"The Vikings"

PBS Airdate: May 9, 2000
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NARRATOR: The year was 793. On a small island off the north coast of England, the monks of St. Cuthbert's were enjoying their quiet routine of prayer and study. One peaceful day in June, from across the sea, a band of strangers approached the holy shrine. They did not come to pray. The pagan invaders from the north grabbed everything of value: gold and silver chalices, silk vestments and altar cloths. And they slaughtered anyone who stood in their way. The rest they took as slaves. No one escaped their wrath. This is the classic image of the Vikings - brutal barbarians, skilled in murder and mayhem. But the truth about the Vikings is more complex - and more elusive. The Vikings were much more than mere marauders. They were highly skilled craftsmen and traders. Their ships were marvels of nautical engineering. And their lust for adventure knew no bounds. Over the course of several centuries, the Vikings would have a profound impact on Europe. They would push the boundaries of the western world, venturing across the Atlantic to America. In the east, they would help found the Russian empire. Today, scientists are digging deeper into the soil of Scandinavia, Ireland, North America, and the former Soviet Union - uncovering long-lost secrets of the Viking Age. When warriors were poets, and lands were won - not just by brute force - but with superior technology, and political cunning. Finally, we are discovering the truth about the Vikings.

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NARRATOR: 1200 years ago, small bands of men from an obscure land in the north took the western world by storm. They came out of nowhere. And they seemed invincible. Starting in the late 8th century, Viking ships struck all along the coasts of Europe and the British Isles. Their violence was legendary.

THOMAS McGOVERN: The Vikings have had a really negative public image. They're the people who come around and burn down your house and run off with your daughter and wife, and probably your son, too. And this image has lasted consistently for the last 1,000 years, because it was established by the people who were literate, by the people who created history. And they were precisely the people who were the first targets of the Viking raids. So the Vikings get bad press because they had this tendency to burn down the newspaper office.

NARRATOR: Dozens of historical documents from the Middle Ages provide gruesome details of Viking attacks. And paintings highlight the cruelty of the northerners. More recent depictions of the Vikings, like this 1958 Hollywood film, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, romanticize the Viking myth. Rather than deranged criminals, they're depicted as brave and proud warriors. But this is no closer to the truth than the monks' biased accounts. Unfortunately, there is virtually nothing in writing from the people who knew the Vikings most intimately - themselves.

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: Well, the Vikings were not great writers, not great literary people. They were great storytellers. Their life was in their oral tradition. They had a great literary tradition, in a sense, but it was not a written tradition.

NARRATOR: The Vikings did have a form of writing, called Runes. Examples can be found throughout Scandinavia, especially in Sweden, carved into large monuments, or Rune stones.

1ST HISTORIC VOICE: Gervi and Gulla erected this stone for Anund, their father. He died eastwards with Ingvar.

2ND HISTORIC VOICE: Alve let this stone be erected for Arnfast, his son. He went east, to the land of the Rus. They fared like men far after gold, and in the east gave the eagle food.

1st HISTORIC VOICE: Andvatt and Gulev and Gunnar and Horse and Rolev let this stone be erected after Tord, their father. Fot carved the Runes.

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: A Rune stone is a document left by Scandinavians in Runes. It's written in an alphabet that is derived probably from Germanic scripts and things. But it - mostly they're memorial stones; they say, you know, "So-and-so - This stone commemorates so-and-so, my wife, who did this." It's their - they're not statements of, for the most past, history.

NARRATOR: While the deeds of Viking heroes were recorded on Rune stones, their bodies were laid to rest in cemeteries, sometimes marked by stone memorials in the form of Viking ships. Little else remains standing from the days of the Vikings. Most of the details of their life lie buried, hidden beneath the soil. The search for clues begins in the Viking homelands: The Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. On an island in Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm, are the remains of Birka. Once a thriving trading center, today Viking Birka is virtually invisible, unless you're an archeologist. Among the researchers struggling to recover the ancient remnants of the Viking Age is Andrew Jones.

ANDREW JONES: One of the reasons why we have a rather romantic view of the Vikings, fearful wolves from the sea, is that there are very few hard facts about them. The buildings were made of wood and turf, which have either been burnt down or rotted away. But today modern archeologists have a vast range of scientific techniques to choose from, which will help give more detail about life in the past.

NARRATOR: An important tool in the investigation is ground-penetrating radar, which detects subtle variations in soil structure. The read-out can help locate underground streets and buildings. Large drills bring up core samples from throughout the site. Microscopic analysis of tiny charcoal fragments reveals the kinds of trees used to build Viking homes and workshops. But the Birka team also relies on traditional methods, carefully digging and recording every discovery. And painstakingly sifting the soil.

ANDREW JONES: Sieving is one of the really important activities that goes on on archeological excavations. It is impossible to sieve the whole site, so people take samples from selected areas, areas like house floors, post hole fills, maybe a small amount of soil from most pits will be sieved, but not everything. And here we have it going on, and we find all sorts of bits and pieces. There are some fragments of charcoal here, and this is even a bit of iron. See, it leaps up. It's definitely magnetic.

NARRATOR: Among the many finds sifted from Birka's soil were hundreds of fragments of ancient ceramic casting molds, which shaped beautiful jewelry like this silver pendant of a Viking woman. Tools and metal fragments uncovered in workshops help scientists reconstruct the fine skill and artistry of the Viking jeweler. Out of metal and glass, the craftsmen created beads and brooches, necklaces and rings. Often, the smallest objects left behind prove to be the most valuable to the archeologists.

ANDREW JONES: These little glass beads are a really good example of special archeological detective work. We know that they were only in fashion in the 8th century. They are called wasp beads because they are made of black and yellow glass. And it is often small objects like these, everyday objects, not big things like gold and silver objects, that are most useful to archeologists, because objects like beads and these bone combs change dramatically in shape through time. Early Viking Age combs are very different in form from middle and later ones. And they are of course used and thrown away. So all the finds associated with objects of one particular period can be dated by the presence of small objects of this kind.

NARRATOR: Clues leading to dates are crucial, because sites like Birka were occupied for hundreds of years, leaving layer upon layer of debris. To keep track of this complicated mass of information, the team uses infra-red surveying equipment to plot every feature of Birka in three dimensions. Individual objects are given bar-codes and fed into a giant database. When all the clues are put together, Viking Age Birka comes to life. Houses and workshops rise from the soil, just where they stood 1,000 years ago. This was just one block of a fortified town, covering at least 17 acres. The individual features are then transferred to a one-to-30 scale model of Viking Birka. Located on a lake flowing into the Baltic Sea, the town quickly grew into one of the busiest and richest ports in all of Scandinavia. With the help of computer effects, Birka is filled once again with its Viking inhabitants. More than 600 people lived in homes clustered along the lake shore. Most of the buildings were constructed with wooden frames, filled in with wattle and daub. Small saplings were woven together and plastered with straw, mud and clay. When fires broke out, the clay was transformed into solid ceramic blocks, still bearing the imprints of wood and grass. The evidence reveals a town crowded with traders and craftsmen. But beyond its busy borders, most Scandinavians lived on scattered farms, living off the land as best they could, and raising cattle and sheep. Some Viking farmers reaped more than others. A few rose to power, and became chieftains.

THOMAS McGOVERN: The power and authority of chieftains was very much dependent upon their ability to produce for their followers, that if you gave good parties with lots of beer, lots of food, lots of meat, lots of good things to eat, you were a good chieftain. If you rewarded loyalty with gold and you punished treachery with iron, you know, you didn't suffer people gladly to do you harm, then you were a good chieftain because you could defend your followers.

