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'Vikings' in the Danelaw - an Archaeological Footprint

Updated: May 29, 2021

Did the 'Vikings' leave an archaeologically identifiable footprint in England when they settled? Can we excavate those remains and find the presence of the raiders and settlers? Richard and Haldenby's exceptional 2018 article suggests yes, we can.

This week I thought I'd write a quick article about my favourite article ever - Richard and Haldenby's 2018 The Scale and Impact of Viking Settlement in Northumbria. You can find a copy of the article here, if you'd like to read along - I'd hugely recommend it. It provides an amazing example of how archaeology and history can be fruitfully integrated together.

The dominating question of the study of the Danelaw and the 'Vikings' in England remains the question of the scale of the settlement. While the impact is clear, not least from the linguistic evidence, are we dealing with a movement of a relatively few but incredibly significant elites, or a mass migration?

Sawyer, building on documentary sources as a historian, had stressed a minimal scale (Sawyer 1971). Indeed, appreciating the intellectual climate of his time, this seems unsurprising as previous scholarship had relied uncritically on documentary evidence. The ASC recounts, for example, that Halfdan ‘divided up the land of Northumbria; and they were ploughing and providing for themselves’, a vague statement that gives no real information on the density of settlement (Swanton 2000, 74). For the year AD851, the ASC recounts that ‘three-and-a half hundred ships came into the mouth of the Thames’ (Ibid., 65), a number Sawyer discards as little more than hyperbole (Sawyer 1971, 124-5). So, too, did he question the scale of the Micel Here and the extent to which ‘army’ is a valuable translation, artificially inflating our understanding of scale (Ibid., 123). Certainly, some archaeological evidence appears to support this claim: the D-Shaped enclosure at the camp at Repton measures a pitiful 0.4 hectares (Richards and Haldenby 2018, 324). For Sawyer, then, all evidence points towards a small-scale invasion.

Archaeological evidence seems also to support this initial argument. Blair’s central thesis is that ‘Viking’ era settlements are largely archaeologically invisible. Substantial evidence for continuity at many rural sites from the seventh to the eleventh century has been suggested, at odds with the notion of large-scale Scandinavian-led cultural change (Blair 2018, 282). Wharram Percy (Yorkshire) is perhaps the prime example, abandoned in the early modern period and thus easily excavated, and has been interpreted as representing ‘business as usual’ across the period of ‘Viking’ invasion (Richards and Haldeby 2018, 327). The settlement at Catholme (Staffordshire) is equally novel in the completeness of its excavation, and no major changes are evident in its overall layout throughout its development (Losco-Bradley, Kinsley and Brown 2002, 128). Evidence at the settlement of Goltho (Lincolnshire) is more complex; Beresford underplays variation in the structural form of some of the buildings to focus instead of a lack of obvious destruction and minimal impact to the layout over time (Beresford 1987, 124). Certainly, in these examples, there is no great break in continuity that we might have expected to find if the Scandinavian settlement had left a clear archaeological footprint.

Nor is it easy to identify Scandinavian style buildings among English settlement archaeology. The weakness of looking for diagnostically ‘Scandinavian’ forms is discussed below, but Richards points towards a traditional focus on bow-sided structures and longhouses as evidence for ‘Viking’ occupation (Richards 2000, 296). Notably, the ‘halls’ of the ‘Vikings’, growing in size over time in the Scandinavian homeland, are missing from England (Blair 2018, 286). This is remarkable, given the presence of more obviously Scandinavian buildings in settled areas of Scotland and the Isle of Man (Richards 2000, 296). In England there is only one truly convincing surviving example, found at Kentmere in Cumbria, which Blair explains as being tied closely to the cultural unit of the Irish Sea (Blair 2018, 283). Other attempts to draw parallels have been speculative and unconvincing. Building structures at the settlement at Simy Folds (Co. Durham), for example, has been suggested to mirror Scandinavian examples (Richards 1987, 25). Goltho seems to illustrate the emergence of a ‘different structural tradition’ in around the mid tenth century (Beresford 1987, 124), and the bow-shaped constructions of these has been (with retrospect, rather lazily) interpreted as reminiscent of similar examples in Jutland (Richards 2000, 301). Richards has argued, however, that these structural features result more from environmental adaption than any cultural impact (Richards 2011, 50). Indeed, new settlement forms and locations emerge as frequently outside the Danelaw as in it (Richards 2000, 302). So, too, is a Scandinavian footprint largely architecturally invisible in an urban context; the ‘five boroughs’ attested in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (hereafter ASC) as occupied by the Scandinavians are ‘indistinguishable from [...] Anglo-Saxon burhs’ (Richards 2011, 52). In light of this evidence of settlement layout and morphology, the argument for a lack of clear ‘signature’ to the settlement seems initially convincing. 'Viking' burial is clearly relevant here, and I have talked about the evidence elsewhere.

Blair is notably more reserved in his conclusion than the overly-confident Sawyer. He points towards a much broader set of ‘invisible decades’ from the late ninth to the early tenth century, suggesting an overall remarkable lack of evidence makes drawing a strong distinction between English and Scandinavian structural forms impractical (Blair 2018, 306-8). In its thus largely an invisibility, rather than necessarily an absence, that Blair’s argument stresses.

