On Estland’s Strand Are Buried 41 Swedish Vikings
Probably in the early summer about 750 AD two longboats departed from their moorings somewhere along Lake Malaren in east central Sweden. The 72-mile long lake connected directly to the Baltic Sea then, and Malaren was a huge deep bay navigable far into central Sweden. Post glacial rebound eventually caused the land to rise and closed Malaren into to a lake rather than a bay. Stockholm did not exist then, but prosperous farms, villages, trading posts, towns, and a kingdom grew up around Lake Malaren and its islands.
This was before what most historians call the Viking age from 793 to 1100 AD, a period of Viking raids on surrounding nations.. The Vendel Period from about 550 to 800 AD was the Golden Age for Scandinavia. It was an age of material and cultural explosion and colorful sagas of great kings, heroes, warriors. It was a period of artistic appreciation and beautiful artistic design. It was a foundation for Scandinavian character, traditions, and social cooperation. It was also a time of expanding trade, consolidating political power, and increasing violence.
The lead ship was 57 feet long, nearly 10 feet wide, and had a keel and sail. Its speed under sail was about 10 knots and rowing about 5 knots. It had 9 pairs of oars. A smaller rowing ship with no keel, 6 pairs of oars, and no sail followed it. The crew of the first ship was probably more than 30, and many were heavily armed. The second should have had a crew of at least 14. Archeologists believe they may have been on a diplomatic mission to establish trade and trade routes. Between the two of them, they were carrying 401 gaming pieces made of whale, walrus, or cattle bone and some highly decorated swords that might have been intended for diplomatic gifts.
There are several trade routes they might have intended. The later traditional Swedish Viking trade route might have taken them through the Aland archipelago to the coast of Finland and then into the Gulf of Finland to the Staraya trading post on the southern end of Lake Ladoga, which is the largest lake in Europe. From there, which is about 72 miles east of the present city of St. Petersburg in Russia, they could have connected to the Dnieper River leading to the Black Sea and then to the Byzantine Empire’s magnificent capital, Constantinople, which they called Miklagard. Alternatively, they could have connected from Lake Ladoga to the Volga and down to the Caspian Sea and then to Baghdad, the capital of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate.
However, their objective may have been nearer. It might have been the Curonian fortress of Seeburg (now Grobina, Latvia) and the rich trade in Baltic amber. The western Estonian island of Saaremaa was near and could be used for shelter or trading. Their cooperation was beneficial for passage to or from Seeburg or entering the Gulf of Finland and trading around Lake Ladoga.
Given the more limited seafaring capability of the smaller Svear ship and the dangers and hostilities from competitors, the two longships may have turned south and hugged the Swedish coast. They may have traveled through the narrow Kalmar Strait with the narrow 85-mile-long island of Oland on their port side. Oland was only 10 miles wide at its widest, but it gave some protection from the Gotland Gutes to the northeast and may have been a safer approach to the Baltic coast near Seeburg and Saaremaa.
Oland gives evidence of a savage past. Sixteen ring-forts, called borgs, from the Period of Migration 400 to 800 AD, dot the long, narrow island. Archeologists have found evidence of a mass slaughter of at least 26 people at one ring-fort around 480 AD, and the investigation is still underway. The population of this borg may have been from 200 to 250. Three of 13 Viking burials on Oland dating from 800 to 1000 AD show a strong DNA affinity with modern Swedes in the western part of the Lake Malaren area.
In 750 AD, the Svear dominated Oland and the Kalmar Strait, although the Geats (recall Beowulf) controlled southeastern Sweden further inland. The southern tip of Sweden was controlled by the Danes. If the Svear Vikings made it through the Kalmar Strait unopposed, both Seeburg and Saaremaa were in relatively safe reach.
Swedish Vikings were certainly formidable warriors, so formidable that Byzantine Emperors used them as an elite and highly paid “Varangian” Guard unit of 6,000 men and also as personal bodyguards, but they were seldom raiders. Their interest was primarily trade and exploration for more trade. Varangian became synonymous with Swedish Vikings well past the Viking age, but Norwegians, Danes, and Anglo-Saxons were attracted to high pay, prestige, and adventure, and their numbers in the Varangian Guard increased. Varangian means “sworn comrade. ”Norwegian Harald Sigurdsson became a Kievan Rus commander and then commander of the Varangian Guard in about 1035 and King of Norway in 1047. He died in 1066 in England fighting King Harald Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Godwinson was killed by a Norman arrow weeks later at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England.