NARRATOR: In the early years of the Viking Age, the population of Scandinavia was on the rise, and so was the number of chieftains. The struggle for power intensified, with more and more violent conflicts. At the same time, contact was increasing with the lands beyond the horizon. In a few bustling ports, the Vikings brushed shoulders with merchants from all over the known world, including fur and silver traders from Russia and beyond. They heard stories of altars laden with silver and gold, in Christian churches and monasteries across Europe.

THOMAS McGOVERN: This is this period of tremendous fluidity. There's money coming in from the outside, mercenaries' wages, profits from trading which pre-date the Viking period. So the money is coming in, it's somewhat destabilized the society. Now lots of people can try to become chieftains, lots of these freemen want to have a shot at being at least a petty chief, lots of petty chiefs want to have a shot at being kings, and of course the kings would like to rule everybody. So there's a lot of conflict within society, a lot of sharp elbows are being felt.

NARRATOR: At the end of the 8th century, ambitious chieftains saw an opportunity they couldn't resist. They gathered their followers - young men ready for adventure - and set out on ships to seize whatever wealth they could - by force.

RICHARD HALL: The Vikings came raiding for one very simple reason: Gold and silver. They wanted wealth, they wanted loot, which would enhance their status back home, and make them looked up to as wealthy people in the community. And they realized through their contacts in terms of trade that there was gold and silver to be had, and they also realized that there were undefended monasteries, nice places, easily attacked from the sea, where they could bring in their boats, they could land, they could raid the monastery, they could grab the silver altar vessels or the posh book covers. They could take them away on their ships before any local king or lord could gather an army to fight them.

NARRATOR: Word quickly spread of the raids. Throughout Scandinavia, more and more ships set out. Soon, Vikings were striking the coastlines of England, Ireland, the Netherlands, and France. A monk who witnessed the attack of his monastery at Noirmoutier in France left this fearful account:

HISTORIC VOICE: The number of ships grows. Vikings in an endless stream, never ceasing, indeed growing. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, pillaging and plundering. The Vikings conquer all in their path, and no one resists them.

NARRATOR: The brutality of the Vikings shocked the Christian monks. But were they any more violent than other Europeans of the time?

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: I think they were relatively ruthless, but you know, this was a ruthless age, and there were battles between rival princes who were vying for kingship and control of local regions and so forth. And so the Vikings were just another crowd, but they were a crowd that was identifiable because they were non-Christian, and because they came with no compunction about killing churchmen or women or children or whatever.

NARRATOR: The monks explained the Viking plague as the act of a vengeful God, but there were several reasons the raids were so destructive. The Vikings' battle techniques were described by a contemporary Arabic writer, who witnessed them in action.

HISTORIC VOICE: If a group of them is challenged to battle they will all go. They don't separate, but stand together man to man against their enemies until victory has been achieved.

NARRATOR: Their deadliest weapon was a double-edged sword: almost a yard long, light in weight, but extremely sharp. A warrior could also carry a protective shield or a battle-axe. But among all their weapons, there was one that transformed the Vikings into an incredibly effective invading force. The Viking longship. Sleek and steady, quick and easily maneuvered, the longship was a technological tour-de-force - and leagues beyond anything Europe had seen before. The classic longship had a simple design, but was built with great sophistication. How exactly was it constructed? Archeologists have been unlocking the secrets of Viking ships for almost a century, thanks in large part to the ancient pagan practice of burying entire vessels intact. Several were unearthed from Norwegian burial mounds in the early 1900s. These ships were buried in the 9th century AD. One served as a tomb for a wealthy woman - possibly a queen - and her slave girl. Dozens of offerings - including horses and an intricately carved wagon - were buried with them, for their journey to Viking heaven, called Valhalla.

ARNE EMIL CHRISTIANSEN: The heathen belief of the Vikings was evidently that you needed objects for the next life. And if you were on top of society, you would need lots of objects, a ship instead of a boat, sleds, wagons, kitchen equipment, everything for living on in state. The ships were taken ashore, let down into a trench in the ground, and a big burial mound was built over them.

NARRATOR: The mounds were tightly packed with the local blue-colored clay, protecting the wooden artifacts from the destructive effects of oxygen and bacteria. The ships emerged 1,100 years after burial remarkably intact, and now reside in a special museum in Oslo. The vessels were elegant and strong. Some were carved with ornate Viking motifs, slender vines and animals intertwining.

ARNE EMIL CHRISTIANSEN: Boats and ships have been a very important part of the Viking society, for trade, for colonization and for warfare. And it seems that the ships of the Scandinavians were the best in northern Europe at that time. They could tack against the wind, which is important if you make a quick attack at a monastery and want to get away before an army is assembled against you. It is good to be able to get out from the shore by tacking.

NARRATOR: The preserved Viking ships all reveal the same basic construction technique. The boat builders would first select large, straight trees - usually of oak or pine - and split the trunk into sections. From every section, a single plank was carved. Each plank was remarkably thin and light, but very strong. The ships were all built from the bottom up, with the biggest planks forming the keel, the stem and the stern. Planks were carefully shaped and then nailed to the keel, with each subsequent set overlapping slightly. Inside, the builders added a light framework to stabilize the construction. The result was a smooth, streamlined vessel. Naval architect Leif Wagner Smith tests the performance of a Viking ship, using a scale model. The boat sails smoothly over the surface of the water.

LEIF WAGNER SMITH: Well as you can see, at six knots it generates very little waves. It is a very nice wave pattern, despite the large drift angle. It really has surprised me and others that with a square rig and a long keel, that it still balances so well, and you need very little rudder action to maintain course.

NARRATOR: The Viking ships were extremely low and light for their length, making it easy to land on a beach and then push off with little effort. A single side rudder kept the vessel on course. This so-called "steer-board" was the origin of the nautical term "starboard." The Vikings mastered square-sail rigging - devising a system to raise or lower sails in record time. Combining the best of sailing and rowing vessels, the Viking ship was a marvel of nautical engineering. And scientists have built many full-scale reconstructions to test on the open seas. Max Winner, a nautical expert from Denmark, checks the performance of the rig in rough wind.

MAX WINNER [voice over translation]: The advantage of the square sail is that it's really good for lifting the ship up, skimming the top of the waves. That makes it especially adaptable to ocean sailing. And the Vikings sailed the great oceans of the world. There they proved they were excellent seamen, with safe ships, and a remarkable knowledge of navigation.

MARTEN GOTHCHE [voice over translation]: We thought the ship was 66 feet long, but it turns out to be more than 118 feet long, and would have taken a crew of about 100 men. It is the longest ship we have ever found. It must have been enormously impressive to see them coming - 37 to 40 shields in a row, 40 oars extended on each side, and the large sail hoisted. It must have been quite a sight to see such large ships come sailing through the fjord.

NARRATOR: This is a reconstruction of the biggest Viking ship ever found - 118 feet long. It was perhaps swamped in a storm, before sinking in the harbor. To date ships like this one, scientists typically rely on tree-rings. For dendrochronologists such as Niels Bonde, tree-ring patterns form a fingerprint of the precise time period when the tree was growing. The pattern is shaped by varying wide and narrow rings, reflecting better and worse growth years during the tree's lifetime. By overlapping patterns from tree trunks and wooden objects of different ages, scientists have created a continuous chain of tree-rings stretching back through history. A wooden object like a plank can then be compared with the pattern of that chain, identifying the exact year that the tree was cut down. Niels is now trying to date a piece of wood from this ship, the Oseberg, from Norway.

