Five things you didn't know about Vikings

Published 10 March 2014

From New World voyages to ear spoons, discover another side to the Vikings with these five unexpected facts about the seafaring peoples of Scandinavia.

1. They discovered America 500 years before Columbus

For centuries Viking sagas spoke of Winland, an island to the distant west that had been discovered by the Viking Leif Eirikson. It was first recorded in writing in the late 11th century by the German chronicler Adam of Bremen but, as Norse sagas were traditionally passed down orally, the origins of the stories may be far older. It wasn't until the early 19th century that people began to take the stories of Winland seriously, and the question of a Viking expedition to the Americas was settled without a doubt in the 1960s when a Norse settlement was excavated in Newfoundland.

2. They loved male grooming

While the Vikings are sometimes imagined as unwashed hordes, their contemporaries thought them unusual for their exceptional hygiene. Their weekly baths were looked upon with suspicion by Anglo Saxons of the time, who would bathe only once or twice in a year (the meaning of the Scandinavian words for Saturday can be traced back to the Old Norse for 'Washing Day'). Excavations of Viking burial mounds have found individuals buried with razors, tweezers and 'ear spoons' – long, narrow tools for removing wax – as well as soap, which was used for hair bleaching.

3. They were democrats with progressive views on gender

In comparison with their Saxon and Frank contemporaries, Viking cultures were remarkably democratic. Norse kingdoms were divided into districts in which all free men had equal votes, with regular public assemblies to discuss political, social and criminal issues. Women's rights were also progressive for the time: although their role in society was mainly domestic, women could own property, were able to divorce their husbands and could earn high statuses. One of the grandest Viking burial sites was of the Oseberg 'queen', buried with a richly decorated ship and a hoard of valuable grave goods.

4. They preferred ploughshares to swords

Despite their reputation as bloodthirsty warriors, not all Viking voyages ended in violence. Vikings established a number of peaceful colonies across Iceland, Greenland and a number of smaller islands. They were keen merchants who traded peacefully across the known world, and spent far more time farming than fighting – for most of the year they would dedicate their time to running small farms, sowing crops and raising livestock, giving their families the food they needed to live.

5. They excelled at Arts and Crafts

Perhaps surprisingly for a community of adventurers, Viking culture placed a high value on the decorative arts. Viking jewellery and accessories were stunningly crafted, while tools and weapons were embellished with elaborate runes and inscriptions. The motifs that appeared in Viking decorations would eventually be adopted by medieval scribes creating illuminated manuscripts, having a huge influences on the visual culture of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Vikings: Life and Legend is as the British Museum until 22 June 2014. Save 50% on tickets with a National Art Pass.

Back to top