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Introduction

Although the word 'Viking' is said to be Norse for 'pirate,' not all Vikings engaged in the invading, pillaging and killing. The Swedish Vikings were more interested in trading than raiding. Trade provided them with a more stable income. The Swedish Vikings sailed as far away as Baghdad and Greenland to seek trading opportunities. In the process, they assisted in the emergence of a number of trading towns, some of which still exist today. Refer animation

Viking merchants

The Vikings were probably the most successful traders of their time. In particular, the superiority of Viking ship-building skills enabled them to trade in faraway lands. The Norse built short but wide ships called knarrs, which were specifically designed to carry cargo. Able to carry up to 35 tonnes, the knarr allowed the Vikings to carry heavy goods such as timber, livestock and silver. The ships were also strong, enabling them to travel through the rough rapids of European rivers and to journey long distances, as far away as Greenland.

Trading towns in Scandinavia

The Swedish Viking merchants are thought to have begun trading in AD 750 in the west Baltic Sea. Trading markets, where merchants came to trade various goods, soon developed along these popular routes. It was not long until many decided to settle permanently along the trading routes. The markets began to flourish as Viking trading towns.

Birka in Sweden and Kaupang in Norway were two large Viking trading towns. The largest of the Vikings' trading towns was Hedeby in Denmark. Hedeby was established around 808 after the trading settlement of Reric was destroyed and had to be relocated. Hedeby quickly flourished as a place where people could buy goods which included fur, honey, amber and wine. The popularity of this particular trading town was due to its central location which linked a number of trade routes. Hedeby was so prosperous as a trading centre that its inhabitants were able to sustain themselves by working as craftsmen and merchants.

Modern-day excavations in Sweden, particularly Gotland, have provided great insight into the trading patterns of the Vikings. More coins from the Viking Age, which were minted in England, have been found in Gotland than in England itself. As many as 38 000 German coins and 40 000 Arabic coins made of silver have also been uncovered there. Refer Image 1

Trade in the east and south-east

Around 860, the Swedish Vikings began to travel across the Baltic Sea and along a number of rivers, including the Volga, in western Russia. Known as the Rus, they founded the towns of Holmgard (Novgorod) and Konugard (Kiev). These towns became major stations on the trading route from the Baltic Sea to the Byzantine Empire. As trade continued to boom, Holmgard and Konugard emerged as powerful states.

Merchants also travelled down the River Dnieper and across the Black Sea to Miklagard (modern-day Istanbul), which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This was an exceptionally dangerous journey. Not only did the merchants have to contend with being attacked by locals, they also had to negotiate their way around incredibly turbulent rapids. From Miklagard, the Vikings continued to travel further inland than any other Europeans. They even traded in Jorsalir (Jerusalem) and Sarkland (Baghdad). Refer Image 2

Despite the danger and being more than 2000 kilometres away from Scandinavia, the Swedes could not ignore the prospect of the awaiting rare and exotic riches in the trading centres of the East. This was particularly the case in the markets of Sarkland. The city was connected to old trade routes in the Far East, including the Silk Road. It was likely the Vikings traded slaves they had captured in Russia. They also traded furs, skins and tusks from Greenland, in exchange for silk and spices from the Far East.

Silver coins were another common method of payment during the Viking Age. Unlike today where each coin represents a different value, the Vikings determined the payment required in coins by measuring their weight using scales. This was because coins were often melted down and crafted into jewellery.

Trade in the west and south-west

The Danish and Norwegian Vikings generally travelled west and south-west in pursuit of new land to invade and colonise. The Swedish Vikings mainly travelled east for the purpose of trade. The Swedish Vikings did, however, also establish some important trading routes in the British Isles. Jorvik (York) in England and Dublin in Ireland were two major trading centres which enjoyed great prosperity towards the end of the ninth century.

Recent excavations in York have revealed bowls made from a soft rock called soapstone, which had most likely come from Norway. An amber axe-head was also among the items uncovered, indicating that amber was also brought from the Baltic Sea to Jorvik to be worked during the Viking Age. A cap made of silk from the eastern Mediterranean was found in England, as was a coin from Samarkand (a city in modern-day Uzbekistan). Refer Image 3

The Vikings were also prosperous exporters. Wool, furs and fish from Iceland and skins and tusks from Greenland were commonly traded in a number of Viking markets. The Vikings are also thought to have traded goods which they had pillaged during raids.


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