NIELS BONDE: We will now try to establish when the tree that produced this sample was felled. And you can see all these rings here are quite narrow. We have to - later to figure out what that means for the climate in the region. We will now try to cross date this, with the standard chronology for Norway. And these are random figures coming out. And here you can see an extreme high correlation value, which indicate that the sample comes from a tree chopped down in 819, and that gives us the date of the ship.

NARRATOR: By now, most of the unearthed Viking ships have been easily dated by tree-rings. But one particular ship gave the scientists problems: The giant longship found in the Danish fjord at Roskilde. The tree-rings of this wood didn't match the pattern for Denmark. In fact, it didn't match any patterns known for all of Scandinavia. Only when they looked beyond the Viking homelands did the scientists find a match—in the tree-ring patterns for Ireland. But why would a Viking longship be built in Ireland? Over the course of several decades, the Vikings continually hammered the Irish coast with hit and run raids on Christian monasteries. After about 40 years, their interest in Ireland took a new turn.

RICHARD HALL: The raids intensified. They became more widespread. And eventually, in the middle of the 9th century, some of these Vikings decided that not only were these good targets to raid, but in fact they seemed good places upon which to settle. For back home in Scandinavia, most of the available land was already taken up. Somebody owned it. And so if you wanted to establish a new farm, you had to cast wide your horizons and look overseas. And with their technology, the longships, these people were able to travel long distances and they could set off to colonize new lands.

NARRATOR: By about 840 AD, Vikings were living in Ireland year round. Soon, they were building towns, centers from which they could raid the surrounding countryside. One of these was Dublin. Beneath the hubbub of modern day Dublin, archeologists are unearthing intimate details of Viking life.

LINZI SIMPSON: What we have here is a cesspit, or a Viking Age toilet, and basically it is a deep pit, cut down as you can see there into the border clay, and packed with basically human waste and any other rubbish that the Vikings had. You can see the various layers of stuff that has been dumped down, and here almost halfway down we have layers and layers of shell. And here we have the mussels and the cockle shells that were eaten by the people in Viking Dublin. And there is also evidence in these cesspits of seeds that have passed through human bodies and we can tell quite a bit about the, sort of, their vegetarian diet, the various plants that they were eating.

NARRATOR: Some of the evidence shows that the Vikings were quite concerned with personal hygiene.

LINZI SIMPSON: Perhaps one of the nicest finds we have found to date is this little silver toilet set. And there you can see it very clearly: a nice little tweezers, which is still functional, an ear scoop, possibly for scooping out wax in ears, and a nail file.

NARRATOR: A wealth of objects has been recovered from Viking Ireland. Many of these reveal a mixture of Scandinavian and traditional Irish designs. A weaver's shuttle, with a Viking shape, has Irish decoration. It's a sign that the Viking and Irish cultures were merging.

THOMAS McGOVERN: One of the things which we see very clearly in Ireland is Dublin and some of the other early towns of Ireland are almost certainly Viking creations, that these are trading centers, they are centers certainly for raiding, but they're also centers for a lot of peaceful interaction. These are places where people were coming with their families, they were settling down, they were expecting to marry into the local population, and they did.

NARRATOR: At the same time the Vikings were pouring into Ireland, a similar drama was being played out to the east - in England.

RICHARD HALL: The great Viking army tried to conquer England, and over a period of about 15 years in the middle of the 9th century, they almost succeeded. They took over the existing estates of the Anglo-Saxons, they took over their farms and they took over their trading centers. They were finally held in check by King Alfred. And King Alfred and the Vikings eventually reached an agreement that the Vikings would have the northern and eastern parts of England and he would rule the southern and western parts, and that was the origin of the Danelaw.

NARRATOR: Danish Viking kings ruled the northeastern regions of England for over 100 years, from their capital at York.

THOMAS McGOVERN: Politically, these people became very powerful indeed. They were permanent parts of the English political landscape, as they were of the Scottish and the Irish political landscapes of the same time. They just didn't go away. They go on being powerful figures.

NARRATOR: The Vikings left behind thousands of artifacts, even in the heart of London, like these battle-axes. Carved personal items like this bone comb with a dragon's head. And this Viking gravestone was discovered right next to St. Paul's Cathedral. The Viking legacy also survives in many common English words. "Thursday" comes from "Thor"- the thundering god of the peasants. "Friday" refers to "Frey"- the god of fertility .

RICHARD HALL: From a short term perspective, particularly if you were a monk, the coming of the Vikings to England was bad, bad news. But in the longer term, they had a more positive impact. It was they who introduced long distance trade. It was they who opened up markets. It was they who brought about a much wider spread of commerce than had been the case before.

NARRATOR: The Vikings would play a commanding role in English politics until 1066, when the Normans from northwestern France, led by William the Conqueror, would take England forever. William was Christian and spoke French, but he was descended from a Viking chieftain who had taken over Normandy 150 years earlier. In fact, the very name "Norman" owes its origin to the Vikings, the "Northmen."

THOMAS McGOVERN: People like William the Conqueror had Norman Viking blood in them and oftentimes were quite proud of it indeed. And that was part of their heritage. One of the things we're seeing with this transformation from Viking to knight, from Northman to Norman, is an entering of the Scandinavians into the medieval world in a very wholehearted fashion, not as poor cousins but often as dominant factors.

NARRATOR: It was their pagan beliefs that originally set the Vikings apart from the rest of Europe. At the head of their pantheon of gods were Thor and Odin the Wise, the god of warriors. A rare account of a Swedish pagan feast was described by a German cleric in the 11th century.

VOICE OF ADAM OF BREMEN: Among these people, tradition claims a united feast to be celebrated in Uppsala. No one has leave to be absent, neither kings nor peasants. Of everything that liveth, nine males are sacrificed. Humans, horses, and dogs are hung in a group of trees close to the temple. A Christian did tell me he saw 72 such bodies hanging side by side.

NARRATOR: By the time this description was set to paper, paganism was already on its way out. With the great Viking expansion, Scandinavians were in constant contact with their Christian neighbors. Pressure to convert was growing. By the end of the 10th century, all western and southern Europe had been converted to Christianity. Eventually, all of Scandinavia would follow suit, as the Viking kings declared Christianity the new official religion.

RICHARD HALL: Why they did this, we don't really know. Perhaps they wanted to become more accepted throughout western Europe. Perhaps they wanted to transmit the idea of a single God anointing a single king at a time when they were trying to unify their countries. But whatever they decided at a political level, at a personal level things were different, and pagan practices continued for generation after generation.

NARRATOR: In Norway, the first Christian churches are filled with signs of the old faith. Pagan animal masks stared down at worshippers - and the old sacrificial altar was converted for less bloody rituals. One side of this Viking gravestone depicts Christ with a cross and a fish, but on the other side, the old standby, the Viking god Odin, with a raven on his shoulder.

THOMAS McGOVERN: It's quite clear that people were hedging their bets. There's these wonderful archeological objects like these molds - on one side you cast Thor's hammers, on the other side you cast Christian crosses. So the same craftsman is quite able and willing to satisfy anybody's demands. So quite clearly we're seeing a very fluid situation in which people's allegiances, alliances, politically, economically and religiously, are changing back and forth.

NARRATOR: Religious conversion was just one of many changes that transformed Scandinavia during the Viking Age. As raiders returned to their homelands, money poured into the country. Competition for land and power intensified. Vikings from the British Isles and Norway began migrating westward, to distant islands in the North Atlantic.

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: A sailor has a particular glint in his eye about the west. And for the Norse, who did not have a mapping tradition, their conception of the north was a landmass from which various peninsulas hang down into the North Atlantic. And so if you go west, eventually you're going to find more lands. They were not being totally surprised to discover new lands to the west; they were having their earlier ideas confirmed.

