The Viking Age Is Really A Period

I have a problem with the term Viking Age. And it’s not likely that I will ever get satisfaction. Because I am a Scandy archaeologist, and the term is owned by UK historians and the general English-speaking public.

The three-ages system was established by C.J. Thomsen in his 1821 book Ledetraad. It divides Scandinavian Prehistory into three ages, characterised by the material used in cutting tools: first stone, then bronze, then iron. In Swedish, this taxonomical level is the ålderstenåldern, bronsåldern, järnåldern – using the close cognate of what Snorri back in the 13th century called his imagined periods of the past. Later in the 19th century Oscar Montelius divided these three åldrar into perioder. And over the 20th century later contributors subdivided these perioder into Stufen or faser. It’s a three-tier taxonomy which, translated into English, gives us ages consisting of periods consisting of phases. Obviously a part of an age can’t also be an age. That would be like calling a slice of bread “a loaf”, or calling a steering wheel “a car”. (Or, if you really want to get crazy, like calling your computer “the hard drive”.)

But. Long before there was any prehistoric archaeology, English historians were using the word age to refer to any demarcated historical interval, such as the Middle Ages – and the Viking Age. To them, the Viking Age was “the time when our island used to get raided or conquered or ruled by Vikings”, i.e. from the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From the perspective of British written history, the raids and the Danelaw are the single most important thing the Scandinavians were doing at the time – indeed, the only thing they did that is worthy of attention, since they did it in Britain and it’s almost the only thing about them that got recorded in writing. Historians don’t deal with silent periods.

To Scandinavian archaeologists, though, the raids on Britain are of little importance since they didn’t occur on our turf. We deal with what people were doing in Scandinavia at the time: mainly living on farms, burying the dead, erecting rune stones, hoarding silver, establishing our first towns and getting our first large-scale political organisation together. To us, the Viking time interval is a period of the Iron Age which starts with the appearance of certain jewellery types and ends with the appearance of masonry architecture. It is most emphatically not an Age. And that’s why, when I write in English, I stubbornly say “Viking Period” (94,000 Google hits) instead of “Viking Age” (955,000 Google hits).

Comments

  1. #1 Charles P. Redwine
    August 4, 2013

    I would like to raise a question from US southeastern North American archaeology. In the 1940s or so a cultural taxonomy was created to organize the information about Native American Indian prehistory produced by New Deal archaeology of the 1930s. This cultural taxonomy, called the Midwestern Taxonomic System, was without chronological content as little was securely known about temporal relationships between regions, or even within regions. (Stratified sites are quite rare in Eastern North America). Therefore various cultural taxa such as “Woodland” and “Mississippian” were created without any fixed scheme of a regionwide temporal significance for these terms.
    After the innovation of C14 dating chronology was securely established, but as part of this process cultural units were assigned to temporal periods. Therefore a Woodland Period preceding a Mississippian Period was created. As part of this change it was pretty much decided that any phase in the Mississippian Period that had some Mississippian characteristics and seemed to evolve into a full-blown Mississippian phase had to be called “Emergent Mississippian” or some such term. This despite these phases having been characterized as “Woodland” under the Midwestern Taxonomic System. My graduate advisor, Dr. Richard Krause, thinks this confusion of culture and time had done more to confuse people’s thinking about cultural processes than illuminate them.
    Does any such challenge exist in European archaeology? I assume the Sami were not thought of as Vikings, but are any prehistoric Iron Age Sami phases seen as being in the Viking Period/Age?

  2. #2 Martin R
    August 4, 2013

    Inland northern Scandyland where the Saami were/are has a completely different archaeology where the artefact types that define the periods of southern Scandy are rare. We might as well try to classify them according to the Midwest Taxonomical System.

  3. #3 Sean M
    August 4, 2013

    The one which bothers me is people whose Iron Age ends when the Romans come, rather than covering most of the first millennia BCE and CE. I’m sure it makes sense in the chronologies which they are used to, but I’m used to a broader meaning (“after ironworking, but before the medieval”)!

  4. #4 Martin R
    August 5, 2013

    I agree, but note that the Iron Age was originally defined as a prehistoric age, and that in major parts of Europe history starts with the Roman conquest.

  5. #5 Dunc
    August 5, 2013

    It’s even more fun here in Scotland… In the rest of Britain, the Iron Age ends in 43CE, whereas up here, it lasts for another 800 years. Endless opportunities for confusion – especially since the border is a bit hazy (to say the least) during the first millenium.

  6. #6 Steven Blowney
    World of Confusion
    August 5, 2013

    The divsion and labelling of historical periods, ages, epochs, and eras is an endless arguement. Any student who studies the past knows that these labels are nothing more than artificial signposts created by people who are trying to make sense of a phenomena that is complicated and may make no sense at all. You call the “Viking Age” the “Viking Period,” where someone else calls the time “Scandinavian Diaspora” (J.H. Barrett). We like nice, neat short labels that sound sensible. For myself, I tend to lean towards the phrase “Scandinavian Expansion of the Early Middle Ages,” but that’s a mouth-full and is probably not entirely accurate. How long, Martin, is an age? What qualifies as the change (or changes) that starts and ends an age?

  7. #7 Martin R
    August 5, 2013

    According to C.J. Thomsen, an age of Scandinavian Prehistory is 11,300 or 1,200 or 1,600 years long. If you want to call the Neolithic an age too (though he didn’t), then an age is 9,000 or 2,300 or 1,200 or 1,600 years long.

  8. #8 Shannon
    Newfoundland
    August 7, 2013

    I, too, wanted precision when defining the, well, the Viking Age, and settled on “the age of Scandinavian expansion” because I was dealing with what was going on in a multicultural British Isles and homeland. That handle does not neatly roll off the tongue. In this “age” of twitter and distractions and 140 characters, perhaps Viking Age is the best known name, and easiest to convey to the masses. Or, more elegantly, #vikingtiden?

  9. #9 Maria
    Sweden
    August 28, 2013

    In Sweden (were live) and the other countrys in northen, the Viking-age is the last period of the Ironage, from about 800 B.C- 1050 A.C, possible until 1066 A.C but after Hastings the era was over.
    It´s called the Vikingage because of the plundering expeditions, viking is a pirate. In Sweden it´s called Vikingatiden.