The Viking Coast around us

Here at Viking Footprints, we are rightly proud of the depth of history around us. Within just a short hour or so drive in a modern iron box with wheels on it you can come into contact with aspects of virtually the whole viking story. It truly is – the Viking Coast.

Trade in the Viking Age

Trade or raid? Here in Hyllestad it was clearly trade

Here in Hyllestad, where Viking Footprints is based, we have some of the firmest evidence of just how important – and large – trade was during the viking age. As in any society of history – including our own – the production of food was of fundamental importance. Here in west Norway, it was, and still is, difficult to grow grain crops. We take grain and its importance to our food supply for granted in modern times from bread to pasta to beer.

But in medieval times food production was very much on the edge. It did not take a lot for people to fall into times of malnutrition and starvation. Farming was an innovation of the neo lithic period and by the late iron age it had become central to sustaining populations and their growth. Here in Norway, there were significant problems in expanding farming – the lack of good land for crops is apparent in many places outside of the rich farming areas of south east Norway and Trøndelag.  So here in our place in west Norway, grain crops were not grown because of the geography and climate.

However, something else was produced that is fundamentally connected to grain production and its importance in food supply. That was the humble mill stone (kvernstein). So even though this area did not produce the grain itself, it supplied a huge number of these ready-made millstones – initially small stones that could work grain by hand, to later in the medieval period much larger stones capable of being driven by water.

Mill stones from the quarries in Hyllestad far outnumbered what would be needed simply for local markets. So where did the rest go? And how many? The type of stone used in the production is very specific – garnet mica schist. In fact, the type in Hyllestad is so unique that we know if a mill stone is found elsewhere of this type of rock then it will have come from the quarries in Hyllestad. Using this geological ‘signature’ we know that millstones quarried here ended up as far as northern Germany, Sweden and even Iceland. And that their numbers were in the thousands.

To achieve this, it must have meant an organised workforce (possibly involving slaves), a logistics’ network, using ships to transport the goods, and established trading links so the goods good be bought and sold across large distances. This is the dominant story of the viking age here in Hyllestad – and it is quite different from what you may have previously thought.

Politics and Society: Gulating

Site of the Gulating, near Eivindvik, Gulen

A popular view of the vikings as violent thieves and pirates is largely as a result of what was written down by those on the receiving end of viking raids in the late 8th century CE and in the 9th century CE. It portrays the vikings as a rather unruly and savage society. However, at home here in Norway, nothing could be further from the truth.

In actual fact, viking age Norway had a highly developed and sophisticated legal system. And not only was there a framework for behaviour and property ownership and the regulation of society in general, but there was in addition a system for the resolution of disputes.

These features of viking age Norway were administered through what is known as the ting system. A ‘ting’ was a organised body of decision makers who met at a single place both to set laws and administer justice. Small ting sites fed into a larger system where a regional level ting would have the final say on matters on both the content of the law and its working. Decision makers were the representatives of geographical areas chosen and sent to the ting to argue on behalf of their community. Although the Greeks get the credit for the invention of democracy, viking age Norway provides the model of representative decision making that has become the dominant model of democratic societies in the modern era. And although representatives at a viking ting were not ‘elected’ in the modern sense, they would have had to carry the authority of those they represented and so would need to have their support.

Here in west Norway, the regional ting was held in the province of Gulen, just over Sognefjord from where Viking Footprints is based. It is known as the Gulating, and in the late medieval period its laws were written down and can still be read today.

The legal system of the viking age gives a fascinating insight into the progressive thought that existed at the time. This is particularly true of the rights that were afforded to women. A woman’s value (in financial terms) was deemed to be equal to that of a man. A woman had the right to own property – land, buildings, and ships. A woman even had a legal right of divorce. And although a woman could not directly be a representative at a ting, she could if she was a widow to a, now dead, male representative.

The Settlement of Iceland

Statue of Iceland’s first settler, Igolfr Arnarson at Rivedal

Also, on our doorstep here at Viking Footprints is the beginning of another important part of the viking story – the settlement of Iceland and its consequences for the subsequent exploration and settlement in Greenland and the eventual crossing of the whole north Atlantic to what is known in the sagas as ‘Vinland’, better know to us today as Newfoundland in Canada.

These incredible stories of adventure and life in new lands started in our neighbouring fjord of Dalsfjorden. Here, on its northern side at Rivedal there is a farm that traces name all the way back to at least the 9th century. In the 874 CE Ingolfr Arnarson is said to have left Rivedal after becoming involved in a blood feud. The story can be found in the Icelandic Landnámabók (Book of Settlement) from the late medieval period. In the book Ingolfr is identified as the first settler and the founder of what is now Iceland’s capital Reyjavik. Archaeological evidence shows major settlement, most likely from Norway, in the decades after. The reasons are complex, but a driving factor may have been the victory of Harald Hårfagre (Finehair) at the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872 CE which resulted in him becoming the first King of a unified Norway. Those of the losing side were likely faced with losing their lands or worse and some may have chosen the path to a new life in Iceland instead.

Conversion to Christianity

Stone crosses, made in Hyllestad, at Korssund (left) and Eivindvik (right)

It may not be so obvious, but here in Norway the conversion of the population to Christianity begins pretty much in the middle of what we would term the viking age. Certainly, there was a concerted effort by Norway’s King Haakon the Good (920 – 961 CE) to introduce the new religion. Haakon was the youngest son of Harold Finehair and actually grew up under the care of King Athelstan in England. There’s no doubt that the reasons for Haakon’s attempt at converting Norway are very complex – it had a lot more to do with politics and economics than just outright religious belief.

Here in Hyllestad around the same time the quarries that produced millstones also began producing stone crosses of various sizes to be used as symbols of the new religion in church yards and other important places. Indeed, crosses quarried in Hyllestad can be found all across west Norway, especially in the coastal regions. It remains a tantalising possibility that Haakon may have been responsible for the start of this production. But certainly, the Kings of Norway who came after him, even more forcibly imposed a conversion to Christianity. By the time of Olav Tryggvason (who ruled 995 – 1000) Christianity was firmly established in Norway. A mere 30 years later, and another King Olav II, Norway’s first saint.

1066 and Harald Hardråde and the (long than you may realise) End of the Viking Age

Solund, close to where Harald Hardråda mustered his fleet in 1066

Despite the conversion to Christianity, the viking age, in some important respects continues. Olav II’s half brother Harald Hardråde came to the Norwegian throne after a period of effective exile in 1046. Hardråde’s outlook was expansionist and determined to rid Norway of Danish influence, or rather replace Danish primacy (originally under Knut the Great) with Norwegian control of a ‘North Sea empire’.

Harald’s ambitions to control Denmark essentially failed and he then turned his attention to England, in the belief that he had a claim to the throne there. When Harold Godwinson was proclaimed King of England in January 1066, Harald decided to plan an invasion. During the period Spring 1066 to September 1066, Harald Hardråde gathered a great war fleet together. Where? Just on Viking Footprints’ doorstep in the islands of Solund a short distance down the fjord. And it was from here that Harald began the ill fated voyage that ended in his defeat, and death, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September, 1066.

The rest, they say, is history. But not quite. The ‘end’ of the viking age is really rather complicated. The Norwegian’s were to retain control of the western isles of Scotland until the aftermath of the Battle of Largs in 1263 (yes, that’s 200 years after 1066). And indeed, the Orkney and Shetland islands – that were a key part of the viking age expansion from here in Norway – remained in Norwegian hands until as late as 1472.