A chance discovery thrown up by a storm has sparked a quest to uncover the secrets of the Vikings who headed south from their Scandinavian home over 1,000 years ago.
Vikings have a fearsome reputation in northern Europe, but surprisingly little is known about their more southerly exploits. So when a number of Viking anchors washed up on the beaches of Galicia, Northern Spain, during a spring storm earlier this year, Irene – a Scottish-based archaeologist – set off to uncover their secrets.
Dr Irene García Losquiño, herself from Galicia, working with the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Scandinavian Studies, says she was surprised by how little is known, even in academic circles, about the Vikings’ movements in Spain.
“Internationally, there is only a vague knowledge that the Vikings went there. They visited the area from around 840 until the 11th century, but most studies focus on their activities in other countries such as Britain and Ireland.”
“When I read that these anchors had washed up, I dropped everything and went to investigate for myself.”
With the help of Dr Jan Henrik Fallgren, from University of Aberdeen, and Ylva Backstrom, from University of Lund, the local heritage society and the town mayors, Irene and her colleagues set off on a five day tour.
“It was the best five days of my life – mind-blowing!”
On the beach where the anchors were found, there was a big mound which locals thought might have been a motte-and-bailey construction of a type later used by Vikings in France.
But with the help of a geographer using tomography, Irene says they now think the mound is a longphort – a Viking construction only found in Ireland during the early Viking age, and very similar to English Viking camps, where they would winter, after taking over the harbour.
Written sources indicate that the Vikings first attacked Spain in 844 AD, but were met with strong resistance. They returned with another fleet in 860 AD and again in 968 AD.
As yet, there has been no comprehensive archaeological study of Vikings in the region and Irene plans to find out more about their time in the region when she returns to dig in spring. “We have been comparing aerial maps from the 1950s with up-to-date satellite images and [there are several unusually shaped sites that] look exactly like Viking camps that have been found elsewhere. We want to find something datable and trace their movements, through where they established camps”.
So, did they settle here? Written chronicles do state that some of the Vikings stayed behind, and were offered the chance to integrate into society. In addition, says Irene, there is an identity within the current population of the region, that is not Celtic and not Spanish, but Viking, and some locals believe that is why there are far more people with ginger hair and blue eyes here than in other parts of Spain.
“In some towns there are festivals and pilgrimages that pay homage to these roots. But there is a lack of facts and data about when they were here, where they went, and how long for. I hope to be able to fill in some of these blanks and share it with the whole community. It is such a local thing, in some cases only a Spaniard, and in some cases someone who can speak the local language can have access to – so I am very fortunate!”
Dr García Losquiño is planning to produce a documentary on Vikings in Galicia. This will be made available in her Viking Iberia project.
Source: University of Aberdeen
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