The raiders return to Mercia: From shoes to a child's skate, exhibits show lives of the Vikings in Shropshre

By Sophie Beckwith | 01 February 2016

Present-day Shropshire was part of the Kingdom of Mercia, suffering multiple invasions by Viking raiders. Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery’s new exhibition reveals the area’s turbulent links, day-to-day Viking life and the complex concepts surrounding their beliefs in an afterlife

© Courtesy SMAG
Viking activity in Shropshire dates back to 855 – an important year in Viking history, marking the time when the Scandinavian raiders began to spend the winter in England rather than returning home after their summer raids.  In the last decade of the 9th century, Hastein - an infamous Viking with a bloody career spanning more than 30 - set his sights on England.

At the time England was a country divided between the Viking territory of the Danelaw, in the north and east, and the lands ruled by King Alfred the Great and his allies in the south and west. Hastein and a fleet travelled up the River Severn in 893, possibly through Shropshire and as far as Welshpool – further than any Viking before him had travelled.

© Courtesy SMAG
In the Powys village of Buttington they were cornered by King Alfred’s ally, Ealdorman Æthelred, and his army of English and Welsh. They established a fortress next to the Severn and tried to defend themselves but a siege went on for weeks. Hunger forced the starving Vikings to eat many of their horses and a desperate attempt to escape saw many slaughtered.

Three pits containing the bones of around 400 dead were found in the churchyard at Buttington in 1838, along with the jawbone and teeth of a horse. In one of the final acts of the first Viking Age in 910, Mercia was invaded again. Attempting to carry their looting spoils home, they were crossing the Severn when an army of men from Mercia and Wessex appeared and a battle ensued. Three Viking kings were killed and the Danelaw was fatally weakened.

© Courtesy SMAG
Ealdorman Æthelred died not long afterwards and his widow, Æthelflæd, who was Alfred the Great’s daughter, succeeded him. Her defensive fortresses across the Midlands confined Danelaw Viking influence to their capital at York.

Valhalla, which Shrewsbury’s newest exhibition is named after, comes from the Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen” – the place where the god Odin houses the dead whom he deems worthy of dwelling with him. Many of the artefacts and human skeletons come from York’s Hungate excavations, as well as recently discovered evidence revealing the Vikings’ beliefs in the afterlife and how they commemorated and celebrated their dead.

© Courtesy SMAG
Research on the exhibition’s two skeletons, of a York man and woman, examined wear and tear, bone breaks and dental remains to provide intimate information about the life they led, activities they took part in and whether they were rich or poor.

As well as portraying Vikings as blood-thirsty, ferocious raiders who pillaged and procured far and wide, exhibits such as glass beads, belt buckles and a shoe show them as everyday folk - as farmers, metal and leather workers.

Valhalla - Life and Death in Viking Britain

Beads© Courtesy YAT
Chieftain Hastein was described by some as one of the most notorious and successful Viking warlords of all time, raiding cities across Europe and North Africa. Known for his expert cunning, he is said to have feigned illness and even death in episodes of trickery that allowed him to slay residents and loot their towns.

A calf leather turn-shoe is one of the featured exhibits. The Vikings made shoes inside out on a shoe-shaped wooden last and then turned them the right way, resulting in the name turn-shoe.

Belt buckles© Courtesy YAT
Belt buckles such as those on display would have been worn by men and women. Viking clothes had no pockets so they were used to suspend personal items and were sometimes highly decorated.

A child’s size 8 skate is on display in Valhalla. The Vikings made ice skates from the leg bones of horses and cattle. They were smoothed and flattened and a hole was drilled in the end to accommodate a shoe fastening.

Calf leather turn-shoe (left foot)© Courtesy YAT

Leather working

Once produced, shoes were stitched together using a sharp-pointed awl to make holes through which a leather thong or linen thread was drawn using a bone or iron needle.

Wooden vessels, including cups and bowls, were turned (made) on a pole lathe. Once the vessel was removed from the lathe, the core left in the centre was broken off and the base smoothed.

The core from the shaped bowl was discarded, thrown on the fire or, occasionally, refashioned as a spinning top for children. Wool or flax (linen) was prepared using a spindle and a weight or whorl of lead, bone or pottery.

Yarn was woven into textile on an upright loom, with the warp threads weighted by fired clay loom weights. Pin beaters, made of antler, were used to work out slight imperfections in the weave. Dress-pins were made from pig fibulae (leg calf bones). Pins like these were used to fasten a loose weave cloak.

Combs© Courtesy YAT

Bone and antler working

Antler waste from comb making shows the incisions in preparation for cutting tooth plates. Antler was usually, but not exclusively, used for combs as it was less likely to break under strain than bone.

