When most people think of Vikings, they think of rape and pillaging and longships full of fierce warriors - history was clearly written by the Normans who conquered England.

Yet that was just one part of the Viking Age. It actually began earlier, and was far less violent, than historical narratives show, according to a new study. The first raid known raid in England was on June 793 at Lindisfarne (also called Lindisfarena and Medcaut), a tidal island off the northeast coast, but there is evidence that Vikings had been making long journeys as merchants, including to the key trading center at Ribe on Denmark's west coast, as early as 725. They gained their long-distance experience as a way to make money.

Using a biomolecular technique  called ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry), pioneered by Professor Matthew Collins at University of York's BioArCh laboratory, the research team studied bone/antler objects and fragments of manufacturing waste from the archaeological remains of Ribe's old marketplace.  ZooMS  characterizes the proteins in the collagen component of organic material, allowing identification of animal species. 

A number of samples - including some from very early levels - turned out to be reindeer antler, which are not local to Denmark, and were probably brought in from Norway. The researchers say that the antlers are proof that Vikings visited Ribe, the oldest town in Scandinavia, well before their infamous pillaging. Those trips gave the Vikings the seafaring skills that would be used some 70 years later to strike England.

Deer antlers were central to one of the key industries of the Viking Age, for the manufacture of hair combs. Access to antler was fundamental to this specialist craft, and it may have been difficult for a professional combmaker to find sufficient quantities locally, so some form of organized supply network is likely. The new study shows that the early Vikings from Norway had access to large quantities of reindeer antlers and sold them to craftsmen in Southern Scandinavia. 

 "This shows us that merchants and other travellers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it. Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kickstarted the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove. Now for the first time, we can confidently say that people in the more remote parts of Scandinavia were visiting places like Ribe, presumably for commercial gain, from a very early stage. It's a vital contribution to the question of what caused the Viking Age: it looks as though towns and maritime trade may have been the engine driving all this change," says Dr. Steve Ashby of the Department of Archaeology at York. 

According to the researchers, the new-found proof of the commercial journeys to Ribe changes the popular narrative of Vikings as violent aggressors.

Citation: Steven P Ashby, Ashley Coutu, and Søren SIndbaek, ‘Urban Networks and Arctic Outlands: Craft Specialists and Reindeer Antler in Viking Towns', European Journal of Archaeology. DOI: 10.1179/1461957115Y.0000000003