Viking Trade Routes Reached Over Hundreds of Miles to The Arctic, Study Finds

In addition to being infamous raiders, the Vikings also established extensive trading channels that were prosperous from the eighth through the eleventh century.

According to a recent research, some of those ties connected vast metropolitan commerce hubs with rural outposts where a wealth of natural resources originated over remarkably extensive distances.

Researchers from the UK and Europe use hair combs discovered in a historic Viking commercial hub in modern-day Germany to demonstrate the scope of the Viking commerce. The antlers of a deer species that lives hundreds of kilometers distant are used to make the combs.

Situated close to the southern tip of the Jutland Peninsula in what was then Denmark, Hedeby was one of the most significant commercial centers during the Viking Era. (The town itself was abandoned around a millennium ago, although the location is currently in northern Germany.)

Hedeby was one of the major urban sites in Viking Age Europe, functioning as a junction between the cultural worlds of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, as well as between Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

The village appears to have been a center for antler crafting as well, according to the researchers, who cite over 288,000 antler finds from earlier studies that were made at the location. The majority of these discoveries are leftover materials from the manufacture of hair combs similar to the one above.

The researchers aimed to determine the kind of deer from which the antlers originated, providing insight into their geographical origin, by examining the collagen found in these antler combs.

Using a technology called Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry, or ZooMS, scientists revealed that up to 90 percent of the combs were constructed from the antlers of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as caribou.

Because reindeer herds only resided in northern Scandinavia, this means either the antlers or the combs themselves were introduced to Hedeby.

Only 0.5 percent of the antler debris at Hedeby, according to earlier studies, originated from reindeer. Furthermore, there is little indication of comb manufacture in the earlier stages of the site, despite the town having a wealth of evidence of antler-working that primarily dates to later in Hedeby's heyday.

All of this, according to the researchers, indicates that the combs were imported, albeit some may have been personal belongings of "mobile individuals." Either way, the combs were made somewhere else, maybe hundreds of kilometers distant in upland Sweden or Norway, and ended up at Hedeby.

The team adds that if the combs were imported, this suggests that Hedeby and the far north had extensive, long-range economic contacts.

And according to their research, it may have existed as early as 800 CE, or only seven years after the Viking invasion on Lindisfarne, England, which is often considered to mark the beginning of the Viking Age.

"We have begun to answer a whole range of questions about the timing of travel and trade in Viking-Age Britain and Scandinavia," says Steven Ashby, an archaeologist at the University of York.

Ashby and his colleagues point out that there is still much to discover about life in the Viking Age, including how individuals traveled and how interconnected the various Viking regions were overall.

The new study is a part of a larger tendency in Viking studies that aims to comprehend the connections between Scandinavia's far northern settlements, such Kaupang or Birka, and metropolitan centers like Hedeby.

"This big town at the entrance to continental Europe and the upland mountains of Scandinavia are connected in a way that makes the work at Hedeby especially fascinating," adds Ashby.

He continues, "it also suggests a period in the ninth century when these northern ties must have been exceptionally strong."

The study has been published in Antiquity.