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Sámi Archaeology: Viking Contacts



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Map of Upper Norrland showing distributions of Viking Period artifacts (gray), Saami metal sacrificial sites (black squares) and circular ritual sites (circles). The Saami sacrificial sites in the interior were abandoned in the 14th century, in connection with the cutting off of independent trade following the treaty with Novgorod in 1323.

(Saami prehistory, identity and rights in Sweden, Noel D. Broadbent, p. 4)

 

In recent years more attention has been paid to evidence of contact between the Sámi and the Vikings and even Sámi influence on the Viking way of life. Previously this evidence had been largely ignored in favour of a more “traditional” view of Viking Society.

As mentioned in Sámi Archaeology: Settlements, the earliest known written account to describe the Sámi is the story that the chieftain Ottar told Kind Alfred of England during his visit in AD 890.

"Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived farthest to the north of all the Norwegians. He said that he lived by the western sea in the north part of the land. However, he said that the land extends very much further north; but it is all waste, except that Lapps camp in a few places here and there, hunting in winter and fishing in the sea in summer.

He said that on one occasion he wished to find out how far that land extended due north, or whether anyone lived north of the waste. Then he travelled close to the land, due north; he left the waste land on the starboard and the open sea on the port all the way for three days. Then he was as far north as the whale-hunters ever travel."

(View map of Ohthere's Voyage)

(See translation of Ohthere's Voyage to the White Sea)

In addition to exacting tribute, there is evidence of similar life styles between the Sámi and the Norse in the far north of Norway:

“In northern Norway this mixed farming economy coexisted with a different cultural tradition, associated with the Saami, which depended upon hunting in the inner fjords, interior and far north. … In the border area around the Lyngen fjord there are Norse burials to the south and Saami burials to the north, although some intermarriage at elite level may be suggested by Saami jewellery in Norse high-status burials in this area.”

(Julian D. Richards, “The Vikings: a very short introduction” OUP, 2005)

Neil Price has suggested that Norse pagan religion of seiðr was the Viking equivalent of Shamanism, and that similar features can be seen Norse and Sámi practices. Indeed, he claims that theVikings may have borrowed some aspects of these beliefs from the Sámi. (Neil Price, “The Viking Way”, Uppsala, 2002).

In particular, he refers to special grave goods such as metal and wooden staffs, silver amulets in the form of a chair, and animal masks – all of which may indicate burials of practitioners of seiðr.

In “Archaeologies of Aggression: Women and War in the Viking Age” Price illustrates some of these staffs and gives a distribution map of burials containing this material.