The Viking Expeditions from Central Sweden (700-1000):

The Causes and Effects that the Expeditions and Viking Culture Had on Each Other.


Chapter 2: Background
2.1: Climate and Geography
The Svear inhabited central Sweden in the region of the Mälar river valley around what is now Uppland, Gästrikland, Västmanland, and Södermanland. The geography of Sweden was primarily shaped by the glaciers of the last ice age and the climate by the far northern latitude and position along the Baltic Sea. The resulting conditions in central Sweden combined to encourage the Mälar valley to become a population center.

The glaciers were a major force in shaping the land and creating the regional soil types. The glaciers left a great many waterways and cleared the surface of the peninsula of plant life. These factors later determined how the land would become recolonized 1.

The glaciers of the last ice age scoured the surface of the Scandinavian peninsula and left the peninsula covered by ice until around 6,500 B.C.E.2 The glacier finally melted away completely between 7700 B.C.E. and 6500 B.C.E. (Mead 1958 : 39), leaving the land clear. As the glaciers retreated northward and inland, they paused over what is now southern Norway and central Sweden for about 800 years. Here, they were melting at about the same rate as they were advancing. As a result of the pause, many stones that were carried down from the north in the ice were deposited in the regions beneath the glacier, creating terminal moraines, resulting in countless numbers of rocks found in the soil of these regions.

The glaciers cleared the Scandinavian peninsula of soil, plants, animals, and people. The plants and animals are the result of the recolonization that has been occuring since the glaciers melted. Even the soil had to be rebuilt by the plants and animals that migrated north into the vacated land. Recolonization by plants and animals is a slow process particularly in such a cool climate where plants can only grow during a small part of the year. Even now the recolonization process is still occuring, as evidenced from the relatively few native species of plants and animals in Scandinavia as compared to warmer regions in Europe. The low number of species has meant that Scandinavia has been open for colonization by the people, plants and animals that could move in and survive in the cool climate and relatively poor soils.

After the peak of the last ice age, the glaciers retreated steadily except for a period of about 800 years when they stayed in virtually the same position (Sømme 36). During this time Norway and Denmark were free from the ice sheet. Since Norway was left on the edge of the ice sheet at this time, it appears that the runoff from the glaciers helped to erode the land, forming the deep fjords and valleys. Southern Sweden was physically attached to Denmark, with the Baltic Sea opening to the North Sea pretty much over what is now called central Sweden. This may have some bearing on later people in the region and their relations with Sweden and Denmark. The glacier's pause slowed the immigration of new plants and caused large tracts to have similar soil conditions throughout (Sømme 67). The southern border of the glaciers during their 800 year pause very closely corresponds to the southern border of the northern coniferous type of woodland3, indicating a possible effect on the soil. Additionally, the central and northern regions of Sweden have fewer species of plants than the southern regions, even today. The northward advance of vegetation was probably retarded by the slow retreat of the ice and the short growing seasons. Additionally, the land in the Scandinavian peninsula has been rising, causing the shore to retreat. Central Sweden is the fastest rising region within Sweden and is rising at the rate of 40-50cm per 100 years (Clarke 47). This means that areas that were once along the shore are now inland and some islands have now become peninsulas.

The many rivers and lakes, created by the past presence of the glaciers and the erosion from their melting, provided relatively easy means for travel inland or to the coast. Using the rivers, travel northwest and southeast was relatively easy, as was travel north and south along the coast of Sweden. Access to the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia from the interior of the peninsula allowed contact with other territories, resulting in many opportunities for the exchange of knowledge, goods, and people. The mountain range running from the northeast to the southwest acts as a physical division of the Scandinavian peninsula, currently marking the border of Norway and Sweden. Although suitable for sustaining low densities of hunter-gatherers, the mountain range is mostly unsuitable for agriculture thus, functions as a territorial division partially in this way and by being a watershed.

Scandinavia's climate is primarily influenced by its location. The Scandinavian peninsula lies in the far north of the hemisphere and next to the Baltic and the North Seas. The position near the Arctic circle and the large bodies of water have strong effects on the climate.

