Vikings in the East

While a whole library has been written on Vikings in the West, much less is known of Vikings in the East, and what is written of the subject, mainly discusses the stories about Rus’. The Viking Eastern Baltic talks about Viking Age Eastern Baltic peoples, who have often been depicted as predominantly passive in the large-scale Viking movement towards the East. This seems to be far from the truth!

The quite broad zone between Scandinavia and Kiev Rus’, present-day Finland and the Baltic States, was unavoidable in East-West communications. During the Viking Age, it was a land full of harbours, hill-forts and international trade routes. Several distinct features of the period – for example, the emergence and development of trade centers or the struggle for the spheres of influence – were directly mirrored in Eastern Baltic archaeological material. This evidence is often little known in English-speaking countries, and more or less never before taken into consideration in one interregional study.

An initial point presented in the book is that there was never any common “Baltic” archaeological culture incorporating the territories of the present-day Baltic countries.  The Viking Age Eastern Baltic could indeed be divided into two larger spheres based on their language and the concomitant culture: the Baltic Finnic and the Baltic. Viking Age trade and also the role of the maritime element in the local culture, contacts, and cultural influences from east to west all functioned differently in these different regions. Recognition of this is crucial if we want to have an adequate picture of the processes operating in the Viking Age Baltic Rim.

This book demonstrates how communication networks over the Baltic Sea and further east were established and how they took different forms in the northern and the southern halves of the Eastern Baltic. Archaeological as well as written sources indicate the impact these networks had on the development of local societies.

Based on available information, raids in the Baltic Sea were earlier than the Vikings’ first forays into Western Europe. As a result of these, the common cultural sphere of warriors emerged in the East Scandinavian and Baltic Finnic coastal areas in the last centuries before the Viking Age. This shared cultural milieu was evidently based on not just mutual raids but also on close personal contacts, adopted values and beliefs. Archaeologically, the shared cultural milieu of warriors renders it somewhat difficult to decipher what is of “Scandinavian character” in the eastern territories, thus illustrating the international and multicultural nature of the processes at work during the period.

The situation in the southern half of the Eastern Baltic was different. The only Scandinavian colonies in the region are known from areas inhabited by ethnic Balts – in Grobiņa and Kaup. At these sites, a number of Scandinavian burials, both male and female ones, have been unearthed. The Scandinavian influence on the material culture of the surrounding areas, on the other hand, remained modest.

A lot of attention in the book has been paid to written sources – and the understanding of them changed remarkably when looking at the written sources from a transregional perspective. The first surprise was to find out how much more frequently the northern half of the Eastern Baltic had been mentioned in certain kinds of sources when compared with the southern half. Discussing changes in place names in sagas and other documents, it was possible to put forward a theory that the name Garðaríki did not include simply areas in present-day Russia, but also in Estonia and Latvia. In addition to this, the origin of the name Rus’, as well as its interconnection with the name Chud’ was discussed.

The book is a short version of many years of research published in other places. The main result of the study is, however, that the inhabitants of present-day Finland and the Baltic States were more engaged in the Viking eastern movement than is generally believed. We hope that the study presented here encourages interest in the role the Eastern Baltic played in the Viking world, and thus leads us to a better understanding of this special epoch in European history.

by Marika Mägi