Cat Jarman: "The Vikings were great entrepreneurs"

5 min
Cat Jarman, bioarchaeologist and archaeologist specializing in the Viking Age, author of River Kings, photographed at the Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, Barcelona 18.03.2022 Photo PERE VIRGILIO Diario Ahora

BarcelonaAccording to Anglo-Saxon chronicles, in the year 793 the Vikings arrived in Britain from Sweden, Denmark and Norway and savagely attacked the monks at Lindisfarne. Occasional plundering followed and later, in the 9th century, the Great Viking Army began to roam the island with a larger ambition: conquest. Between 865 and 873 they conquered Repton, where they overwintered, and occupied the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The official account is the one written by the Anglo-Saxons, but the sites may open up new perspectives. Archaeologist and bioarchaeologist Cat Jarman has spent more than six years analysing a mass grave at Repton, where 264 people are buried, many of them victims of the Great Viking Army's campaign. A semi-precious stone from Gujarat, India, was found in the Derbyshire village, leading Jarman to question the official account. How had it travelled from Asia to Repton in the 9th century? Jarman traces not only the stone, but also the skeletal remains. Who were the four children who were killed and who came from neither northern Europe nor England? And why are there many victims at Repton who were neither of Scandinavian nor Anglo-Saxon origin? In her book, River Kings, now translated into Spanish as Los reyes del río (Ático de los Libros), the Vikings are still hardened warriors, but Jarman shows them to be much more enterprising and pragmatic than they usually are on TV.

Why is the semi-precious stone found in Repton so important?

— Archaeologists have been working in Repton for over forty years. In 1982 a carnelian was found, but no significance was given to it then. When in 2017 I started working there, it was useful for me to retrace the trade routes of the Vikings who went to England.

Does the carnelian change the version we had of the Vikings' motivations, of why they went to England?

— When they came to Repton, the Vikings were starting a new phase. At the beginning they might have come to the English coast to plunder and then go home with the loot. But by the time of the Battle of Repton, they were seeking to dominate England politically and to establish themselves. The Great Viking Army consisted of about 5,000 people. They wanted to settle in these new lands.

One of the discoveries made at Repton was that not everyone in the Great Viking Army came from northern Europe.

— Yes, this was not known before the analysis of skeletal remains, because Anglo-Saxon chronicles speak of Danes and we thought that they were groups that only came from one place. But the site tells us that it was not like that. The Great Viking Army travelled through Europe and as it advanced, people from all over the world joined it. In the grave there are victims who came from warm climates. They could have come from France, from Spain....

And what incentive did they have?

— Now we think that people only fight either for their country or because they have no other choice. But at that time there were not many opportunities to get out of poverty. If they were offered wealth and land, those were two good incentives.

Was origin important in this army?

— I think it was difficult to have power if you were a complete stranger and unknown within the community; you had to gain trust and have allies. It was more of a social issue than a racial one.

Not all of the bodies buried in Repton belong to men. Twenty percent of the buried victims were women, and you have studied other sites that indicate that there were also women warriors.

— Yes, there is a lot of evidence that women were an important part of the Great Viking Army and that they also joined. Some perhaps unwittingly. If you have an army of 5,000, you will need quartermasters. Women could do a lot of jobs. And yes, there is evidence that women also fought and had power, but they were a minority. It's not like in the series. It was a patriarchal society.

What was the route they established with the East like?

— They established commercial centres in the Baltic Sea and today's Russia. They already set up a commercial outpost in today's St. Petersburg in 750. They connected with the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea along rivers. They established peaceful trade deals: for example, they charged taxes for travelling along rivers. They established routes through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to Constantinople and Baghdad. They connected the north with the south, and took advantage of a pre-existing route, the Silk Road, and its markets.

They were not only warriors and explorers, but also traders.

— I think they were great entrepreneurs. If they had to, they used violence, but if they could avoid it, they avoided it. They were very skilled at understanding and dealing with many different cultures. They had dealings with Christians, Muslims, pagans... I don't think they cared much about religion: they used it as they saw fit. If they had to be Christians to make deals, they were Christians. Pagan religions allowed them to have many gods and they could use the one that suited them best. They had a great capacity for adaptation when it came to negotiating.

What were they looking for when they established new routes?

— Silver, above all. A lot of silver went to Scandinavia. The more wealth, the more status they had. Travel, knowledge and exploration were also highly valued socially.

The chronicles about the arrival of the Vikings in Britain are Anglo-Saxon. How would you describe them?

— There were many types of Vikings. Some were warriors, but others were farmers or families seeking new lands. I think it was a society that placed a value on exploring, travelling and seeing new lands. It's interesting because this is still the case. I grew up in Norway and it is still valued, we are taught about the lives of the great explorers and encouraged to go outside and learn.

Do your discoveries change the version of events?

The chronicles were written by the Anglo-Saxons. History, including the one taught in British schools, is based on this written documentation. The one who wrote about the Great Viking Army and Repton, in the 9th century, was above all Alfred the Great, the Vikings' great enemy. He is credited with creating England. He is the great hero because he defeated the Vikings. If I wanted to get a British passport, I'd have to take a test, and a question on the test is who defeated the Vikings: the answer is Alfred the Great. And this is the United Kingdom in 2022! We are told that Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings. He didn't, because centuries later the Vikings continued to come to England [in the 11th century there were even Viking kings]. This myth is part of the British national identity. Alfred the Great was a very skilled publicist. All this has a lot to do with what is also happening now in Ukraine and Russia. Putin also says that Ukraine and Russia are the same and is manipulating history to justify an invasion. He uses medieval documents that were written in the 13th century. The job of archaeologists and bioarchaeologists is to create new perspectives that question documents, because they are also a tool for propaganda, whoever may write them.