wealth than a prosperous farmer
back home in Scandinavia could acquire in an entire lifetime.
From the wind-battered plains and fjords of Scandinavia,
through the twisted rivers of Russia,
the Vikings' entrepreneurial spirit had brought them
to the Byzantine Empire and the centre of power
in the medieval world.
At the Hagia Sophia mosque, Neil Oliver uncovered a piece of
evidence that hints that they'd now become elite members
of Byzantine society.
All around me are remnants of over 1,000 years of
Christian and Muslim worship.
But one tiny corner is Viking.
These dark lines etched into the marble are Viking runes,
ancient Viking writing.
They're almost indecipherable.
The only bit that's in any way clear is part of someone's name,
a man's name, Halfdan.
And the rest of it is assumed to read, "Was here."
So you've got, "Halfdan was here."
We'll never know for sure who Halfdan was,
but it's possible that he was a member of the
near-legendary elite bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor,
the so-called Varangian Guard
who escorted the Emperor on special occasions
and for special ceremonies.
So we can allow ourselves to imagine that one day Halfdan was up here
on duty, during a long, boring religious ceremony.
And to pass the time,
he carved his name and some words into the stonework.
These few lines are such a moving, visceral reminder of just how far
the Swedish Vikings had come since they first set out
across the glassy Baltic Sea.
The territories the Vikings covered stretched from Dublin to Kiev
and from Greenland to Constantinople,
places full of vastly different customs, landscapes and goods.
They couldn't have maintained these complex connections for 300 years
if they'd simply been opportunistic raiders.
They had, in fact, formed a trading network like no other in the era.
However we interpret the Vikings, one thing is consistent -
we are fascinated by them.
Scholars continue to try to define the legacy they left behind
when they spread out from Scandinavia
and settled all around the globe.
So, what trace of the Vikings can still be detected
in how we live today?
Surprisingly, some of the Vikings' political ideals still resonate.
Searching for freedom from the abuses of an unchecked monarchy
in the 9th century, Norwegian Vikings came to Iceland
and attempted to build their own utopia.
They set up, perhaps, Europe's first national assembly,
known as the Althing,
where every freeman could have a say in establishing the laws
of this new, revolutionary model for society.
It really was an astonishing enterprise,
when you come to think about it, but entirely logical and consistent.
These Norsemen had left their homelands to get away
from the growing power of kings, and so here,
from the Law Rock at Thingvellir in Iceland,
they set up a republic.
Just imagine, a country without a king at a time in history
when the whole idea of kingship, of royal authority,
was becoming politically paramount,
a parliamentary democracy long before its time.
If Westminster is the mother of parliaments,
then Thingvellir is the grandmother.
It really was a commonality of middle-ranking people
who met at the Althing and sorted out their business.
And I think that was very unusual at the time,
but it's also been adopted by people in much more recent times
as an example of something which we like to point to today.
A lot of countries in Europe have got rid of their monarchies
in recent centuries, for one reason or another.
Now we see Viking-age Iceland as an example.
In the centre of Reykjavik, the modern-day Althing still exists
as one of the world's oldest parliaments.
Rather wonderfully, one of the Vikings' key legacies
was a prototype for a democratic Europe.
But this legacy has been joined by others,
which may have surprised the Vikings.
Their culture has been appropriated,
twisted and repurposed by anyone who wants to use it.
In the 19th century, the Northern Europeans began to talk about
nations as "races of people", with national characters acquired
from their ancestors.
And they chose the ancestors they wanted.
A lot of Victorians started to ask themselves, you know,
"Why are we so successful?
"Why have we got a great empire?
"Why are we such a great trading nation?"
And the answer that a lot of people came up with,
or a significant number of people,
like the assistant editor of The Times who, for 30 years,
assistant-edited The Times and was one of England's greatest saga
scholars, and his answer again and again was -
"Viking blood in Victorian veins."
The Vikings rule their empire in the 9th and 10th century
and the Victorians rule their empire in the 19th century.
Why? Because the Vikings and the Victorians got up early
in the morning, were smarter than the next guy,
and had that kind of continuity of spirit through blood.