All of the Scandinavian peninsula is entirely above the 54th parallel and extends to just north of the 71st parallel. For comparison, in North America, Canada's Hudson Bay begins at about 54 degrees north latitude and goes only to about 63 degrees north latitude. This is about as far north as Östersund or Umeå, which are only about a third of the way to the northern end of the peninsula. In such far north regions, the growing season becomes drastically shorter there than just a little further south. For example, in the far north of Sweden, near Jokkmokk, the growing season is approximately four and a half months long as opposed to seven months near Uppsala in central Sweden and eight months near Lund in the far south of Sweden. (Mead 1958 : 149) The water of the Baltic provides a buffering effect on the temperatures in much the same way as the Great Lakes in North America do. For example, in the winter, the heat from the water in the Great Lakes is drawn into the air, warming the air, while the water freezes. In Sweden, the prevailing winds come from the south east, and therefore must cross the Baltic and are warmed by this effect on their way across.

Scholars believe that the average annual temperatures in Scandinavia around 800-1100C.E. were warmer than they have been the most recent several centuries. The average annual temperatures have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. There have been many periods with different temperatures, including periods of extreme cold. For example, during the 1690's that was called a "small ice age," (Mead : 98) and the 1860's. The cold of the 1690's caused several years of poor or failed crops, starving many people to death, particularly in Iceland, where the survival margin was small. However, despite any differences in climate between now and a thousand years ago, the approximate durations of the growing seasons can be assumed to be similar to those of growing seasons now. Specifically, northern regions would still have had shorter growing seasons than southern regions, regardless of the mean annual temperature, and Sweden, being in the north would have relatively short growing seasons.

The glaciers determined the topography and soil conditions of the Scandinavian peninsula, while the latitude and surrounding bodies of water were central to determining the range of climates. The topography, soil conditions, and climate in turn determine how the land can be inhabited by people.

2.2: Technology and Resources
Iron production, boat building, and farming were the three most important technologies of the Svear. Each of these technologies thrived in central Sweden due to the availability of the resources they were dependent on. Later, these became contributing factors to the Viking expeditions.

The Iron age came both late and suddenly to Sweden in comparison to central Europe4. In central and southern Sweden it came after a short Bronze age, approximately 200B.C.E., and in northern Sweden it came several centuries later, virtually immediately after the stone age (Nationalencyclopedin 339). The northern regions did not produce their own bronze and were so distant from the sources of imported bronze that bronze was too rare in northern Scandinavia to be a practical material. Thus, the stone age lasted until much later in Scandinavia than just about everywhere else. The southern Swedes were skilled at shaping imported bronze, but were not able to acquire much bronze except through trade with distant regions. However, since the type of ore found in lakes and bogs of Sweden was usable by the same refining techniques as in central Europe, the iron technology spread quickly north throughout Sweden after its initial introduction. The collection of surface ore became widespread at this time, but subterranean mining, with long tunnels and so forth, did not become important until the middle ages (Sømme 322) when the large mines, like Falun, began to produce gold, lead, iron, sulfur, and other elements. The iron technology used local ore, melted by local charcoal, producing large quantities of iron in Sweden. This production of iron directly allowed many technological improvements through iron products and indirectly as a commodity for trade.

Iron created stronger, more durable tools and weapons, and thus increased the ease and efficiency of hunting, farming, and battle. It also increased the strength of the boats, while allowing for a more hydrodynamic design. These iron reinforced boats were more seaworthy than the earlier lashed type because they were stronger while still retaining their flexibility. With the iron reinforced boats, it was easier to cross the Baltic and no longer necessary to follow the land. In this way, iron reinforced boats increased the ease and safety of sea travel, and resulting in the increase and extension of pre-existing travel and trade routes around the Baltic by the Svear.

