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Vikings Didn’t Just Raid, They Traded Too

Reindeer artifacts found at Medieval market sites suggest the famed raiders tried the merchant thing first

Evidence from reindeer combs, like the one above, hints that the Vikings may have traded with Denmark before they started raiding England. (Ross Doherty)
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Despite their fierce reputation, Vikings may not have always been the plunderers and pillagers popular culture imagines them to be. In fact, they got their start trading in northern European markets, researchers suggest.

Combs carved from animal antlers, as well as comb manufacturing waste and raw antler material has turned up at three archaeological sites in Denmark, including a medieval marketplace in the city of Ribe. A team of researchers from Denmark and the U.K. hoped to identify the species of animal to which the antlers once belonged by analyzing collagen proteins in the samples and comparing them across the animal kingdom, Laura Geggel reports for LiveScience. Somewhat surprisingly, molecular analysis of the artfacts revealed that some combs and other material had been carved from reindeer antlers. Their results were published earlier this month in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Given that reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) don't live in Denmark, the researchers posit that it arrived on Viking ships from Norway. Antler craftsmanship, in the form of decorative combs, was part of Viking culture. Such combs served as symbols of good health, Geggel writes. The fact that the animals shed their antlers also made them easy to collect from the large herds that inhabited Norway.

Since the artifacts were found in marketplace areas at each site it's more likely that the norsemen came to trade rather than pillage. Most of the artifacts also date to the 780s, but some are as old as 725. That predates the beginning of Viking raids on Great Britain by about 70 years. (Traditionally, the so-called "Viking Age" began with these raids in 793 and ended with the Norman conquest of Great Britain in 1066.)

Archaeologists had suspected that the Vikings had experience with long maritime voyages might have preceded their raiding days. Beyond Norway, these combs would have been a popular industry in Scandinavia as well. It's possible that the antler combs represent a larger trade network, where the Norsemen supplied raw material to craftsmen in Denmark and elsewhere.

The find paints Vikings in a much less violent light. "The peaceful exchanges — trading — will take up more of the story, and the military voyages, which are also important, must now share the space," Søren Sindbæk, a co-author and researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a statement.

At the time, Ribe was a vibrate center of trade, and the success of such trade cities may have lured Viking ships to the coasts of Northern Europe.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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