The Vikings have been used by successive generations
to show something that those people wanted to demonstrate.
So in the Victorian period, imperialism is going out
and taking over other countries and imposing your will on them.
This would reach darker depths in the 20th century,
when a new brand of imperialists would lay their claim
to the Viking legacy.
And in Europe, fantasies of heroism, national pride in pagan ancestors,
ideas about the proud northern race have had their darker side.
In Germany, the Norse became images of the Ubermensch.
Pagan heroism and contempt for the weak became virtues for a new Reich.
It is possible to see, as the decades go on,
people's preoccupation in their own time influencing their view
of the Vikings.
So the Vikings are sort of brought into the picture and, in a way,
people project their own ideas and views of the world onto them.
By the mid-'90s, film-makers were ready to explore how the Vikings
became assimilated into other societies
as they settled in new lands.
As the European Union formed and themes of multiculturalism
and globalisation rose in the national discourse,
Timewatch began to delve into the Viking legacy of integration
and assimilation throughout the continent.
Palermo, which was ruled by Viking descendants,
shows exactly what that means.
This cloister, built in the 1170s, feels like an Arab courtyard.
Sicily had been ruled by Arabs 300 years back.
The mosaic columns are Greek.
The island had been part of the Greek empire of Byzantium
100 years back.
And on top of the columns, northern French carving -
the latest conquerors had been Normans.
But these Normans, Northmen,
were the grandsons of Vikings, settled in France.
And of that Viking heritage, no trace at all.
They had already become French and now they were Sicilians.
Their brilliance is a result of their complete open-mindedness.
In the 1990s and the 2000s,
the dominant view was that the Vikings were excellent
at assimilating into the cultures that they came into contact with.
They dropped their Scandinavian language and their clothes
and their economic system and they embraced the existing systems
that they found.
I think that could be seen as of its time as well,
in terms of a modern interpretation in the 1990s.
We were very keen on integration and minimising differences,
so that we could form a productive whole,
and I think that is reflected in people's views of the Vikings.
With the European Union and the kind of political focus on integrating,
I think that filtered through into the prevailing scholarship
of the day and I think now, 20 years on,
we might take a somewhat different view.
By 2001, in Blood Of The Vikings, Julian Richards
wanted to further the argument that the Vikings' true legacy
was a blueprint for a society that could easily assimilate
and integrate with other cultures.
And one of the tools they used was religion.
He pointed us to 10th-century Denmark
and to King Harald Bluetooth.
The first king of a united Denmark was Harald Bluetooth,
who was probably given his colourful name on account of his rotten teeth.
But despite his dental afflictions, he was a ruler
who changed the course of Danish history.
And here, carved on this massive boulder, is the record
of his greatest achievements.
In the chaos of 10th-century Scandinavia,
Harald Bluetooth was a unifier.
He brought together the dissonant tribes spread across Denmark
into a single kingdom.
Harald changed our concept of the Viking as a ruthless barbarian.
He was an astute political animal,
who realised how power and religion were intertwined.
But this third site is the most astonishing
because there's what appears to be the figure of Christ.
You can make out the face, outstretched arms and hands,
right down to the feet.
Now surely, at this time, the Vikings in Scandinavia were pagans.
So what are they doing carving images of Christ?
The runic inscription ought to provide the answer.
Professor Else Roesdahl, a leading Viking archaeologist,
has come to translate it for me.
So, what does this say?
It starts with the name of the king, Harald Bluetooth,
who raised the stone.
Harald, King, ordered these
monuments to be made for Gorm, his father.
And in memory of Thyra, his mother.
"who won, for himself, Denmark...
And then the last deed, "And made the Danes Christian."
So his third great deed was to make the Danes Christian,
to Christianise the Danes.
-So that explains why you've got the figure of Christ...
-..on this side.
And it's the oldest great picture of Christ in Scandinavia.
The conversion of King Harald and Denmark to Christianity
was actually a shrewd act of political pragmatism.