Alternatively, some have adopted a Maximalist approach. Place-name evidence has long been suggested to point towards an extensive ‘Viking’ settlement. Smith’s early mapping of Old Norse -by and -thorpe suffixes (illustrated in Figure 2) corresponds almost perfectly to the traditionally understood boundaries of the Danelaw and has subsequently been interpreted as straightforward evidence of a large- scale settlement (Abrams and Parsons 2004, 382). Sawyer was heavily critical of the use of place-names: drawn largely from the Domesday Book, they might equally represent evidence from the invasion of Cnut in 1016 (Richards and Haldenby 2018, 322-3). However, Abrams and Parson have recently challenged this viewpoint, suggesting the frequency of -by suffix names reflect a genuine ‘relatively large number of settlers’ (Abrams and Parson 2004, 422). Of substantial note is the frequency of Old Norse name elements in Lincolnshire field-names, implying a a substantial (non elite) Old Norse speaking population and subsequently a large- scale settlement (Ibid., 402). It seems, then, that Sawyer was too quick to disregard place-name evidence entirely.

Beyond this, Kershaw and Røyrvik have recently reinterpreted the findings of the People of the British Isles project: the argument for no clear genetic evidence for a large-scale Danish settlement has been replaced by suggestions of a much stronger genetic contribution (Kershaw and Røyrvik 2016, 1670). The difficulties and inaccuracies of interpreting genetic data are, however, widely acknowledged (Richards and Haldenby 2018, 323-4). The linguistic evidence also points towards a substantial impact of the settlement but remains chronologically imprecise. Dance suggests an extensive linguistic exchange far beyond simple ‘needs-based borrowing’ (Dance 2012, 1727), while the recent Gersum Project has charted the long-term adoption a Scandinavian lexicon into Middle English (The Gersum Project 2020). This all stands in stark contrast to an argument of absence drawn from the archaeological record, and a subsequent need to re-evaluate the evidence is striking.

Richard and Haldenby's article begins to fill this gap, suggesting an identifiable material cultural ‘footprint’ for the Scandinavian presence. By comparing artefact collections from Torksey and Aldwark, and compiling typologies with the aid of the PAS, they argue that ensembles of certain items point clearly towards the presence of Scandinavian settlers. Scandinavian-style metalwork items are relevant here, but of more significance are those items that point towards the functioning of a bullion-weight economy (eg. lead weights, hack-silver and coins outside their normal area of circulation) (Richards and Haldenby 2018, 343).

Significantly, they draw a distinction between the assemblages of periods of camping by the raiding army and later settlement. This stems from evidence at Cottam B (Yorkshire), where variation in object types points towards distinct stages of occupation. Here, simple looting is symbolised by the tools of ‘metalwork processing’: hack- silver and dirhams are particularly relevant, and match the assemblage found at Torksey (Ibid., 345). Alternatively ‘domestic’ item (eg. buckles and brooches), in association with geophysical survey evidence for settlement, point towards longer-term habitation (Ibid., 326). Stamford Bridge 2 (Yorkshire) provides an assemblage similar to the stage of later occupation at Cottam B, with over 50 Anglo-Scandinavian finds, and seems to represent a later period of permanent settlement (Ibid., 334-5). Distribution patterns also vary and highlight difference; at Cottam B later domestic finds are found over a much smaller area, and in a more substantial concentration (Haldenby and Richards 2016). By utilising the PAS and the metal-detector finds, then, we are left with an understanding of the distinctive (notably plural) ‘signatures’ of the Scandinavians.

A clear ‘footprint’ for longer-term occupation also allows areas of notable absence to be easily identified and challenges the notion of settlement continuity. Focusing on the sub-kingdom of Deira, Richards and Haldenby identify seventeen sites occupied during the Mid-Saxon period, largely through finds registered in the PAS - of these, only four illustrate the previously identified material assemblages consistent with long-term Scandinavian occupation (Richards and Haldenby 2018, 329).

Clearly, the situation is still very complex, and this opens an incredibly fruitful future set of questions for us to answer. I have written before about post-colonial concepts of material cultural hybridity in the Danelaw that complicate using archaeological evidence to determine 'ethnicity'. However, Richard and Haldenby's article is a field-defining work in its own right, while also being an incredibly useful teaching tool for the role of archaeology in exploring questions that have traditionally been dominated by the study of texts.

I've added an extensive bibliography below surrounding the general topic if you're interested in finding out more.

Bibliography and Further suggested reading

Abrams, L. and Parson, D. (2004) Place-Names and the History of Scandinavia Settlement in England. In J. Hines, A. Lance and M. Redknap (eds.) Land, Sea and Home: 379-430. Leeds, Maney Publishing.

Audouy, M. and Chapman, A. (eds.) (2009) Raunds: The Origins and Growth of a Midland Village AD450-1500. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Beresford, G. (1987) Goltho: The Development of an Early Medieval Manor. London, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.