The boat was of primary importance to the Scandinavians as a means of travel, transport, and gathering food, as implied by archeological studies and historical accounts. A map of prehistoric grave finds implies a strong correlation between habitation and communication via waterways, assuming a correlation between graves and population density (Burström 29). The great skill displayed in construction and decoration of the boats found from the Iron age through the Viking age speaks volumes about the attention that the ancient Scandinavian societies gave to the boat. Even as early as the second century, Tacitus wrote that he was impressed by the rowing and seamanship skills of the Svear. The boats of the Svear were lightweight, flexible and strong with peaks on both ends and propelled by oarsmen. The boats had a shallow drafts allowing them to move far up a river, yet were strong enough to withstand the open sea. After the Scandinavians began the use of sails, probably in the 7th or 8th century, to supplement the rowers, long distance travel was more feasible. Just about any region near a major river or the sea was accessible to the Scandinavians because of the strength and lightness of their boats.

Because of the importance of the boat, the rocky terrain and thick woods of what is now northern Småland, southern Sweden, were probably a significant barrier to travel, trade, warfare, and so on. The forests were not farmable until well into the nineteenth century when population growth and changes in inheritance laws forced people to try to grow crops where they would not previously have tried. These forest regions were only marginally usable by farmers in the nineteenth century using steel tools and dynamite, for those using only iron, bronze, or stone tools and not steel ones, it would not have been feasible to try to use these regions for agriculture. Thus, these forests would have posed a nearly impassable barrier to the expansion of agricultural societies, like the Svear in the Mälar valley. However, the large forests would guarantee a supply of wood for ships, tools, weapons, structures, and so on. The difficulty in traveling through thick forests would provide material to travel the many rivers and lakes and discourage long distance land travel.

The practice of agriculture increased the availability of food to increasing numbers of people as the knowledge of agriculture spread north, bringing farming to arable regions along the way. Once societies began to farm, they must have become concentrated in and around the regions that they considered arable due to their dependence on crops to support their population. The Scandinavians' culture is primarily based on agriculture. Even during the stone age, most of the Scandinavians practiced some type of agriculture, often supplemented by food from the wild, such as fish, game, berries, and so on. While there are many large, arable regions in Sweden, especially in central Sweden, these are often bordered by less arable regions. Most of central Sweden was bordered by less arable land on the north and south. These less arable regions may have delimited the territorial expansion of agrarian people. In this way agricultural technology could have been a controlling influence on how many people could stay in an area, as it is today, and which type of area they would consider desirable.

During the Iron age, the practice of agriculture became more refined, not only with the advent of new iron tools, but with new methods also. Strip parceling and two course rotation were two such advancements. They greatly increased the ease with which the region could support a large population (Widgren 12), thus reducing the strain on the land. By the late Iron age most of the arable land and pastures began to recover. Based on the archaeological remains of farmsteads, it is thought that there was a great increase in the population in the Mälar valley during the Viking era (Ambrosiani 48). At the very least there was a great increase in the number of farms in the region. Since there was a great increase in the number of farms in the home region of the Svear, it is quite likely, based even on this alone, that farming was an important influence on the culture.

In summary, iron allowed the improvement of many existing items and technologies, such as boats and farming. Boat craftsmanship and farming technology helped provide enough food for a large population, but limited the regions into which they could expand.

2.3: Culture and population
Archeological and historical sources suggest that the Scandinavians had an agrarian culture that was used to contact with other cultures and valued skills and material wealth. As the bronze and iron technologies reached Scandinavia, the Svear became a cultural identity, increased in population and wealth, and showed signs of trade with other civilizations.

Researchers assume that Northern Scandinavia was unpopulated while it was covered with glaciers. Scholars agree that the initial inhabitants of Scandinavia, other than the Saami, had migrated north from central Europe during the stone Age. This is presumed to have occurred as the people followed game animals as they moved north with the advancing tundra and forests following the retreat of the glaciers. During this period, the practice of cultivation of land began in Sweden. Hunting and collecting plants were probably the main ways of gaining sustenance inland. Large tracts of land are required to sustain a population by hunting and gathering wild food, necessitating a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life. Fishing was probably also done along the coasts and plentiful rivers and lakes and required more permanent settlements. It is most likely that fishing and hunting were not mutually exclusive lifestyles, implying that the stone age inhabitants of Scandinavia were probably distributed lightly throughout the peninsula in accordance with the availability of food and other resources. There were probably semi-permanent settlements in the rich southern regions, and migratory groups in the north where resources were more thinly distributed. Some groups in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Karelia, such as the Saami still continue these migratory practices in the northern regions to a certain extent, although territorial pressures from neighboring peoples have been making this increasingly difficult. Others groups, such as the Svear and the Gotar had adopted the practice of agriculture during the stone and Bronze ages, resulting in larger, more permanent settlements by the Iron age. The use of agriculture further increased their population, but at the same time limited their growth to specific regions. Since its introduction, farming has remained an important part of life in Scandinavia, even through the Viking times.