NARRATOR: Word spread quickly of a rich and fertile land - and best of all, no one was there. No armies to fight. No locals to threaten. Just lots of land, free for the taking. This was Iceland - virgin land, and the only Viking settlement in the far west that was to last through the ages. Much of what we know of the Vikings comes from the Icelandic Sagas, histories written by Icelandic monks between the 12th and 14th centuries.

VOICE OF ICELANDIC SAGA [voice over translation]: Iceland was first settled from Norway. A Norwegian named Ingolf was the first to leave there for Iceland. He settled south in Reykjavik. At the time, Iceland was covered with forest between mountain and seashore.

GUDRUN NORDAL: The Sagas were written in Iceland. And they are telling the stories about the settlement of Iceland and advancing the myth really of how Iceland became settled by independent Norwegians and people from the British Isles.

NARRATOR: Scholars approach the Sagas with a heavy dose of skepticism.

GUDRUN NORDAL: The authors, they inherited their story material, you could say, and so there are sometimes more than 200 years, that's between the writing and the actual time of events. So the accuracy obviously has gone through many generations, so we can think that it's not historically accurate like we would think a chronicle would be. But we know what's happening and when, and the storytelling is at its finest in some of these Sagas, and they are a fine blend of fantasy and fact.

NARRATOR: Beyond the epic fantasies of the Sagas were the real people who lived and died in Iceland. The hard facts of Viking life on this isolated island are now coming to light through the work of archeologists like Tom McGovern.

THOMAS McGOVERN: We have bone collections from Iceland fortunately span virtually the entire period of settlement. It has the advantage that the Sagas don't have, that it's consistent. It's the same kind of data throughout. It doesn't require someone to have been there and write things down, and it doesn't depend on someone's judgment. That kind of evidence is giving us a very different understanding of what the Viking colonization was all about.

NARRATOR: Near one Viking farmstead, McGovern's team was called in to sift through the soil of a giant, medieval garbage dump.

THOMAS McGOVERN: This strange depression at the south of the site was full of animal bones, full of fire-cracked rock, full of burnt twigs and large chunks of wood. And they called us in as one of our specialties has been working on these messy but really interesting garbage dumps, or middens, as they are called, across the North Atlantic. Some of these things can be three meters or more deep and often stretch over the whole period of occupation of the farm. And in excavating these things, you're going back through layer after layer of things people threw out.

NARRATOR: Today, Iceland is virtually barren. Most wood must be imported. But the Sagas claim that when the Vikings arrived, the island was covered in forests. McGovern's dig proves that in this case, the Sagas were right.

THOMAS McGOVERN: We were getting just this summer large chunks of wood charcoal which are clearly just a cross section of big, old birch trees - the sort of thing that just does not live in this region today. You have that sort of thing being present in large quantities. And this is just the charcoal they couldn't be bothered to burn. These were clearly people who had plenty of wood to burn, at least in these first few generations of settlement.

NARRATOR: Ultimately, the Viking settlement would have a devastating impact on the landscape.

THOMAS McGOVERN: We have all tended to think that it's only the industrial revolution that sees a major human impact on environment, either from deforestation, erosion, or pollution, but now not just in the North Atlantic, but throughout the world, we're realizing that many of these impacts go far back into pre-history.

NARRATOR: Here on Iceland, the culprits weren't just the Vikings themselves, but the destructive animals they brought to the island.

THOMAS McGOVERN: One of the things that came out of the excavations, at least from our bones and the things so far, is a very clear indication that the package of animals that the Vikings went out into the North Atlantic with, ultimately deriving from Norway and from continental Scandinavia, was the full range, including horses, pigs, as well as sheep, goats, and cows. The pigs go in and uproot the small trees. The horses have their grazing patterns. The cattle have theirs. The sheep have theirs. The goats have theirs. Together, this package of animals is almost like a bulldozer moving across this sub-arctic landscape. So we're seeing this image of these folks coming into this landscape and really changing it.

NARRATOR: Soon there were 30,000 Viking colonists on Iceland. All the best land was claimed. Little was left for the new settlers who continued to stream across the sea from Norway. One of these was Erik the Red. Arriving in Iceland around 970, the Viking chieftain clashed with his new neighbors. Bloodshed followed, and Erik was soon banished. Rather than return to Scandinavia, Erik set his sails toward the west, and the uncharted waters of the North Atlantic. According to the Sagas, Erik was looking for an unspoiled land once spotted by storm-tossed sailors, years before.

VOICE OF ICELANDIC SAGA [voice over translation]: Erik told them he was going to search for the land that sailor Gunnbjorn had sighted. And he promised he would return to visit his friends if he found this country.

NARRATOR: Remarkably, Erik did return. The land that Gunnbjorn had seen, and that Erik found again, was Greenland. Greenland lies about 450 miles west of Iceland - a journey of at least four days. After sighting land, Erik explored the southern and western coasts, eventually finding a spot reminiscent of his native Norway. How did Erik find his way in these uncharted and stormy seas? Were there any secrets to Viking navigation? This replica of a Norwegian Viking ship retraced Erik's journey.

MAX WINNER [voice over translation]: It took us 13 days to sail from Iceland to Greenland. And that year there was so much ice we had to make a huge bend around the dangerous Cape Farewell. That's why it took so long. And it was there between Iceland and Greenland that I had the chance to test the sun compass that I have here.

NARRATOR: According to one theory, a small wooden wheel found in Greenland may have been used by Viking sailors as a sun compass. A curved line was carved across the circle, indicating the sun's travel through the sky on a clear day. The line corresponded to the shadow cast from a small stick positioned in the middle. A short shadow at noon and a long shadow at dusk. To work as a compass, the wheel must be turned until the sun's shadow touches the line. Many scholars doubt that the tiny wheel served as a compass, but sailor Max Winner is a believer.

MAX WINNER [voice over translation]: In one way, this compass is better than a magnetic compass, because at the southern coast of Greenland, you have up to 40 degrees of deviation with a magnetic compass, but this is not a problem with the sun compass. A sun compass is correct and never lies.

NARRATOR: Whether Erik relied on a compass or sailor's intuition, he not only succeeded in reaching Greenland, but he returned safely to Iceland. According to the Sagas, he headed back to Greenland, this time with a fleet of 25 ships, filled with colonists. Unfortunately, only 14 boats completed the difficult journey. Some turned back to Iceland, but the rest disappeared at sea. The Viking ship was strong, but not invincible. Despite the losses, Erik the Red's new colony thrived. Soon after the Vikings arrived in Greenland, one of Erik's offspring would continue in his father's tradition. His name was Leif Erikson. And like his father, he would discover new lands, this time, across the oceans in America.

In our next hour, the Vikings push the boundaries of western Europe. After 1,000 years, tantalizing new evidence emerges linking the Vikings to the birth of the Russian empire. And to settlement across the open Atlantic in the New World. The Viking conquest continues, next.

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Over the open Atlantic to the west, the New World beckons. Over a formidable landscape to the east, a new Russian empire is born. Now, Part 2 of The Vikings, a NOVA dramatic special.

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NARRATOR: 1,000 years ago, a small band of Vikings set sail from an isolated colony at the edge of the known world, in Greenland. Conditions were harsh on this island continent of ice and snow, and the settlers were eager to improve their lives. At the helm was Leif Erikson, the son of a Viking chieftain. Heading westward into the unknown, he was searching for a new land, and new hope for his people. The Icelandic Sagas describe the voyage of Leif the Lucky:

VOICE OF ICELANDIC SAGA: Leif, the son of Erik the Red, bought a ship and engaged a crew of 35. After sailing many days, two in a northeast wind, they sighted new land and went ashore on an island north of it. The weather was fine. There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted.

