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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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