It was collected after the rutting season, when it is naturally shed by the male deer. Composite combs were made of tooth plates sandwiched between two decorated connecting plates held in place by iron rivets.

The teeth were cut using a fine saw. Comb handles were often decorated with ring and dot motifs and incised lines. Poles were used to pull the skater along.

Bone skates from Valhalla© Courtesy YAT

Animal bone from Hungate, York (10th-11th century)

Cattle, sheep, pigs and horses have been identified by their jaws and teeth – pigs, for instance, have teeth which look “knobbly” and also have tusks. The exhibition includes cattle foot bones and a scapula (shoulder blade), showing “hook damage” with cut marks indicating where bone around the socket has been removed.

This is typical of meat hung up on hooks to be cured or smoked. Apig metapodial (long bone) was sometimes fashioned into a “buzz bone”, a small musical instrument.

A piece of bone from a large fish was probably cod: the Vikings revolutionised the fishing industry by building sturdy boats which allowed them to fish out at sea. The North Sea fishing industry has its origin in the Viking-age. Bones from a young chicken and a goose and the front and back legs of a young cat were also found.

Personal items

A replica of a limestone grave marker is decorated with a pair of interlocking animals in Jellinge style. Bow and arrows were used both as weapons and for hunting boar or deer. Strap-ends added decoration and prevented belts from fraying. Copper-alloy strap distributor from a horse’s harness, broken at one end. Straps were threaded through three looped projections.

Originally a fine piece, it has an animal head terminal and is decorated with an enamelled design that was originally red. Finger-rings of lead-alloy and copper-alloy. Rings were worn by men and women and were miniaturised versions of arm-and-neck-rings. Copper alloy buckle and copper-alloy mount with a ring and dot motif. Keys were important for keeping personal possessions and valuables safe.

© Courtesy YAT
Beads came in different colours, shapes and sizes. To obtain the colours, iron and copper were added to high lead glass. The majority would have been strung into necklaces, although they adorned other objects such as tweezers.

Every grown Viking would have owned a knife. Knives were made of iron with a steel cutting edge. The thin tang was inserted into a handle of bone, antler, wood or horn. Edges were kept sharp with a hone (whet) stone.

Spindle whorls made of lead alloy cast in a mould. Textile making was a common domestic task and associated with women. Whorls were used with a spindle to tease the thread from a bundle of raw wool.

Dress hooks, iron pin with tinned decoration and a copper-alloy globular headed dress-pin were decorated with punched ring-and-dot motifs. Copper alloy horse harness mount were similar to more elaborate mounts found in burials in Ireland and Norway.

Trade and metalworking

The Vikings are known to have traded far and wide due to their exceptional skill as seafarers. Finished items and raw materials for production included furs and walrus ivory from the Viking North, amber from the Baltic and spices and silk from Asia.

Regional supply networks were also well established providing raw materials.

Hand-operated rotary querns of volcanic lava, sandstone or limestone were used for grinding cereals into flour. Lava querns were imported from Mayen, in present Germany. It was prized due to its tough, rough texture.

A shalefinger-ring fragment, half a jet bangle, a jet offcut or roughout could have been intended for a pendant and a shale gaming counter. Jet and shale was collected from the Whitby area or mined in the Pennines. Amber was imported from the Baltic and made into dress items in York.

Metals were brought into York as ingots (discs and bars). Gold and silver jewellery and coins would have been melted down and reused. The production of metals was expensive and as much as possible was recycled.

Fired clay crucibles were used to re-melt, alloy and refine metals. Objects were then cast in moulds or wrought by hand and hammer.

Tools

A knife blade was used to apply decoration to metal, leather and other materials and awls all of iron and all with handles missing. An iron hook with a spiral shank and looped head was probably part of suspension gear and may have had a chain attached. Iron fish hooks were used to catch fresh water fish in York’s rivers.

Pottery and stone

Domestic lighting was by way of candles, pottery lamps or rushes. Lamps of stone and of pottery are the most common archaeological finds, although metal candle holders were also used.

Lamps were filled with wax or oil, burnt with a wick. Grindstones were mounted on horizontal axles and used to keep blades and other cutting tools sharp. Hone stones were used in the final stage of blade production and in keeping edges and points sharp.

No pottery kilns of the Viking age have been identified in York. Vessels in the exhibition come from inward trade and were made in Torksey and Stamford, both in Lincolnshire. Stamford was known for its fine clays.

  • Valhalla – Life and Death in Viking Britain is at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery from February 8 – June 5 2016.

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