Saturday, February 5, 2022

Vikings in the East: the River Route

During the Viking age, people from Scandinavia traveled across eastern Europe to the Black and Caspian Seas, where they traded, raided, and served as mercenaries in the armies of Byzantine Emperors, Khazar Khans, and various other rulers. 

How did they get there?

You've all probably heard an answer that goes something like, "They sailed down the rivers." But as I just learned from River Kings, a 2021 book about the Viking Age by Norwegian/British archaeologist Cat Jarman, this was actually very difficult. There were many portages, some of them miles long, a few of them dozens of miles long. Jarman reports that while many teams of Swedish, English, and Russian adventurers have tried to voyage from the Baltic to the Black Sea via the rivers, none have succeeded; all eventually gave up and loaded their boats on trucks for substantial segments of the route.

So most likely the journey from the Baltic to Kiev involved a lot of walking. Not that the Vikings were afraid of walking; one of the mercenary armies that fought on the Caspian Sea got there by sailing to the eastern end of the Black Sea and walking across the Caucasus. But it seems unlikely that very many ships were ever sailed and dragged from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Jarman says the consensus among archaeologists today is that the trade from the Baltic to the navigable parts of the Dnieper and Volga Rivers was carried out in shallow-bottomed rowboats. And rather than dragging their boats across the longer portages, they may simply have left one boat or fleet behind, carried their goods overland – or made them walk, since the most valuable part of what they sold south was slaves –and then loaded onto another set of boats when they reached the next lake or river.

And yet when the Byzantines and Arabs encountered Northmen on the Black Sea, they were sailing what sound exactly like the Viking ships of northern waters. There is even this famous graffiti from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul depicting a Viking ship with a dragon prow. The fleet of "Normans" that attacked Constantinople in 860 was said to contain more than 200 ships, and if that is an exaggeration, well, surely you would have wanted an awful lot of ships to attack the massive walls of the mighty imperial city. But since, again, it would have taken a staggering effort to somehow drag all those ships past swamps and rapids and over the hills to the source of the Dnieper, they were probably built along the navigable part of the river, in the vicinity of Kiev or even farther south. The shipwrights may have been Swedish, but then again they may have been Slavs who had been trained in Swedish ship-building techniques; the ethnic make-up of the people known to history as the Rus is a complicated question that will get a post of its own.

People did travel this whole route, from Sweden or England to Constantinople and even Baghdad. We know some of their names: Harald Hardrada,  Bolli Bollason, Ingvar FarTraveller. But the usual course of commerce did not involve one merchant taking a load of goods from Gotland to the Mediterranean. Furs from Finland may have changed hands half a dozen times before they reached the southern markets where they sold for princely sums. This was a trading system, not a waterway down which ships sailed, laden with goods.

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