NARRATOR: Leif Erikson called this place Vinland - or Wineland - because wild grapes grew there. Where was this new land, covered in sweet dew? For years, scholars argued about the location of Vinland. Was it really true that the Vikings had landed in America 500 years before Columbus?

GUDRUN NORDAL: Well, the Sagas that are called often the Vinland Sagas about the discovery of Greenland and America, they were written in the 13th century, so we expect them to be accurate up to a point, about the actual big events, the fact that Greenland got discovered, and then Vinland, or America. That we would expect as being fact. But how it all happened and who were on the ships, that's of course more difficult for us to check.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: For about 150 years, people have been searching much of North America, at least the eastern parts of it, for anything indicating that the Norse were here. Because we knew about it already from the Icelandic Sagas, that they would have been somewhere in northeastern North America.

NARRATOR: With no hard archeological evidence, rumors and theories placed them up and down the east coast - anywhere from Canada to Florida. In the 1950s, a Norwegian explorer named Helge Ingstad became obsessed with the Vinland mystery. Ingstad decided to retrace Leif Erikson's journey. He would follow clues in the Sagas, and his own sailor's intuition.

HELGE INGSTAD: It was a completely unknown ocean. They had the current with them all the time along the coast of Greenland, and then across the Davis Strait, they had the current with them, pushing them south to Vinland, Labrador, and Newfoundland.

NARRATOR: The ancient saga told of a Wonderstrand, a beach so long, it took Leif's crew more than a day to sail past it. Ingstad found a beach that fit the description, near Cape Porcupine in Labrador: 200 feet wide and more than 40 miles long. According to the saga, Vinland was two days' journey beyond the Wonderstrand. Following the trail, the explorer sailed exactly two days to the south, landing on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Ingstad was convinced that the shores of Newfoundland would have felt like home to the Vikings.

HELGE INGSTAD: Norse people would settle in a land where their old pattern of culture fitted. I mean, in Newfoundland, they will find what they were used to, hunting seals, hunting caribou and all that stuff.

NARRATOR: Ingstad traveled up and down the Newfoundland coast, searching for some sign of a Viking presence. Finally in 1960, a fisherman from the tiny village of L'Anse-Aux-Meadows led him to the ruins of what may have been houses, outside of town.

HELGE INGSTAD: I didn't know of course who had built these houses. It might have been Indians, it might have been Eskimos, it might have been fishermen, it might have been whalers, and at last it might have been Norsemen. But only, only excavation could tell the story. But personally, I had a - I had a strong feeling that this was a place that the Norse people would like to build their houses on this terrace, with a view all over the sea. You could see clear over to Labrador, with the green meadows around the houses.

NARRATOR: Ingstad's wife, archeologist Anne Stine, led the excavations to uncover the true identity of the ruins. Slowly, the foundations of turf-walled houses came to light, along with ancient fireplaces. They looked like Viking buildings, but the design alone wasn't proof. They needed some artifacts that were indisputably Viking. Finally, they found what they were looking for: A ship rivet, made of iron. A bronze cloak pin. And a spindle whorl - exactly like those found in Iceland. The objects were clearly Viking in origin, not Native American. Today, the settlement at L'Anse-Aux-Meadows has been reconstructed with solid sod houses, just like the homes in Greenland and Iceland. Although Ingstad felt the location - right next to the sea—was a natural for a Norse site, archeologists like Birgitta Wallace realized this wasn't a typical Viking farm.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: One reason we know why it's a base camp and not a normal Norse farm is its location. This is an absolutely abnormal location for a Norse site, right on the coast, completely exposed to the sea winds. In Greenland, all the sites, and even in Iceland, are located at the heads of fjords, where it is nice and protected. And it's unique, too, because all the buildings on the site are a very typical Icelandic or early Greenlandic style. But the way they are combined is totally different, and from that we know it was not a permanent farm—not an attempt to establish a colony here.

NARRATOR: The arrangements of the buildings, along with the artifacts the Vikings left behind, suggest that the site served as a base - inhabited mostly by men, who would frequently sail off to explore the surrounding coastline.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: A few women were brought along as well, to take care of cooking, clothes maintenance and that sort of thing, cleaning, washing. There certainly was some evidence of women here but much less so than evidence of men. For instance, a spindle whorl for spinning and a little needle sharpener that we only find in female context back in Scandinavia.

NARRATOR: L'Anse-Aux-Meadows is indisputably Viking - but is it the Vinland of the Sagas? The ancient text explicitly details the discovery of wild grapes by Leif Erikson's crew.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: The finding of grapes would be very interesting to the Norse, because items like walnuts, wine, that were really exotic foods, and destined for chieftains who then could impress his surroundings with that, and that was one way chieftains gained prestige and authority. To have large banquets and to be able to serve wine would have been much more impressive than we can ever imagine today.

NARRATOR: But no grapes grow anywhere near L'Anse-Aux-Meadows, nor did they in Viking times. The nearest wild grapes are found in New Brunswick, several hundred miles to the south. Archeologists did uncover evidence that the Vikings may have gathered some exotic foods in the south, and shipped them back to the base camp at L'Anse-Aux-Meadows.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: With the Norse objects found in a bog here, we found nuts, butternuts, also called white walnuts, that don't grow north or northeast of New Brunswick and the Valley of St. Lawrence. And what is really interesting about this is that those nuts grow precisely in the same areas as you can find wild grapes. So the concept of Vinland, meaning "Wineland," is probably really based on the finding of grapes.

NARRATOR: Grapes and nuts were just a few of the rich natural resources that would have drawn the Vikings further south along the eastern seaboard. According to the Sagas, Leif Erikson spent only one winter in Vinland and then sailed back to Greenland.

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: When Leif arrived home from Vinland, there must have been joyous outpouring in the Norse communities in Greenland. Remember that this is only a few years after the Norse communities got started in Greenland. And so this was still - the people were still settling in; this was not a large population in Greenland by this time. But to have Leif come back and say, "My God, there is another land out there that is full of stuff." This was really territory that the Norse could see themselves settling in.

NARRATOR: But there was a major problem with the new territory. People already lived there. Lots of people. The Vikings called those they encountered in North America "scrailings."

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: The term scrailing was a Viking term which was used for their kind of barbarians, outsiders to their life, and probably, really it translates as kind of outcasts or ragamuffins or something like this. And so they called everybody scrailings to the west of Greenland.

NARRATOR: According to the Sagas, after Leif Erikson's return, there was a series of voyages to Vinland, most led by other members of his family. Again and again, the Vikings came into conflict with "scrailings" and realized how vulnerable they were to attacks by the Native Americans. Leif's own brother Thorvald was killed and buried in the new land.

WILLIAM FITZHUGH: We have this idea that Europeans are just, you know, somehow superior to everybody else out there. And if they're Vikings with their swords and their big boats and everything, sure, why not just roll over all of these people? And that just wasn't the case. By this time, these - we're not really speaking of Vikings in the raiding sense of Europe. These were families. These were people who had people at home who depended on them. The boats that they were traveling in were the most precious commodity that they had as family assets. So if you lost a boat, you not only couldn't get home, but you know, your family at home was destroyed, too.

NARRATOR: The Vikings were outnumbered in North America, and they quickly retreated to their peaceful homes in Greenland, giving up the idea of a permanent settlement in the New World. The archeological evidence at L'Anse-Aux-Meadows reveals a small, vulnerable community that didn't last.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: When people live on a site like this, they throw all their garbage out the front door. And that's a very good indication of how long they were there. And here these garbage heaps were extremely small. So, they could only have been here for a few years at the most.

