Although modern myth mostly presents Vikings as raiders and pillagers, they were traders too.
Traders with an axe in hand to help in negotiations.
Each summer, hundreds and perhaps thousands of sailors set off from Scandinavian shores to sail westwards and southwards. During their time, Norsemen sailed Europe thin; along the coasts, up and down rivers, even carrying their ships around mountain-tops. So it is no surprise that special trades and objects specifically targeted at the summerly Viking tourists started to appear across Europe.
What did Vikings trade?
Surely all of their trades were not completed at axe and spear point.
One thing Vikings were well known for having traded is fur. Bears, foxes, squirrels, hares, deer, reindeer… you name it and a Viking would have hunted it. The fur trade was an important export for Vikings and is mentioned in many Islamic accounts of the Nordic folks.
Another trade that was important for Vikings, mostly in and around Scandinavia and Northern Europe, was timber, particularly for ship building.
Indeed, that is right. Lumberjack Vikings were definitely a thing, especially in Norway, which had many forested areas with sturdy trees.
The sagas even tell us that timber was one of the main things Vikings brought back with them from Vinland (North America), and this is confirmed by the archaeological timber finds in the Greenlandic Viking settlements which contain tree species only found in America.
So that’s some objects that Vikings traded with, but…
What did the Vikings want to buy?
The Norse people were known to like shiny objects with gold and silver and jewels, but other objects too, which caught their fancy. Swords, for example.
Not surprising that Vikings would be browsing for weapons when abroad, right? But did you know that some of these swords were as fake as LV knock-off purses?
One brand of swords particularly appealed to Scandinavians of this period. For Vikings, Ulfberht swords were considered the magnum of all swords.
They were easily recognisable by the branding on the fuller of the swords, which read: "+VLFBERH+T". These swords were sharper, lighter, faster, stronger—you get the point.
And they truly were better. Because tests made on unearthed Ulfberht swords have proven that these were made of high quality crucible steel, not merely iron or hardened steel, as was the standard at the time in Scandinavia.
The difference was clear for any fighter to feel, which was why Ulfberht swords had a legendary reputation among the warriors from the north. A sword like this was an indication of high status and considered an heirloom.
The fact that the branding name is written not in runes, but in Latin letters suggests that these swords were not forged in the north but imported from outside of Scandinavia, making them the ultimate jewel of a souvenir.
The swords are thought to mostly originate from the Rhine river area, and were commonly traded on Frankish soil, and consequently used by Vikings to invade that same Frankish soil to the point that Charles the bald, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire, eventually banned all sword trade with Vikings at the penalty of death.
Since these swords were so desirable they also sold for high prices, like designer clothes today. Enter the Viking age equivalent of a knock-off LV bag—fake Ulfberhts.
Above, you see a comparison under the microscope. To the left is a real Ulfberht and to the right one of the fakes. One didn't need a microscope to tell the difference, though.
To avoid copyright infringement, or perhaps merely due to spelling difficulties, the name on these famously branded swords was not always written the same way, with only the +VLFBERH+T brands being authentic.
Sometimes the sword would instead be labelled +VLFBERHT+ (see above).
These were the most accurate knock-offs. Although they were not made of crucible steel, they were made from eutectoid steel.
Sometimes it was spelled VLFBERH+T or even VLFBERN+
These were cheaper knock-offs made of hardened steel.
If the brand name was spelled +VLFBERH-|-T or VLFBER++, then the sword was made of unhardened steel.
Finally, +VLEBERHIT or +VLFBEHT+ or worse spellings were swords that were straight up made from wrought iron and bore near to no ressemblance to real Ulfberhts, except for their attempt at branding the blade.
It seems that the worse the spelling was, the worse the quality too. All of this to say that only swords branded +VLFBERH+T were truly made of crucible steel. The rest were true knock-offs.
So, if you’re a Viking age Scandinavian warrior, you better stop reading now and double check the spelling on your sword.
Souvenirs popular with viking tourists, much like the ones you might see sold on the streets of Paris today.
In the Viking age, it was not miniature Eiffel towers that were all the rage (unsurprising as the Eiffel tower was built a millennia later), but an object with a similar shape. Horns.
Particularly glass drinking horns.
A glass drinking horn was a symbol of status in Iron Age Scandinavia, and way into the Viking age. They were originally used by the Romans and the trend expanded all the way to Scandinavia.
To begin with, such glass horns were fabricated in Rome and Italy, but in the later iron age, production also happened along the Rhine river, particularly in Cologne, which is where most of the Scandianvian discoveries are thought to have come from.
Back in the North they would therefore indicate someone who had gone abroad and most likely sailed up the Rhine river.
Glass drinking horns were much heavier than normal horns, hard on your wrist to hold at a party, subject to breaking if they fell on the ground when you got too drunk and often decorated with gold and silver tips which did not make them any lighter to hold, but they did look very impressive.
And as with many trends in the Viking age, that was kind of the point.
If it looked cool and impressive, then it was all the rage. Even more so if it was a shiny object. In that sense, Vikings were very similar to the crows and ravens that they so respected.
So, if you happen across a Time Machine and happen to be sent a thousand years into the past and happen across some Vikings… you might be able to negotiate your way out of trouble if you can offer them some shiny souvenirs in exchange for your life. But, if you sell them knock-off swords, be prepared to make a quick escape before they realise that they’ve been ripped off. Iron too can kill.
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