Study Reveals Vikings Mastered Metalworking in Less Than a Century

Over 1,000 years ago, Vikings took a massive leap forward in their metalworking abilities and created special alloys that were well ahead of their time.

Guests from Overseas (1901) by Nicholas Roerich, depicting a Viking raid. (Varangians in Rus’)

(CN) — Vikings experienced a surge of innovative and groundbreaking metalworking techniques in just a hundred year stretch between the 8th and 9th centuries, a time that saw the Vikings on the cusp of expanding their conquest to new corners of the globe.

Roughly a thousand years ago, the seafaring culture from Scandinavia launched an almost unprecedented effort to raid, settle and conquer entire sections of Europe, Africa and even North America. For nearly four hundred years between the 8th and 11th centuries these Vikings changed the history and trade of nearby nations in such a fundamental fashion that modern historians refer to the period as the Viking Age.

But while these Vikings are famed for their skill at navigating the perils of the ocean and venturing to previously unexplored land, they were also a people renowned for their expert craftsmanship. While the Vikings worked with a myriad of valuable artifacts, like cloth and fur, they also found special success with one of Earth’s most tricky crafting components: metal.   

Now, new research reveals just how adept Vikings became at working with metals during their formative years — and how quickly they turned the skill into a science.

In a study published Monday in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark reveal they underwent an exhaustive analysis of over a thousand different metal fragments and tools, ranging from raw metal bars to ornamental brooches, taken from an old Viking trading port in Ribe, Denmark.

Vana Orfanou, lead author of Monday’s study, reveals that once researchers began to take a closer look at the work poured into these items and the unique characteristics they held, it became clear just how well Vikings honed their craft in such a shockingly short amount of time.

“Analyzing both tools and finished objects allowed us to understand better the metalwork practices employed in Ribe and how they developed over time,” Orfanou said in a statement. “We document a series of rapid technological advances at the beginning of the Viking age, as craftspeople were exposed to new skills. Our findings suggest that Viking craftspeople in Ribe were innovative and industrious, advancing from mixing metals somewhat randomly to refining their process and creating very specific metal mixes, within a century.”

The study reports that this amazing advancement is ultimately made clear by looking at the difference between common Viking objects in the 8th century compared to similar objects crafted in the 9th century.

While Vikings had already learned in the 8th century that they could combine different metal types into mixes known as alloys, researchers found that these mixes were largely inconsistent and lacked much in the way of an established formula. But by the 9th century, however, those same common items, like keys, were far more consistently made and seemed to follow a standardized pattern — a recipe they seemed to perfect in less than a hundred years.

Researchers noticed that on top of getting their formulas down, their base crafting ingredients seemed to improve over time as well. While tools and materials from the 8th century were commonly made from leaded brass, by the time the next century rolled around, Vikings had moved on to using more high-zinc brass, a change researcher believe resulted in more durable and attractive items.

Even the tools Vikings used to forge these pieces, according to the study, saw some remarkable improvements in such a short span of time. Vikings often relied on small clay cups used for melting metals known as crucibles, and researchers found that the cups taken from the 9th century were far better protected from the heat and could serve a craftsman much longer than the cups made just a century earlier.

While it is unclear what exactly drove Vikings to improve their craft so completely in a relatively short time frame, researchers suspect it most likely was a simple result of learning from their ancestors and being open to new techniques from fellow Vikings and nearby cultures.

Regardless of what caused this explosion of innovation, researchers are thrilled all the same that these new insights can give experts an entirely new understanding of the Viking culture and how they launched themselves into becoming such a powerful player on the early world stage.

“The Viking Age is a critical turn in history when communication by sea grew exponentially in Northern Europe,” Orfanou said. “The evolution of crafts gives us unprecedented knowledge about the cultural and social consequences of this well-known case of ‘proto-globalization.'”

%d bloggers like this: