Vikings of the North Atlantic

The story of the Viking expansion across the North Atlantic. The exhibition was produced in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution in USA as a part of the millenial celebration of Leifur Eiríksson's journey to the New World.

The Vikings (from Old Norse víkingr) were seafaring north Germanic people who raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries.

Ranging Far and Wide

For two centuries beginning about a.d. 800, Vikings were everywhere, sailing the North Sea, rounding Spain to the Mediterranean, navigating eastern Europe=s inland rivers to reach the Black Sea and the Middle East.  Particularly in Ireland and Russia, Vikings made inland forays to capture slaves.  But not all Scandinavians who ventured out of their homelands were raiders.  Some were mercenaries willing to fight for hire, much sought after in the Byzantine Empire.  Others were settlers, and many were merchantsCall looking for livelihoods, not loot.

By Sail or By Oar

Without their remarkable ships, the Vikings would not have shaken Europe’s security.  Slender and shallow-drafted, Viking ships were quick under sail and nimble when rowed.  They allowed raiders to scourge coastal villages and monasteries, or to strike deep inland up fjords and rivers.  An average-sized ship carrying thirty men could arrive without warning, advance onto the beach, wreak havoc, and slip away before the overwhelmed victims could mount a defense.  The largest vessels could carry one hundred men and several horses.

Settling Down

Along with riches for the taking, areas outside the Viking homelands offered other opportunities, such as plentiful land and resources for trade.  Viking settlements soon appeared in the British Isles, western France, and Russia, as well as on previously uninhabited North Atlantic islands.  Viking settlers left lasting imprints as they intermarried and joined the cultures of their adopted homes.  Towns in England, Ireland, France, and Russia today still bear names derived from Norse words.  In the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, where Vikings became the dominant culture, they truly expanded the Norse “homelands.”

Taking the North Atlantic

As empty lands beckoned, Norse seafaring farmers set forth.   The times were ripe for leaving the homelands.  Shipbuilders had perfected sea-going vessels, and the population was booming.  Taxes and new rules prodded the restless in Norway, while Vikings in the British Isles had heard  reports of islands inhabited only by Irish monks.  By the early 800s, Norse land seekers were on the move.  The warmer temperatures of the period made the North Atlantic islands especially attractive.  In the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland, the Norse could support their livestock and their way of life.  All they needed was a supply line to iron, timber, and European markets