By becoming a Christian, you gain access
to a incredibly exclusive club of European monarchs,
all united around the same religious ideas, and with it comes all of the
trappings that have been handed down from the idea of the Roman Empire.
The turning of rulership into kingship is something
that must have been incredibly attractive.
As a Christian king, he was acknowledged to be
Christ's representative on Earth -
a position which brought almost universal loyalty and allegiance.
Programme makers were now ready to explore the idea
of the cosmopolitan Viking.
The mid-20th-century version of the intolerant, violent oaf
was being replaced by an open-minded, cultured sophisticate.
For the Danes, becoming Christian wasn't just a matter of exchanging
a collection of Norse gods for one Christian God,
it also brought them into the European fold,
into a culture centred on books and learning, laws and taxes.
But perhaps more significantly, a Christian king had divine authority,
which gave him huge power and the means of showing it.
It's a way of creating power structures
that link you with the other Christian kings in Europe,
to link you with a powerful administration,
a powerful symbolism.
For instance, through coinage.
So Christianity gives you a cultural package, if you like.
New rulers in new lands need, above all else,
to be considered legitimate kings.
And by adopting Christianity and taking on its trappings and
presenting themselves in the way that people were used to kings
presenting themselves, they were able to do that far more rapidly.
One of the biggest questions about the Viking legacy in Britain
has been whether they left a genetic trace.
By 2001, the BBC hoped to use genetic testing
to identify Viking DNA, and they commissioned the series
Blood Of The Vikings to attempt just that.
But first they explored how much the material evidence
suggested that the Vikings had assimilated into British life.
We thought that there would be Viking remains of some sort,
but the finds we've made have exceeded our wildest expectations.
These fantastic buildings, standing six feet high,
and the 13,500 good objects we've got,
it's way beyond our best hopes.
York provides a picture of a wealthy trading centre.
There were exotic items, like amber from the Baltic and silk
from the Mediterranean.
There were dyes for minting coins, scales,
and an enormous amount of metalwork.
York became a Viking boom town.
But none of this evidence tells us just how many Vikings settled.
So can genetics answer this question?
Blood Of The Vikings was part of a long-running BBC brand
called Meet The Ancestors,
which focused on the study of human remains,
as opposed to earlier documentaries which had concentrated
on technology and historical events.
It marked a shift, as we are now looking back,
not just at culture, but at the people themselves.
So would that unscientific Victorian claim
that Britons are Viking descendants prove to be true?
Presenter Julian Richards hoped that modern science could provide
a definitive answer.
In a pioneering survey, they'll be searching for signs
of Viking genetic inheritance in the male Y chromosome.
The DNA from Britain and Ireland will be compared to other samples
taken in the Viking Scandinavian homelands and in northern Europe.
And you don't have to look far to find people with theories on their
The name Rimmer is derived from Ramer,
which is Norse for a leather worker.
And, curiously enough, I trained as a saddler,
and my dad was a leather worker as well, so...
Fascinating results were soon discovered as the team began
to take samples in the northern islands of Scotland.
When we carry out just this very simple analysis,
asking, with those chromosomal types we only find in Norway,
how much of them do we see in the Scottish islands?
We actually see quite a lot.
When we look at Shetland, when we look at Orkney,
we see something just under 30% of the chromosomes are found in Norway,
but we can't find them in the indigenous population.
So it looks actually quite likely that those chromosomal types
have a Norwegian origin, so we right away see a clear indication
of substantial Norwegian genetic input into those islands.
That's quite a hefty figure, isn't it, really, for a first stage?
It is a high figure and, in fact, probably in the end,
when we've carried out a more complete statistical analysis,
the figure will only go up, because those are the types
that look pretty clearly to be Norwegian in origin.
In fact, when the final data was gathered in,
it was found that 60% of men in the northern Scottish islands
had a striking genetic link with Norwegians.
British people appeared to have Viking ancestry.
I would say that we definitely should be Scandinavian
more than Scots.
I suppose we're all Vikings at heart.
The programme revealed how the science of genetics was starting to
contribute to debates which had previously been the preserve
of archaeology and history.