NARRATOR: L'Anse-Aux-Meadows, occupied for just a short time around 1000 AD, is the only known Norse settlement in North America. Over the centuries, the Vikings' exploits in the far west would gradually fade into oblivion. But even while they were setting out on their pioneering journeys along the coasts of Canada, on the other side of the world, Scandinavians were pushing eastward, and would meet with a very different fate. In Moscow, behind the Kremlin's forbidding walls, intriguing evidence of the Vikings' exploits came to light. In 1988, construction workers stumbled upon an ancient buried treasure, 15 feet beneath the ground. Hundreds of pieces of royal jewelry had been hidden away in the 13th century, just as the Mongols were bearing down on the Russian fortress. Most of the treasure was of obvious Slavic design, but a few pieces had a distinctly different flavor. This silver arm ring decorated with dragon heads bore a striking resemblance to Swedish bracelets. And silver filigree pendants, once strung onto a necklace, were almost identical to Viking beads. What was Viking jewelry doing in the hands of Russia's early rulers, 200 years after the end of the Viking Age? Were these merely valuable objects traded from a faraway land? Or were they evidence of a more intimate connection between Scandinavia and early Russia? The Soviets had always emphasized the Slavic origins of the Russian state, but in fact, Russia's oldest historical documents tell a very different story. In the 11th and 12th centuries, when Moscow was just a small town, the center of the young Russian state stood here, among the cathedrals of Kiev, today the capital of the Ukraine. At the Lavra monastery in Kiev, several monks made the first known attempt to compile a comprehensive history of their land.

Now known as the Primary Russian Chronicle, some of the text was written by a monk called Nestor in the early 12th century. Nestor wrote of historical battles and peace treaties. And he told a remarkable story about the foundations of Russia, in the days when it was inhabited by Slavs and many other tribes.

HISTORIC VOICE: The Slavs ruled themselves, but these were violent times without law or order. Tribe fought against tribe and war came among them. And they went over the sea to the Vikings that were called Rus, like other Vikings are called Northmen. The Slavic tribes said to the Rus: "Our land is rich and vast, but there is no order in it. Come and rule over us." Three royal brothers were chosen, and they came with all the Rus. The oldest brother, Rurik, became Prince of Novgorod.

NARRATOR: According to Nestor, the founders of Russia were actually Vikings who came from across the sea to bring order to the unruly Slavs. Known as the Rus, it was they who gave Russia its name. But is there any truth to this story?

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The Russian Primary Chronicle is a brave effort. I'm sure there wasn't a little band of Slavs, a little band of Finns, and a little band of Balts who got together and sent a message to the Scandinavians saying, "Please, we have no law amongst us, we need some order. Come and send princes and governors." That is roughly speaking the story which the Primary Chronicle offers. Things were never quite as neat as that. But behind the fantasy, behind the pretty story, I think there is a kernel of truth.

NARRATOR: The Vikings, indeed, did journey to Russia. But almost certainly, they were not invited.

THOMAS NOONAN: These were not nice guys who came in to help out the local peoples. These were ambitious, ruthless, almost Mafioso types, who wanted to build a fortune, to get wealthy, to become powerful. They came in, they did what they were supposed to have done according to Chronicle, but not for the reasons that are alleged.

NARRATOR: Was it possible that the Vikings, unruly and divided themselves, could unify a vast country like Russia? Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a new curiosity about the role of the Vikings has fueled investigations throughout Russia and the Ukraine. And sure enough, Viking artifacts have turned up all over. Some of the earliest were found on the shores of Lake Ladoga, a stepping stone between the Baltic Sea and the Russian heartland. Here, in Staraja Ladoga, archeologists are uncovering evidence of a strong Scandinavian presence. Remarkably well-preserved wooden objects, like this tiny sculpture of a Viking man. A Viking dragon head made of bone, perhaps a model for a boat stem. And leather shoes of Scandinavian design, preserved in clay for almost 1,000 years. The digs at Staraja Ladoga reveal that the town was founded in the middle of the 8th century, as a trading and craft center. It was a multi-ethnic town, with a mixture of Slavs and Finns. But even at the very beginning, the Vikings were there—for reasons that were very different from those that drove them to raid western Europe.

THOMAS NOONAN: In the west you had lots of towns, monasteries located along the sea coasts and along big rivers which went into the sea coasts. It was easy to raid those. In Russia, on the other hand, there were no monasteries and towns near the coast. In fact, you had to go far inland to find any major centers of habitation.

NARRATOR: Why did the Vikings venture so far to the east, across dangerous seas, to a land without rich monasteries or even towns? Important clues can be found near Lake Mälaren in Sweden, the part of Scandinavia closest to Russia. Rune stones bear testimonials to the Vikings who ventured across the Baltic Sea, to Russia.

RUNE STONE VOICE: Alve let this stone be erected for Arnfast, his son. He went east, to the land of the Rus. They fared like men far after gold, and in the east gave the eagle food. They died southward in Arab lands.

RUNE STONE VOICE: Alve let this stone be erected for Arnfast, his son. He went east, to the land of the Rus. They fared like men far after gold, and in the east gave the eagle food. They died southward in Arab lands.

NARRATOR: In the soils around Birka, archeologists have found evidence that Russia was only a way station en route to the Vikings' real goal: the riches of the Arab world. Here were found masses of Arab silver coins, minted in Baghdad in the 8th century. Too far away to raid, only a few Vikings made it to Baghdad, but enough to open up trade routes through Russia. What could the Vikings have offered in return for the Arab silver? Tiny clues were uncovered in the dig at Birka.

ANDREW JONES: Most of the things you find when you're sieving are not very important. They're tiny little fragments of stone. Here are some pieces of charcoal, but here's a little bone. This is a toe bone. It's probably from a mammal, it is bigger than a cat, but smaller than a sheep. I guess it may be a dog bone, something like that.

NARRATOR: Many of the bones found here, from animals like red squirrel, pine marten, and red fox, puzzled the archeologists at first.

ANDREW JONES: What's really remarkable about these discoveries is that when you look at them, the only bones that are present are bones from the toes and the feet. And this was a mystery. Why are there only bones from toes and feet? And it's because all these animals, pine marten, red fox and red squirrel, are used as fur, and when trappers catch the animals, they skin them but they always leave the feet on the—with the fur, and that is traded over very long distances. So this is evidence of a fur industry.

NARRATOR: During the Viking Age, furs were a highly valued commodity. The Viking traders soon discovered that the best pelts were in northern Russia - where Finnish tribes trapped coveted beaver, sable, and ermine. The challenge for the Vikings was to acquire these furs in Russia and transport them in huge quantities to Baghdad, or to Arab traders along the way. The trip could cover as much as 2,000 miles through swamps, forests, and steppe. Luckily, much of the vast Russian interior was cut through by a labyrinth of rivers. But they weren't all connected. On one route from Staraja Ladoga, the traders headed south across Lake Ilmen and had to row or sail upstream on the Lovat River. After a few hundred miles, the Lovat narrows, eventually shrinking to a shallow stream.

At this point, the Viking traders had no choice but to unload their vessels and haul both their ships and cargo over land, to the headwaters of another river. For the great ships the Vikings used to travel the North Atlantic, this journey on the Russian rivers would have been virtually impossible. Here, the Vikings had to rely on much smaller vessels - probably no more than 40 feet in length. Illustrations on Rune stones and remains of cargo vessels found in the east have helped scientists reconstruct the kinds of boats most likely used by the Vikings in Russia.

