Excavations in Ribe, Denmark show that Viking culture was based on sophisticated production and trade. Is their brutal reputation unfair?

[Excavations at Ribe] found the remains of wooden homes; moulds for fashioning ornaments from gold, silver and brass; intricate combs made from reindeer antlers (the Viking equivalent of ivory); and amber jewellery dating to the early 700s.

Even more extraordinary, however, was the discovery that these artefacts were not for home consumption by farmers, let alone itinerant raiders. Instead, the Vikings who made them lived in a settled, urban community of craftsmen, seafarers, tradesmen and, it seems, musicians. 

“Ribe confounds history,” says Richard Hodges, a British archaeologist and the president of the American University of Rome. “What we have here defies the opinion that all the Vikings did was to raid and to rape.”

The discoveries at Ribe suggest mass production, high levels of specialisation and a division of labour – all characteristics of a settled urban society rather than a nomadic one based on pillaging.

“We can see in Ribe that Viking society was based on sophisticated production and trade,” Hodges says. “It is a paradox: they made these beautiful things, they had gorgeous cloth, wonderful artefacts, but at the same time they are known to history for their brutality.”

European history has been written from the perspective of Christian chroniclers who wanted to tell us that Vikings were barbarians, Hodges notes.