The Svear of east central Sweden were also called Rus by the Finns and Slavs. This is probably because they were associated with the ship-building Roslagen coastal district of Uppland County, but Rus is also close to the Finnish word for those who row boats. Perhaps it has something to do with shipbuilding. The Swedish Viking Rurik established the Kievan Rus state combining Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in 882 AD
Viking trading routes were great wealth builders and jealously guarded. Competition was not welcome. Hence there were many Scandinavian tribes who did not welcome two Svear longships making inroads into their territories or coveted territories. The Geats of Beowulf fame (Goths?) occupied a good bit of territory south of the Svear and were perennially at war with them. The Gutes of Gotland were typically hostile, and the Danes were both jealous and ambitious. Furthermore, the Curonians on the coast of Latvia had a reputation for piracy as well as amber trading, and the Finnish speaking Oeselians on the Estonian island of Saaremaa had a reputation for arrogant hostility and piracy.
In the summer of 2008, workmen on Saaremaa Island building a walkway about a hundred yards from shore exposed some human skeletal material and extraordinary artifacts. It was the smaller rowing ship containing seven skeletons. Except for a large number of arrowheads surrounding the skeletons, there was no indication of violent death. Arrowheads, however, were found lodged in shields and the ship. The arrowheads lodged in the ship were of the type used to start fires aboard a ship.
In 2010, archeologists found the larger ship about 40 yards away. Two skeletons were found with severe axe and sword wounds. A dog skeleton was found, cut in half. Continued excavations in 2010 and 2011 revealed 34 skeletal remains stacked like firewood four-deep within a 10 by 14 foot area of the ship. They were buried with 40 swords, some with gilded and jeweled hilts. The skeletons were covered by large wooden shields with iron bosses. All this was covered by remnants of the sail. Other grave goods included 15 ornamented antler combs, beads, pendants, bear teeth, padlocks, and iron plagues. Besides the dog, there were two decapitated falconry hawks, native to the Lake Malaren region of Sweden. There were 71 arrowheads, many stuck in the wood of the ship and shields. Yet there were only a few spears and no axes. Many of the gaming pieces were made of whalebone and walrus ivory.
Evidently, a large number of the Swedish Vikings fell to arrows. There is no evidence of enemy casualties. We do not usually associate bows and arrows with Viking weaponry, but it was common enough and a principal factor in the Norman victory over the Saxons at Hastings in 1066.
Many sword and axe wounds visible on the skeletons testified to great violence. Yet it was also evident that the burials had been respectful and reverent, indicating special care for those who may have been leaders or held high social rank.
Numerous isotopic tests of tooth enamel, and strontium, carbon, and oxygen ratios as well as archeological analysis of the ship, weapons, tools, jewelry, indeed everything indicated that these ships and their crews came from the Lake Malaren area perhaps 30 miles west of the present city of Stockholm. The DNA mix was remarkably close to living natives of the western Malaren area.
The DNA revealed that the crew must have been closely connected. Four men must have been brothers or at least first cousins. Their ages ranged from 18 to 60. The average stature of 13 who could be accurately measured was 5 foot 9 inches. There were 3 who were about 5 foot 7 and three who were about 6 feet tall.
There was obviously a violent battle near Salme, Estonia. Viking ships are light, and the crews were able to drag them about a hundred yards from the shore to make a defense. Were they first attacked in the Baltic or when moored ashore? There was no looting. There were apparently survivors. What happened there? Were other Svear ships involved in the battle or rescue? Who was the enemy and what was their motivation?
Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)was an Icelandic scholar, historian, and politician who collected and translated most of the ancient myths and legends touching on Norse history. In his Ynglinga Saga, he tells of a Swedish king, Ingvar son of Osten, who was a great warrior killed in a battle in Estonia. According to legend, Ingvar Eysteinsson (Old Norse spelling), also called, Ingvar the Tall, was born in 616 AD and was King in Uppsala, Sweden. The legendary 616 AD date does not fit the 750 AD ship archeology date, but legends and myths often combine truth with many distortions. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this Norse poetry.
Thjodolf sings of it thus:
"Certain it is the Estland foe
The fair-haired Swedish king laid low.
On Estland's strand, o'er Swedish graves,
The East Sea sings her song of waves;
King Yngvar's dirge is ocean's roar
Resounding on the rock-ribbed shore."
Juri Peets, the lead archaeologist of the Salme site, suggests that these men may have come on a voyage from Sweden to forge an alliance or establish kinship ties, when unknown parties set upon them. According to Peets, it is likely that the human remains in it belonged to individuals of noble birth, as evidenced by the large number of expensive bronze sword-hilts and the complete lack of weaponry associated with commoners. [However, there may be other explanations for axes and spears not being included among the formal grave goods.]
So ends the story of 41 Swedish Vikings buried in Estonia. Certain it is that more data is needed to solve this mystery.