Beer and beef was vital to Viking politics, but when they arrived in Iceland, it just wasn’t practical. Despite trying, they just couldn’t keep it up. Here’s what happened next.
Vikings are known for raiding and trading, but those who settled in Iceland centuries ago spent more time producing and consuming booze and beef — in part to gain political clout in a place very different from their Scandinavian homeland, says Davide Zori, a field director at Baylor University in Iceland.
The seafaring warriors wanted to sustain the “big man” society of Scandinavia — a political economy in which chieftains hosted huge feasts of beer and beef served in great halls. But when they arrived in Iceland, conditions were different – cows and barley just didn’t grow well, but they kept on trying nonetheless. Zori and his team took a look at what happened to the Vikings who spent too much effort on maintaining such an impractical basis of power.
Keeping up appearances
Beer and beef were vital to the Viking chieftains’ wealth and cultural display, which they used to flex political muscle, both with equals and rivals, and to cement good relations with local laborers, says Zori.
The team excavated a farmstead called Hrísbrú in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley. The farm, which was inhabited by some of the most famous Vikings of the Icelandic sagas, included a chieftain’s longhouse nearly 100 feet long with a “feast-worthy” great hall, a church and a cemetery of 26 graves indicating a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. Males were sometimes buried with ship remnants instead of in the Christian manner, where earthly possessions are left behind.
Carbon dating and studies of volcanic layers indicate the longhouse was built in the late ninth or early 10th century and abandoned by the 11th. The archeological team uncovered 38 layers of floor ash, including refuse dumped atop the abandoned house, also discovering bones, barley seeds and valuable glass beads imported from Asia.
Zori’s aim was to compare the archaeological evidence with Viking literature. Viking sagas, first written in the 13th century and based on oral accounts, included such details as where people sat at feasts, “which shows your ranking . . . These texts read almost like novels. They’re incredible sources. They talk about daily life,” Zori said. “Yes, the Vikings may have put axes to one another’s heads — but these accounts also describe milking cows.”
Putting power ahead of a productive society
When the Vikings arrived in uninhabited Iceland, they found forested lowlands, ample pastures and sheltered sea inlets. Excavations show that choice cattle were selected for feasts, with ritual slaughter and display of skulls.
Barley seeds unearthed from floors or refuse heaps indicate barley consumption, and pollen studies demonstrate barley cultivation. Barley could have been used for bread or porridge, but beer’s social value makes it very likely barley was used mainly to produce alcohol, Zori said.
Over centuries, as temperatures in the North Atlantic dropped during the “Little Ice Age,” being a lavish host got tougher.
“Nine months of winter — and three months that are only a little less than winter,” Zori said.
While sheep could find food free range most of the year and were suited for cold, prized cattle had to be kept indoors in large barns during the winter. Savvy supply-and-demand reckoning was crucial to be sure the food lasted — both for cattle and humans — and could be preserved.
“They had to decide how many to slaughter and store,” Zori said. “They didn’t have salt, so they had to use big vats of curdled milk as a preservative.”
As the landscape changed due to erosion, climate shifts and cleared forests, it became harder to rear larger numbers of cattle.
High-status households also struggled to grow enough grain for beer-making, based on historical accounts and confirmed by a growing body of archeological data. With a shorter growing season and colder climate than in their homelands, Icelandic Vikings would have needed more laborers to improve the soil — and as the chieftains’ power waned, they would have had trouble attracting workers. As barley cultivation stopped, the local chieftains are no longer mentioned in the Viking sagas.
Which went first, the power or the beef?
“You can see in the archeological evidence that they adjusted their strategy and gave it up eventually,” Zori said. “It got harder and harder to keep up that showiness – and when that collapsed, you didn’t have that power, that beer and those big slabs of beef.”
When barley was abandoned, the pollen record shows native grasses for grazing increased. Archeological findings show that the proportion of cattle to sheep bones declined, as Hrísbrú residents shifted to more practical, less laborious sheep-herding.
“You wonder what came first for the chieftains at Hrísbrú: Were they no longer powerful and didn’t need barley and beef? Or could they just not keep it up and so they lost power? I favor the second explanation,” Zori said.
“What we’re doing now is to let the archaeology speak, both for itself and for proof to verify (the texts),” he said. “Investigating politics breathes life into it, instead of just saying, ‘Here are three rocks.’ You can ask deeper questions.”
Zori argues that Viking chieftains’ drive to produce expensive beef and beer caused them to put their political aspirations above the greater good of the community.
“Maybe we don’t need the Vikings to prove this,” he said. “But it shows you that politics can become more important than creating a productive society.”
Source: This article was based on materials provided by Baylor University and have been edited for content and length.
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