Who were the Vikings?

Vikings, The Field Museum

“Vikings” exhibition opens in Chicago 

By Stephen Anderson

An exhibition titled “Vikings” opened February 27 at The Field Museum in Chicago and will explore the myths and truths of those Norse voyagers through October 4. Rare artifacts and examples of crafts, including a replica ship, will be seen for the first time in the United States.

Visitors to the Chicago installation will learn about Viking mythology and the symbolism of their ships, and will marvel at the workmanship of exquisite jewelry, metal images, swords, armor, and objects made from glass, bone and amber. The installation was organized by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. The Swedish American Museum in Chicago and Friends of the Viking Ship in Geneva, Ill., are among Nordic organizations that support the exhibition.

Who were the Vikings? How did they live in their secluded Scandinavian enclaves before they became feared in several countries? Beyond the rune-stone legends and the sagas passed down in song, little recorded history has been found. The precise date of the onset of the “Viking Age,” however, has been determined. It was on June 8, 793, when a pagan horde attacked the small British island of Lindisfarne, plundering and destroying its 158-year-old monastery, and slaughtering the holy men.

Word spread as these marauders raided, traded and captured slaves during the next three centuries. Seafarers from Sweden, Denmark and Norway pillaged in Britain, France, Spain, Italy and beyond Russia to Kiev and Constantinople. Sources say the Vikings were likely direct descendants of hunter-gatherers who migrated to Scandinavia as the ice sheets melted. The early settlers adopted agriculture about 4000 B.C.


Life in Nordic countries was a primitive blend of farming, hunting and fishing. The basic unit of the economy was the self-sufficient family farm. Its members mastered all the requisite skills for providing homes, food, clothing and tools.  Population growth eventually exceeded available land, so Scandinavians took to the seas in search of new homelands. A “vikingr” was an individual who went “vik-ing,” a synonym for plundering, but most Scandinavians were peaceful farmers and artisans, not pirates.

When did the Viking Age end? Many historians point to 1066, when the English defeated the attacking Norwegian forces and killed King Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge. Danish armies under Svein Estrithson and his son, Cnut, tried again in 1069-70 but gave up and returned home with their plunder.


Visit www.fieldmuseum.org for information about the exhibition.