CHRISTER WESTERDAHL [voice over translation]: This boat is based on an archeological find from Lapori on the Finnish side of the Russian border. It is a good example of a small Viking cargo ship, probably designed for transports along the River Neva to Staraja Ladoga in northern Russia, probably from the 10th century. It is quite remarkable, with its broad yet thin planking. This is very characteristic for Viking shipbuilding. Here it is only 16 millimeters thick, about 2/3 of an inch.

NARRATOR: The thin planking made the cargo vessels exceptionally light, a definite advantage when it came time to hoist the boats out of the water and drag them over land for several miles. To better understand the challenges faced by the Vikings, a team of Swedish researchers attempted to retrace one of these difficult journeys, using their own reconstruction of a Viking cargo-carrier.

JAN JOHANSSON [voice over translation]: When you organize a trip like this, you try to imagine the difficulties. You study written sources, you do research along the way, talk to the people who live along the route. But you can't really get a true picture of what it was like. The Lovat River was a lot more difficult than we expected. We had to pull the boat from the shore through difficult rapids, and the area was infested by mosquitoes and wasps. At one point, it became so difficult we had to pull the boat out of the water. With very simple tools, we built a Viking-style wagon.

NARRATOR: In the dense forests of Russia, with only dirt roads and rough trails, hauling cargo vessels between rivers - known as portage - would have been a daunting task for the Viking traders. Some scholars believe they could not have done it on their own.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The role of the portages is absolutely vital, because the numbers of Vikings were never very great. They could navigate the boats, they could repair them, but for matters of portaging, of dragging a boat perhaps dozens of miles, from one river head to another, you needed muscle power. That was provided by the locals, by the Slavs, the Balts, or the Finns.

NARRATOR: Wherever the Viking traders needed to leave the river and travel over land, local tribes would come together to haul the boats. They would also bring in food and other provisions for the Viking journeymen. At these key locations, new towns began to grow. Many became important trading centers. At a portage site between the Dvina and Dnieper rivers, a Viking town sprang up just outside modern day Smolensk. Here, the traders would stop to repair their ships and buy what they needed for the journey ahead. On the outskirts of the city, archeologists discovered one of the largest cemeteries dating to the Viking Age, with over 5,000 graves, filled with an enormous treasure of silver jewelry. The vast majority of the burials belong to local Slavs or Balts, but about 100 graves contain Scandinavian artifacts.

GLEB LEBEDJEV [voice over translation]: The earliest grave mounds date to the 9th century. And in this part of the field, in one of the grave mounds, we have traced a magnificent way of burying the dead, with the body placed in a riverboat and then set on fire. This is a ceremony, typical for the Swedish Vikings, who brought the tradition over to Russia.

NARRATOR: This burial ritual was described in chilling detail by an Arab diplomat, named Ibn Fadlan, who encountered Viking traders on his journeys through Russia.

HISTORIC VOICE: One day I heard that an important man among them was dead. His ship had been pulled up onto land, and supports were built for it. They carried him into a tent set up on the ship. They sacrificed a dog, horses and hens, and threw them in the ship. They dressed him in beautiful clothes, and they came with all his weapons laid beside him. His skin had turned all black, due to the cold in the country. And they asked his slave girls: "Who wants to die with him?" One girl said yes, and I looked at her, and she looked completely confused. An old woman that was called the Angel of Death now forced the slave girl into the tent where her master lay. The men outside started beating their sticks on their shields so that the sound of her screaming would not be heard, lest the other girls be too frightened to seek death with their masters. The wood they had prepared under the ship was set alight. Then a strong and frightful wind blew up, and before an hour had passed, ship, wood, slave girl and chieftain had all turned to ashes and then to dust.

NARRATOR: Ibn Fadlan depicted the Vikings as barbaric and uncivilized, but even he admired their skill and tenacity as traders. The Viking merchants who ventured into Russia were both ruthless and clever. They soon dominated the local tribes of Finns and Slavs. They collected tribute - usually in the form of furs and slaves - and exchanged it with Arab traders for valuable Baghdad silver. The trade networks they built gradually helped unify the eastern lands, once divided by many languages and cultures, into a cohesive unit. Today, most scholars believe that the Rus who founded Russia were indeed Vikings.

GLEB LEBEDJEV [voice over translation]: First of all, the word Rus, and I share this opinion with many historians, originated from the word "Ruotsi" which means Sweden in Finnish, and from "Rhos," a word found on Viking Rune stones, which means rower. The Russian Chronicles reveal that "Rus," the designation of the eastern Vikings, referred to the military crew that rowed the ships on which the Viking princes arrived.

NARRATOR: The Viking Rus grew rich off the silver trade with Baghdad, but in the late 10th century, the Arab silver mines began to dry up. In search of a new source of wealth, one group of Vikings moved their base to Kiev, then just a small village on the Dnieper River. The Russian Chronicle tells its own dramatic version of the Vikings' arrival in Kiev. According to the story, two Viking warriors betrayed their leader and went to Kiev to establish their own kingdom.

When their treachery was discovered, another Viking named Oleg sailed to Kiev to destroy them.

HISTORIC VOICE: And they came to the heights of Kiev. Oleg let his men hide in the longships, while he sent for the traitors, saying, "We are merchants from your own country on our way to the Greeks. Come and visit us!" When the traitors arrived, Oleg killed them, and made Kiev into the mother of all the towns of Russia.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The really interesting question about the move of some of the Vikings down to Kiev is why on earth they bothered, because the journey down south from Kiev along the river, the Dnieper, was a very difficult one. There were some mighty cataracts, which could very easily wreck their fragile craft.

NARRATOR: Kiev was small, but it stood at a strategic point on the Dnieper River, which led to the Black Sea and eventually to the Byzantine Empire. This territory was filled with hostile tribes, and the river itself turned threatening, with rapids and cataracts that the Vikings called "Aifor"—"the always violent."

But if the Viking traders could survive this journey, they would launch their boats onto the Black Sea. 500 more miles of sailing, and they would reach their goal: Constantinople, today known as Istanbul. During the Viking Age, Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire. It was the biggest and richest city in Europe.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: A Viking visitor can't have seen anything like this before. Constantinople was a megalopolis. It was a great city by modern standards. The population was maybe 100,000, maybe half a million, and it had mighty Roman walls. In a way, it's best to think of it as a kind of time warp. This was the Roman empire, still existing, still with Roman legions, still with Roman titles and a kind of Roman empire, in fact the Byzantines called themselves Romans.

NARRATOR: The Vikings were impressed by Constantinople, but not intimidated. They launched several attacks against the city. The Russian Chronicle describes a campaign carried out by Oleg in the year 907.

HISTORIC VOICE: Oleg came to Constantinople with 2,000 ships. The citizens closed the straits and took shelter inside the city. Oleg commanded the Rus to put wheels on their ships, and with good wind, they headed against the city itself. The Rus committed innumerable killings outside the city walls, tore down palaces, and burned churches. They killed or tortured their prisoners.

NARRATOR: With each attack on Constantinople, the Vikings were ultimately rebuffed by the much larger Byzantine army. But they were a definite threat, and the Byzantine emperor knew he would have to do business with them.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The Byzantines were quite subtle with their diplomacy, and they had the sense to see that if they could offer a relatively easy way of getting rich to the Vikings, they might dissuade them from raiding; in other words, offer trade instead of raid.

NARRATOR: Several treaties were drawn up, spelling out the terms under which Viking traders could enter the city.

THOMAS NOONAN: The Vikings forced their way into the markets. They threatened Constantinople with military flotillas, with naval attacks, and then they forced the Byzantines to agree to formal trade treaties which prescribed exactly how many Rus could come for trading, what they could bring, how long they could stay. And of course, a very important provision: they could not go into Constantinople itself carrying their weapons.

