Viking settlements in Russia were not an end in themselves. Rather, they were stepping-stones to the Middle East and Constantinople where the real riches lay. Trading rather than raiding was the key contact between the two cultures. The Swedish Vikings were after eastern gold and silver. For themselves, the Arabs found the North men could supply them with honey, iron, amber, slaves, and furs such as that of the coveted black fox.
But more than goods were exchanged. In 2015, an unguilded silver ring was found in the 9th century grave of a woman who lived at the Viking trade center of Birka in Sweden. The ring, which was set with a large violet stone was also inscribed with the words “il-la-lah” which has been interpreted as meaning ‘for/to Allah’.
The lettering of the inscription is an Arabic-style script developed in the Arab world in the 7th century AD and was popularly used for two centuries afterward. Unlike coins that show signs of wear and tear suggesting a convoluted route to their last resting place, this ring is relatively unmarked, meaning it came straight from the caliphate to Sweden.
The ring could be evidence of cultural as well as material exchange. Accounts exist of Vikings converting to Islam. In 921 AD, Caliph Al Muqtadir sent a series of delegates from Bagdad to the upper reaches of the Volga to aid its Viking king who had recently converted to Islam. This ring could be the first evidence that substantiates these accounts.
Constantinople: Bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor
Viking prowess and strength were a marvel throughout the east. The Arab traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan marveled at the Viking physique and prowess, commenting how he had “never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand.”
Byzantine chroniclers recognized their worth too, noting that they were: “frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds”. This reputation for strength and ferocity probably explains how Viking warriors found themselves in Constantinople fighting for the Byzantine Empire rather than against it.
In 874 AD, 6,000 Viking men were sent to the court of King Basil II in Byzantium as part of a peace treaty between the Emperor and the Kiev Vikings who converted to Christianity. They found the basis of the Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguards of the Eastern Roman emperor. The Varangian guards soon became a profitable tour of duty for Vikings. In fact, they left in such numbers and so many stayed that laws were passed in Sweden to prevent them from inheriting in the country of their birth will serving in Constantinople.
These elite Viking guards left evidence of themselves behind in the former Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In the late 20th century, runic inscriptions were found randomly carved into the western gallery of the former church. “Halfdan made these runes” read one, while the other simply read “Arni”.
L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland: Vikings in North America
Legends have always suggested the Vikings made it to America before Columbus. Actual evidence exists in Newfoundland to substantiate this, as at the tip of the most northerly peninsula, there are the remains of an 11th century Viking settlement.
The site, at L’Anse aux Meadows, was unearthed in the 1960s. It consists of eight houses, one forge and four workshops, made out of cutting peat turf buildings exactly like Viking structures in Iceland and Greenland. Viking finds on the site, which includes everyday objects such as a stone oil lamp and a birch bark case, match the style of those found in 11th century Norway.
It seems that the site may have been a stopping point for the maintenance and repair of boats. A forge was discovered with 50 iron objects around it, such as late Norwegian style belt buckles and nails and rivets, all made from the local source of bog iron.
Perhaps the site at L’Anse aux Meadows was a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of colonization of mainland North America. Whatever its ultimate purpose, the site was short-lived as it was only occupied for a few years, suggesting any such attempt was doomed to failure. But once again, archaeology substantiates the Saga’s claims that the Vikings did indeed reach North America, making them the first Europeans to do so.