Blair, J. (2018) Building Anglo-Saxon England. Princeton, Princeton University Press. Buckberry, J et al. (2014) Finding Vikings in the Danelaw. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 33.4: 413-34.

Cherryson, A. (2010) Southampton and the Development of Churchyard Burial. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds.) Burial in Late Anglo-Saxon England, c.650-1100AD: 54-72. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Coupland, S. (1998) From Poachers to Gamekeepers: Scandinavian Warlords and Carolingian Kings. Early Medieval Europe 71.1: 85-114.

Curta, F. (2007) Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology. Early Medieval Europe 15.22: 59-85.

Dance, R. (2012) English in Contact: Norse. In A. Bergs and L. J. Brinton (eds.) English Historical Linguistics vol. 2: 1724-1737. Boston, De Gruyter.

Hadley, D. M. (2002a) Burial Practices in Northern England in the Later Anglo-Saxon Period. In S. Lucy and A. Reynolds (eds.) Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales: 209-29. London, The Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Hadley, D. M. (2002b) Viking and Native: Re-thinking Identity in the Danelaw. Early Medieval Europe 11.1: 45-70.

Hadley, D. M. (2016) In Search of the Vikings: The Problems and Possibilities of Interdisciplinary Approaches. In J. Graham-Campbell et al. (eds.) Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997: 13-30. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Hadley, D. M. and Richards, J. D. (2016) The Winter Camp of the Viking Great Army, AD872-3, Torksey, Lincolnshire. The Antiquaries Journal 96.1: 23-67.

Haldenby, D. and Richards, J. D. (2016) The Viking Great Army and its Legacy: Plotting Settlement Shift Using Metal-Detector Finds’, Internet Archaeology: 42/1. Available from: https:// [Accessed: 5th January 2020].

Halsall, G. (2000) The Viking Presence in England? The Burial Evidence Reconsidered. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 259-76. Turnhout, Brepols.

Kershaw, J. (2009) Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 5.1: 295-325.

Kershaw, J. (2013) Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kershaw, J. and Røyrvik, E. C. (2016) The ‘People of the British Isles’ Project and Viking Settlement in England. Antiquity 90.354: 1670-80.

Lang, J. (1984) The Hogback: A Viking Colonial Monument. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 3.1: 83-176.

Lewis-Simpson, S. (2011) Assimilation or Hybridization? A Study of Personal Names from the Danelaw. In W. M. Hoofnagle and W. R. Keller (eds.) Other Nations: The Hybridization of Medieval Insular Mythology and Identity: 13-43. Heidelberg, Universitätsverlag Winter.

Losco-Bradley, S., Kinsley, G. and Brown, K. (2002) Catholme: An Anglo-Saxon Settlement on the Trent Gravels in Staffordshire. Nottingham, Department of Archaeology, University of Nottingham.

Patterson, C. (2017) Viking Burials at Cumwhitton and Carlisle, Cumbria. In E. Cambridge and J. Hawkes (eds.), Cross Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Arts, Material Culture, Language and Literature of the Early Medieval World: 258-73. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Rice, D. (1985) The ‘New’ Archaeology. Wilson Quarterly 9.2: 127-39.

Richards, J. D. (1987) Simy Folds: an Early Medieval Settlement in Upper Teesdale. Medieval Archaeology 27.1: 1-26.

Richards, J. D. (2000) Identifying Anglo-Scandinavian Settlements. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 295-309. Turnhout, Brepols.

Richards, J. D. (2002) The Case of the Missing Vikings: Scandinavian Burials in the Danelaw. In S. Lucy and A Reynolds (eds.), Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales: 156-70. London, The Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Richards, J. D. (2011) Anglo-Scandinavian Identity. In D. A. Hinton, S. Crawford and H. Hamerow (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology: 46-61. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. D. (2012) Viking Settlement in England. In S. Brink and N. S. Price (eds.) The Viking World: 368-74. London, Routledge.

Richards, J. D. (2016). Finding the Vikings: The Search for Anglo-Scandinavian Rural Settlement in the Northern Danelaw. In J. Graham-Campbell et al. (eds.) Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997: 269-77. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Richards, J. D. and Haldenby, D. (2018) The Scale and Impact of Viking Settlement in Northumbria. Medieval Archaeology 62.2: 322-50.

Richards, J. D. et al. (1995) The Viking Barrow Cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire. Medieval Archaeology 39.1: 51-70.

Richards, J. D. et al. (2004) The Viking Barrow Cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire. The Antiquaries Journal 84.1: 23-116.

Sawyer, P. H. (1971) The Age of the Vikings. London, Edward Arnold.

Speed, G. and Rogers, P. W. (2004) A Burial of a Viking Woman at Adwick-le-Street, South Yorkshire. Medieval Archaeology 48.1: 51-90.

Swanton, M. (ed. and tr.) (2000) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London, Phoenix Press.

The Gersum Project 2020. [online] Available from: [Accessed: 3rd February 2020].

Trafford, S. (2002) Ethnicity, Migration Theory, and the Historiography of the Scandinavian Settlement of England. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 1-23. Turnhout, Brepols.

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