New research suggests that the pursuit of wealth was not the only driver of the Viking hit-and-run raids on monastic communities such as Lindisfarne and Iona.
Steve Ashby, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, believes that the raids gave participants prestige.
“The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor,” he says.
“Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base.
“It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age.”
Previous research has attributed the spike of aggression at the time to environmental, demographic, technological and political factors, as well as wealth in the form of silver, gold and slaves.
But Ashby believed there was more to it than that.
“I wanted to try to discover what would make a young chieftain invest in the time and resources for such a risky venture. And what were the motives of his crew?” he writes in Archaeological Dialogues.
He points to the fact that many of the Christian artefacts taken from places such as Lindisfarne that ended in Scandinavia escaped melting and recycling. Ashby argues this was not because of some form of artistic appreciation, but because they were foundation stones for power.
He says warriors joined raiding parties as a way to be noticed by their peers and superiors.
“The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself,” Ashby says.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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