Brooch in the Urnes style

The Viking period began in AD 793 with a raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne by pirates from Scandinavia. In the following centuries their swift sailing ships enabled them to attack the undefended coastal and river ports, towns and monasteries of western Europe and beyond in the search for wealth, slaves, and new lands to settle.

The name Viking is generally applied to the Scandinavian peoples from the late eighth century until around AD 1100. They lived in a number of small kingdoms, but as their rulers sought to increase their wealth and power, the smaller kingdoms were absorbed by more powerful neighbours, creating the modern kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Raiding was only one aspect of the Viking age and excavation of their settlements and cemeteries has shown that they were mainly farmers, fishers and hunters, and also skilled craftsmen. The literature of their sagas reveals a hierarchical society with a complex culture. It was ruled by kings or chiefs and divided into the free, who could carry arms and speak at local assemblies, and thralls, or slaves, who had no rights, although some were able to gain their freedom.

The Vikings expanded eastwards into Russia as well as west to Britain and the North Atlantic. Their trade routes linked northern Europe with Byzantium and the Islamic world.

York and Dublin became important Viking towns, issuing their own coinage, while in Scandinavia market and manufacturing settlements such as Ribe, Hedeby, Birka and Kaupang became centres of international trade.

Related exhibition

The BP exhibition: Vikings: life and legend
6 March – 22 June 2014

This major exhibition at the British Museum was the first in over 30 years to explore the Viking world.

Swords and axes, coins and jewellery, hoards, amulets and religious images showed how Vikings created an international network connecting cultures over four continents. At the centre of the exhibition were the surviving timbers of a 37-metre-long Viking warship, the longest ever found.

About the exhibition

Image caption: Brooch in the Urnes style
Viking, 11th century AD. Found near the village of Kiaby, Skåne, Sweden

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