During the Bronze age, ending around 500 B.C.E., the cultures in the southern regions of Scandinavia did especially well. It appears that there was strong trade with central Europe for metals, especially copper and tin to make bronze, which were then worked with great skill. (Jones 18) Decorated weapons, personal ornaments, and stone carvings indicate that this was a period of relative wealth with social changes, new types of belief, and art. (Jones 18)

The Iron age 5 took a long time to spread throughout Sweden, as the knowledge of the use of iron spread from central Europe into parts of Scandinavia. Strangely, the power of the Scandinavian culture appeared to decline slightly during the early part of the Iron age, before it began to increase later in the Iron age (Widgren). Around this time, the Celtic peoples had expanded, spreading out from the Rhine basin, the Danube basins, and eastern France into Spain, Italy, Hungary, the Balkans, and Asia Minor (Jones 20). This appears to have caused difficulty to the neighboring peoples due to the Celtic civilization's lack of permanent governments (Jones). The Celts' territory interposed itself between Scandinavia and central Europe, cutting off or disrupting the Scandinavians' trade and cultural routes with the Greek and Etruscan cultures until new routes could be established. Additionally, the climate became colder and wetter at about the same time, causing greater hardship by further limiting the growing season, and making agriculture even more difficult for those in the furthest north. As a result, there was substantial migration from the north to the warmer regions in the south. Because of the movement of people in central Europe and northern Sweden, the occupants of Scandinavia were forced to explore new trade routes to replace old ones lost by travel or invasion.

Scandinavia began a recovery when the Romans began to organize parts of Europe, around 200 C.E., and increasing signs of improved standards of living can be found in Scandinavia from this time. Silver, gold, and other precious metals were brought north to Gotland, Skåne, Bornholm, and the Danish isles in many forms, including coins. Swords, jewelry, hair pins, rings, pots were also acquired through trading skins, furs, sea ivory, and slaves (Jones 23). As part of the apparent increase in the size and wealth during the Iron age, Scandinavians began to practice fancy burials in addition to cremations. These graves included many valuable objects such as tools, weapons, precious metal, jewelry, and so forth. So many of these items were highly decorated and carefully made, that craftsmanship appears to have been of great importance.

The archeological evidence of the prehistoric inhabitation of Sweden, such as these graves and remains of settlements, provided clues to the probable distribution of people throughout most of the Scandinavian peninsula. However, it is hard to determine what the size of the population was. For example, archaeological excavations could show a number of buildings located in the same region, however, the same family or clan could wander between the various farmsteads at different times. In Dalarna, Sweden, multiple farmsteads were used by the same family, who had the teenagers take the cattle to summer pastures, even into the early part of this century. This presents problems for determining the population size for any period or region that was not documented by written census records. This is especially true for Viking era Sweden. However, there are a few records of contact with literate societies that gave some clues about the population size of the Svear. The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote in the 2nd century that the Svear were strong in ships, men, and weapons (Calissendorff 17). This could be interpreted to mean that there was a sizable population of inhabitants in the Mälar valley as early as the second century.

Summary of Chapter 2
Although it is difficult for scholars to guess the population size of the Scandinavian societies, it is possible to estimate their approximate distribution, especially after the arrival of agriculture and metal working. As their population grew, their contact with other civilizations through trade showed a high regard for wealth and skill in craft.
Chapter 3.
Thesis Index.