NARRATOR: An exception was made for the Scandinavians recruited by the Byzantine emperor to serve as his personal protectors. These mercenaries came to be known as the Varangian Guard.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The Byzantines always had their eye open for tough barbarians. Very much in the footsteps of their Roman predecessors, they wanted to use barbarian brawn to civilized purposes. So they were quite quick to recruit Viking warriors to act as bodyguards for the emperor, for show purposes around the palace, and also for doing hard graft in the actual battles on the eastern front and so on. The Byzantines were always confident that they could manipulate barbarians, that they could actually harness their brute strength to their own purposes and use them as the sinews of the Byzantine army.

NARRATOR: Among the many decorative mosaics found in Istanbul are traces of the Viking mercenaries.

VERA BURGURLU: These mosaics are part of the great palace, Justinian's palace, in a large courtyard, and among them is a portrait of a northerner, a blond northerner, and this mask is believed to be a Viking.

NARRATOR: One of the duties of the Varangians was to guard the Byzantine emperor during the elaborate religious services that took place in the majestic Hagia Sophia cathedral. This building still stands, capped with one of the largest domes ever constructed in ancient times. Inside, Runic letters can be found carved into the marble balcony rails. Graffiti scrawled by visiting Vikings, including a message, mostly faded, from "Halvdan." Vikings like Halvdan may have enjoyed a comfortable life in Constantinople, but the people who benefited most from the good relations with Byzantium were the Viking elite who governed from Kiev.

THOMAS NOONAN: Kiev gave them control of the great trade with Constantinople and Byzantium. And that was the secret of their wealth and their power. They were the ones who controlled all the boats, bringing all the furs and all the slaves down to Byzantium. And of course they grew wealthy from that.

NARRATOR: Into Kiev flowed the riches from Constantinople and beyond, including beautiful jewelry for the wealthy ladies of the Rus court. This elaborate necklace contains over two pounds of intricate gold filigree. One of the most famous rulers of Kiev was Vladimir, the great grandson of the original Viking Prince Rurik. A German contemporary described the Grand Prince as "an immense and rude fornicator." According to the monk Nestor, Vladimir kept several hundred concubines in towns throughout Russia. After killing off several of his brothers in a long and bloody civil war, he seized control of Kiev around 980. In the land of the Rus, such violence was par for the course.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: This was a violent society. We do after all have an Arab writer describing the way of life of the Rus, saying that things were so dangerous that a man didn't even dare go to the lavatory without having four comrades with their swords in hand guarding him as he relieved himself.

NARRATOR: The Vikings and the people they dominated worshipped a vast array of Slavic and Scandinavian gods. Prince Vladimir decided to find a more modern religion for his country, so he invited missionaries representing several faiths to his court in Kiev. Nestor reports that Vladimir dismissed the Catholics because they demanded fasting, and he thought their services were ugly. To the Jewish delegates he said, "If God had loved you and your law, he wouldn't have spread you around like this." And Islam was rejected because, in his words, "Drinking is the joy of the Rus, and we cannot live without this pleasure." Ultimately, Vladimir's close ties to Constantinople determined his decision. Near the end of the 10th century, he chose the religion of Byzantium and declared that all the Rus would become Eastern Orthodox Christians.

THOMAS NOONAN: By accepting orthodoxy from Byzantium, you created a single faith for peoples who had nothing in common. Slavs, Finns, Balts, Vikings all now had one new faith that they could believe in. And they all, over the course of time, gave up their old paganisms and became Orthodox together. So that a Rus then became someone who was part of the Rus state and who was an Orthodox Christian.

NARRATOR: 1,000 years after Vladimir's conversion, Russians are uncovering their roots, and embracing their Viking heritage. In Novgorod, once a trading center south of Staraja Ladoga, archeologists are excavating large areas of the medieval town. Hundreds of local schoolchildren help with the dig.

LYUBA SMIRNOVA: The state of preservation of wood and other organic objects is perfect. These great beams of wood were cut maybe 800 years ago, and they still look like modern ones.

NARRATOR: The team has uncovered the remains of two-story timber houses and dozens of artifacts, dating to the 12th century, when the land of the Rus was united under the control of the princes of Kiev. Among the Slavic objects, there are still traces of Scandinavian design, remnants of the Viking traders who had settled in Russia. But the most amazing find is a cache of letters, written on birch bark, and preserved on tiny scrolls. They offer an intimate view into the culture the Vikings had helped to create. One letter was from an early victim of domestic violence.

HISTORIC VOICE: Greetings from Fovronja to Filkis with complaints. My stepson beat me and chased me away from the farm. Shall I come to town or will you come here yourself? I'm all beaten up.

NARRATOR: Another scroll enclosed a child's drawing. And then, an 800-year- old love letter.

LYUBA SMIRNOVA: Two years ago, we found a very interesting birch bark document, written by a woman, a well-educated woman. It was sort of a love letter, this scream of love from the early 12th century.

HISTORIC VOICE: I have sent for you three times. What kind of anger kept you from visiting me last Sunday? Have my letters affected you? If you really wanted to love me, you would tear yourself away from the eyes of people and meet me somewhere else. Were it even the case that due to my unreason I have affected you, if you start mocking me, then God and my littleness will be your judge. I shall never leave you.

NARRATOR: But the majority of the letters were more mundane:

HISTORIC VOICE: It has been nine years since you received a cross from me, and you still haven't sent me any money. Unless you immediately send me four and a half grivna, I will make you lose honor and credibility. Clear this debt immediately.

JONATHAN SHEPARD: The commonest subject in the Novgorod birch bark letters is money and aspects of money. This was a society in which people agreed about one thing, that was the need for wealth, the need for money and the common quest to get more of it.

NARRATOR: By the time the Novgorod letters were written, Vikings had been in Russia for over 200 years. Over the generations, they became almost indistinguishable from the Slavs.

MATS G. LARSSON [voice over translation]: Since the princes' dynasty and the leading level of society were a small part of the population, they became more and more assimilated into the Slavic society. They probably married Slavic girls, and their children were raised by Slavic women, and all the time they lived in this foreign society. The effect of this is obvious in the archeological material and in the names of the princes. The first prince's name, Rurik, derives from the Scandinavian name Roereker. His son was called Igor, from the Scandinavian name Ingvar. Next there was Sviataslav, a Slavic name.

NARRATOR: The Vikings in the east may have lost their identity as Scandinavians, but they had completely transformed the country and the culture, unifying a huge region of eastern Europe into a new kingdom: Russia.

THOMAS NOONAN: The Vikings, through their trade networks, through their political ruthlessness, welded a state together, whether the people liked it or not. And it was done primarily so the Vikings could get rich and powerful and rule over that area. Because that's why they left their homelands, because they could make a career abroad. They were the nucleus, they were the force. And without that vital force, there would have never been a Rus state.

NARRATOR: For almost 300 years, the Vikings were a vital force throughout Europe and beyond, traveling further from their homelands than the ancient Greeks or Romans ever did. In their great longships, they ventured out in search of wealth and glory, with sword and shield subduing anyone who stood in their way. In the process of seeking their fortunes, the Vikings linked together dozens of different peoples, and set the stage for the emergence of modern Europe. By the end of the 11th century, Scandinavian kings ruled over a prosperous and secure land. But beyond their homelands, the Vikings had virtually disappeared, blended into the populations they once terrorized. The Viking Age had come to an end.

On NOVA's Website, go back in time. Explore a Viking village, write your name in Runes, and trace the Viking conquest at or America Online keyword: PBS.

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