Brutal, seafaring warriors that they were, it appears some of the Norwegian Vikings also had a more refined side.
Researchers believe that the Norse marauders, when not conquering villages and enslaving peasants, maintained impressive global connections that allowed them to trade for such exquisite artisanal items as fine Persian silks.
Evidence of this remarkable cross-cultural exchange can be seen in one of Norway's most famous Viking burial excavations, a ninth-century boat-grave for two wealthy Viking women. First excavated in Slagen, Norway, in 1904, this so-called Oseberg burial included a number of burial gifts, including dozens of small, exquisite silk fragments, which for a time were believed to have been stolen during Viking trips within Europe. However, comprehensive research now indicates these fragments and others like them came from Persia and the Byzantine Empire, hinting at the vast reach of the silk trade at that time.
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Marianne Vedeler, an associate archaeology professor at the University of Oslo's Museum of Cultural History in Norway has for four years been investigating possible links between Norwegian Vikings and the silk trade of the East during the ninth and 10th centuries, according to the University of Oslo's research magazine Apollon. That research has added evidence to the claim that the Norse marauders bought beautiful pieces of Persian silk and maintained complex Eastern trade connections.
Vedeler paid particular attention to the Oseberg boat, with its well-preserved examples of Persian artisanal handiwork.
"In 2008, we started an audit on all items found in the famous Oseberg ship burial," Vedeler told The Huffington Post in an email. "No other Viking grave has revealed nearly as many textiles, including a large amount of silk fragments. Searching for the context and meaning of these textiles, I found myself digging deeper for the background of the silk trade and exchange to Scandinavia in the Viking Age."
For many years, researchers believed that the silk discovered in the Oseberg grave must have been plundered from European churches during a Viking conquest, per Appollon. Vedeler's digging, which included a detailed analysis of the Oseberg's many silk samples, as well as an overview of manuscripts on silk production and trade, indicated a different conclusion, however.
"When seeing it all in its totality, it's more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles," Vedeler said in the Apollon interview. "One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga."
So what interests the researcher most about the Viking's apparent appreciation of Eastern silk products?
"I find that the most fascinating thing about the silk finds from this period is the expression of plurality, of cultural meetings and of change," Vedeler told HuffPost. "By the hands of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and heathen producers and tradesmen, the silk products found their way even to the lands far north. ... People over a large part of the world used similar products for different purposes and interpreted them with varied meaning."
Vedeler told HuffPost that her findings, which will be published in her upcoming book Silk for the Vikings, are the first to combine archaeological sources from Scandinavia with written sources from the Persian, early Islamic and Byzantine production areas.
Examined in this context, the Viking silk can be seen "as a material manifestation of cultural meetings, " Vedeler noted. "In this process, communication of difference is important, especially if this communication is systematic and sustained over a long period of time."