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Historian Neil Oliver travels to Scandinavia for a three-part series about the Vikings. He visits burial sites, holds ancient artefacts and studies human remains that are over a thousand years old. He tells TV Choice more…
Is the programme a chronological history of the Vikings?
That’s not the main point of doing it. It will give people a sense of the story in chronological terms, but the main objective is to tell people about the global reach of the people of Scandinavia.
The episodes explain how Vikings from Denmark conquered England. But do the programmes also look at Vikings from Norway and Sweden?
Yes, the Norwegians travelled west into Scotland and Ireland and then all the way across to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and as far as North America — about 500 years before Columbus. The Swedish Vikings travelled east, using primarily the Russian rivers, which enabled them to reach Constantinople, or Istanbul as it’s known today, as well as the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea.
How else were Swedish Vikings innovative?
They traded for silk from China and India. They had a particular appetite for Arabic silver, which was considered to be the purest in the world at the time, and probably was. So they were familiar with Baghdad. They were also among the Scandinavians who made it through the straits of Gibraltar, so they were able to raid and trade around the Mediterranean coastline.
The Vikings were aggressive invaders, but what do you think about that perception of them?
I think, basically, the Vikings have had a lot of very bad PR. They’re remembered primarily as particularly violent raiders and violent people who took by force. They certainly were violent men, but they lived in violent times. They were no worse — no more bloodthirsty — than anyone else who was empire-building at the time.
Where did such negative ideas come from?
When they were arriving and being violent, the people who wrote about them, and recorded their exploits, were almost exclusively Christian churchmen, who regarded the Vikings — because they were worshipping pagan Gods — as unclean, heathens, a sub-class. So the Vikings — above all — have gone down in the documents as being savage. But once the Vikings adopted Christianity, which happened during the 1000s and the 1100s, people stopped writing about them in that way, because they were now part of the Christian family.
Is the programme also going to include facts about excavations?
Yes, and a lot of the archaeology in Scandinavia is a work in progress. During the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of road building and pipeline construction in Russia and Scandinavia, and Viking remains are being uncovered all the time. So the picture is becoming richer. We visited the site of excavations in the shadow of the cathedral in Ribe in Denmark. There, they’ve been excavating the remains of the first Viking Christians. Among other things, that’s revealing that Christianity made in-roads in Denmark several generations before King Harald Bluetooth, who’s the king who claimed to have converted the Danes to Christianity. But the reality — as revealed by these excavations — is that many Danes had adopted Christianity long before Harald was a twinkle in his father’s eye.
Where else have you visited?
We saw some of the remains from the St Brice’s Day massacre. That was a bit of ethnic cleansing ordered by King Ethelred the Unready. He put out an order in 1002 that all Danish men in England were to be killed. And very recently one excavation in Oxford turned up 37 skeletons, all of which showed marks of violent death. You’re talking about people being chopped down with swords and spears, while running away, wounds to the backs of legs, or burning. The massacre included Christian Danes seeking sanctuary in churches and the locals barricading them in and setting fire to the buildings.