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For most of the 20th century, the study of the Vikings in the Western Isles was almost exclusively pursued through historical sources. Everyone assumed, as told in the historical literature, that Vikings were there as raiders. Viking burials filled with weapons confirmed this impression. Today archeological investigations have begun to reveal a surprisingly diverse range of Viking activities. Digs at York in England and Dublin indicate that a degree of stability and peaceful commerce developed after an initial period of raiding and military occupation, while surveys and excavations in the Orkneys and Shetlands demonstrate extensive rural settlement by Viking colonizers who turned from raiders into farmers and traders. In a sense, the Vikings in the northern parts of the Western Isles had much in common with the settlers who moved into the Faeroes and Iceland, as you can see in the Iceland section.

Viking burials
Westness Viking Burials
Westness Viking Burials
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The number and distribution of Norse graves is an important indicator of Viking activity in the Western Isles. Viking men from Norway and Denmark were usually buried in individual graves with all their weapons and finery, occassionally in or beneath a boat. Several impressive Viking-style boat graves have been found in the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and Scotland. Other richly furnished Viking graves from these areas and the Isle of Man indicate some Vikings who settled in these areas accumulated great wealth, either by the sword or as traders or middlemen. In the cemeteries associated with the early Viking trading center established in Dublin the graves were those of men and include weapons and other valuable goods indicating that these were honored military commanders. However, burials are only reliable for early Viking activity in the Western Isles. Norsemen who converted to Christianity would receive a simple inhumation without the inclusion of grave goods, making them indistinguishable from graves of the English, Picts, or Scots.

Urban Centers
Since the 1970's, excavations of a rich archeological site in York, England has revealed another side to the Viking activities in the Western Isles. The site, lying in the Danelaw (see history section) between the Rivers Ouse and Foss, was located within a Viking military stronghold known as Jorvik, the Viking name for York. But archeologists now know Jorvik was more than a fortress; it was also a commercial craft center.

Jorvik
Jorvik, a Viking Urban Center
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Thanks to its waterlogged soil, many of the artifacts from Jorvik were preserved. Particularly important were the organic artifacts, like wood, leather, and other fabrics which rarely survive in normal soil conditions. The modern name of the street next to the first dig is Coppergate. Linguistically, this name is a compound of the Norse word for "cup-maker" and "street" (gata). During the excavations, many wood-working tools were found, including lathes used for producing round cups and bowls from blocks of wood. The concentration of wood working goods, and many scraps, indicate that specialized craft production--turning raw materials into finished products suitable for export or sale--was the main activity at York. On this particular street, cup making was the specialty, and the street name has survived from Viking times!

Other specialized craft production included leather-working, which produced beautifully embossed leather knife sheaths. Jet, a locally-mined black coal mineral was turned into jewelry in York and other town, and has been found in Iceland and Greenland. Other evidence of international trade in York includes imported Eastern silk, amber from the Baltic coast, and silver from Frisia (the modern Dutch-German coast).


Colleen Batey on ring pins

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Recent excavations in Dublin have uncovered a similar pattern of production and trade. Though initially a military stronghold, when the Vikings returned to Dublin around A.D.915 (see the history section), they came not as part of a military garrison but as metal-smiths, amber-workers, wood-carvers, and leather-workers. One of Dublin's specialties was ringed pins, which have been found in Viking settlements all around the North Atlantic. Once known only as a center in the Irish slave trade, Dublin is now seen as a major craft production and trade center serving a large network around the Irish and North Sea.

Place-name Studies
Archeologists and historians have an additional resource to draw on for studying Viking activity in the Western Isles: placenames. By looking at whether the components of a place-name in the British Isles are Scandinavian or English, linguists can determine whether the place was named by Vikings or by the native inhabitants of the area. These place names also pointed to where archeologists might look for Viking sites. Towns in the Danelaw Viking region carry distinctive Scandinavian-style place-names, ending in -by, meaning "settlement" in Old Norse such as Whitby and Thurkelby. The use of -by corresponds well with the historical and archeological evidence that Vikings were mostly setting up villages and urban centers in England. The situation differed in Scotland and the northern isles. Here, Scandinavian place-name elements meaning farm (either stağir, bólstağir, skáli, or bır) were used extensively, and today abbreviated forms of this are seen in the towns such as Grimista and Isbister. Another term indicating Viking ancestry was thorp, meaning 'outlying farm,' as in Kettlethorpe. The placename evidence indicates that Vikings who settled these regions were farmers, not military men or traders, even more clearly than archeological finds.