So we found the highest concentration of the
continental invaders' DNA in northern England.
Only in central Ireland and Wales did we find populations
almost entirely descended from ancient Britons or Celts.
Along the Northern Sea road, there's a different picture.
From Shetland, all the way down to Cumbria,
we found strong signs of Norwegian ancestry.
There can be no doubt these were the lands of the Vikings.
Blood Of The Vikings gave us the first exciting glimpse
of the genetic legacy of the Norsemen in Britain.
But 1,200 years after the first waves of Viking invaders
arrived in Britain, you would perhaps expect their influence
on our everyday lives to be negligible.
In fact, in Britain, and in many parts of the globe,
we keep the Viking legacy alive every day.
In 2012, Neil Oliver was back in the Viking trading town of York
to discover how their influence lives on
through the English language.
How many of the words that we use every day actually have their roots
in Viking words?
Lots and lots, really basic, everyday words.
So the word you've just used, "root",
itself probably comes from Old Norse,
probably comes through the Viking side of English's ancestry.
What about things around us in this market?
Well, things like eggs, skirts, you can see some bags over there.
The sky, windows.
Other things that I can see include skin, leg, skull.
So, very simple words?
-Very simple, basic words for things.
Also words which describe how we feel and how we react to stuff.
So if you're angry, if you're happy, if you're ill...
-Those words as well?
-All these words come from Norse.
Basic verbs as well, so "give" and "take", "get", "call"...
It's wonderful to think that in our simple daily conversations
we're actually expressing our inner Vikings.
We're talking about people who arrived, you know,
1,300, 1,200 years ago,
and yet the words they brought with them are still
echoing around us today.
Yeah, they're all around. Yes, that's right, that's right.
In the language that's now spoken in every continent of the world,
the words of the Viking are heard.
Their legacy truly lives on,
and 1,200 years after they sailed into view, we're still
reassessing their impact.
Once seen only as opportunistic raiders,
we can now see that they were also open-minded nation builders.
They contributed to the growth of towns,
they stimulated the use of silver economies,
they were responsible for establishing new societies
in places that Europeans hadn't been before.
With their advanced naval technology, they opened up
a global trade network that was incomparable in their era.
They really establish long-distance networks
and communications between very distant lands,
and they were perhaps the most prominent among
contemporaries of bridging different communities.
And we've realised that their brutal tactics weren't unique
in the violence-saturated times of the Dark Ages.
Even the violent aspects of the Viking phenomenon,
the invasions and the raids, stimulated the development
of new kingdoms, new identities, new people.
New art styles came into existence as a result of Viking activities.
And a lot of those things still endure.
Here in Britain, we once characterised ourselves
as a Christian nation set against pagan barbarians.
In recent decades, we've come to realise that we cannot define
Viking culture as entirely separate from our own.
Archaeologists, historians and film-makers have continued to push
forward our knowledge and understanding of the Viking world.
There's been a tendency in recent years to really emphasise
the global dimensions of the Viking expansion,
the technological aspects of the Viking phenomenon.
These are real leitmotifs for the 21st century,
so in some ways it's no surprise that these are the things
that we identify in the Vikings and elevate.
They've become a big part of our own culture today.
People know about the Vikings, are very interested in the Vikings.
We have blockbuster exhibitions.
People are fascinated with the subject,
so they've become part of our modern culture, too.
The Vikings have never left us.
They're part of who we are today.
Their story is ultimately not simply one of raiding and conquest,
but of assimilation and integration.
The Vikings came here to plunder, but then they stayed,
and their legacy is still with us,
in our language and in our blood.
On 8 June 793 Europe changed forever. The famous monastery at Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast was suddenly attacked and looted by seafaring Scandinavians. The Viking Age had begun.
Professor Alice Roberts examines how dramatically the story of the Vikings has changed on TV since the 1960s. She investigates how our focus has shifted from viewing them as brutal, pagan barbarians to pioneering traders, able to integrate into multiple cultures. We also discover that without their naval technology we would never have heard of the Vikings, how their huge trading empire spread, and their surprising legacy in the modern world.