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What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

June 25, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

More than a thousand years after the Viking Age drew to a close, there’s still a lot we don’t know about these seafaring Norse warriors, who explored territory from the furthest reaches of Russia to the earliest settlement in North America and in April 2019, Raffield detailed what has been discovered so far, starting with a collection of iron collars and shackles found at several sites thought to be Viking slave trading hubs, like Dublin (Ireland), Birka (Sweden), and Hedeby (Denmark).

Though it’s been suggested the objects could have been used for restraining animals, rather than humans, Raffield argues that their presence in these urban centers (rather than rural areas), as well as their concentration near the harbors tends to support their use on slaves. “They look strikingly similar to all kinds of restraints that have been used on humans throughout history, from antiquity to the early modern period,” he says.

Aside from the collection of restraints, researchers have discovered what may be evidence of slave quarters—an arrangement of smaller houses surrounding a large house at Sanda, a Viking site in Sweden. “The few that have been excavated seem to have been used for crafting activities, things like textile making,” Raffield says. “They strangely look quite similar to what you see in the United States in the antebellum period.”

A need for women?

Scholars have long wondered why the Vikings suddenly emerged as a formidable raiding force in the late eighth century, starting with their attack on the Christian monastery of Lindisfarne, located on the northeast coast of England, in A.D. 793.

The answer might have been a need for foreign slave labor to help build their enormous fleets of ships and produce the textiles for their sails. Raffield and his colleagues see the desire to take slaves as a possible motivating factor behind the Viking expansion. “Fleets of hundreds of ships [were] sailing out of Scandinavia in the 9th century,” he says. “We wonder whether you would need a new labor force to produce the materials you need to do that.”

Slaves—who could also be traded at international markets—may have represented another type of resource for the Vikings, too. Evidence suggests Vikings often targeted women and girls in their raids, suggesting the existence of sexual slavery, as well as intermarriage. There is also some evidence supporting the idea that the Vikings practiced polygamy, which in …read more


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