Vikings: ruthless, savage pirates in horned helmets depicted as barbaric villains. Whilst Vikings were undoubtedly skilled sailors who often specialised in quick, coastal raids, nowadays we depict them with certain inaccuracies.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first; Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. Vikings were first depicted wearing horned helmets in the 19th century – long after the Viking era had ended. Instead, Vikings tended towards plain, rounded helmets without tempting horn handles for enemies to grab onto.
A second preconception about Vikings; that they were a de-centralised, independent rabble of warriors can be challenged with the story of good ol’ Bluetooth.
King Harald Bluetooth is depicted on the right. This gilt
plate is located at the Tamdrup Church in Denmark
and was created in the 12th century.
King Harald Bluetooth lived at the end of the 10th century, and ruled much of what is today known as Scandinavia (yes, bluetooth was named after him, because he united scandinavia like bluetooth would unite technology). The founder of a dynasty of Viking kings that lasted generations, King Bluetooth also built fortresses throughout Scandinavia. These fortresses were walled with tree trunks, and could be as much as 150m-250m in diameter.
Based on an English design that had been in use for the last century to repel Vikings, the fortresses obviously worked well enough for the design to be emulated throughout Scandinavia.
In five years, King Bluetooth had 5 of these fortresses built around Scandinavia. Archaeologists originally believed they were a demonstration of power, rather than being for the defence of his people. Tactically, the fortresses were too far away from each other to be a reliable defence strategy against invaders.
However, the recent discovery of a sixth fortress called Borgring, exactly where another fort should be placed to close defensive gaps, has changed the reasoning of King Bluetooth’s zeal for construction.
Borgring’s location provides evidence that the Vikings were highly organised military society, capable of planning and enacting defensive strategies on a country-wide scale. Instead of being a disorganised rabble, Scandinavian rulers sought to protect their vulnerable farmers and traders from attacks that would be felt economically by everyone.
The demise of Borgring justified the concerns of the Scandinavian military; it appears to have at least been partially burnt down in an attack, judging by fire residue around the gates and abandoned workman’s tools in a burnt box. Just a few short years after Borging was attacked, tensions between the Scandinavian and Swedish Vikings, escalated into full-blown war.
We can only assemble bits and pieces of Viking history from the few surviving written accounts of the time, and occasional discoveries by archaeologists. What we do find indicates that actual Viking history may be far more dramatic than the romanticized versions we enjoy today.
For more information on the discovery of Borgring and King Harald Bluetooth go to: