Viking Warfare and Military Organisation
with Dr Gareth Williams (British Museum)
at Sutton Hoo Saturday, 30th September, 2017

Although the term Viking is often used as a blanket term for the peoples of Scandinavia c. AD 750-1050, the word víkingr originally meant ‘pirate’ or ‘marauder’. Recent approaches to the Vikings have stressed the many peaceful achievements of the Viking Age, but the Vikings’ violent reputation nevertheless still forms a major part of popular perception, and the Viking warrior remains for many the defining image of all things Viking. This perception goes back to the Viking Age itself, reflecting the way that the Vikings appear in contemporary historical sources, but both history and archaeology enable us to view those sources critically rather than simply accepting them at face value. This study day explores the reality behind the Viking myth, and the place of warfare within wider Viking society.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                Viking warfare in reputation and reality

The first lecture provides an introduction to the subject. This includes a chronological overview of Viking military achievements, and introduces the importance of breaking Viking military activity into different phases, as warfare in the late ninth century was very different from the early Viking raids, and different again from the more ‘national’ warfare of the eleventh century. This lecture also considers how the Vikings gained a reputation for cunning, violence and atrocities, and whether this reputation is deserved. Finally, it will discuss the ways in which Viking warfare was different from that of their contemporaries, and the ways in which it was not, and the extent to which they were (or were not) more successful than others.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                Military hardware

This lecture considers the archaeological evidence for Viking warfare. The main focus will be on weapons and warfare, but attention will also be given to the evolution of purpose-built warships, and to the evidence for fortifications, including campaign forts, urban fortifications, and the network of geometric fortifications built in Denmark in the late 10th century.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 Recruitment and logistics

The use of the blanket term ‘Vikings’ has often obscured the issue of the composition of Viking forces. While a traditional interpretation of the Vikings based on 19th-century ideas of Romantic nationalism has favoured a view of an egalitarian mixture of free men under arms, more recent interpretations have varied between national levies, lords and their personal followings, professional mercenaries and something akin to the pirate crews of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. This lecture will consider the possible models for the recruitment and composition of Viking forces, together with the linked themes of how those forces were equipped, and how they supplied themselves on campaign. Contrary to the image of the wild Viking warrior, the Vikings’ understanding of logistics is one of their most impressive military achievements.

14.50 – 15.10:                Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                Warrior society in the Viking Age

Only a small proportion of the population of Viking-Age Scandinavia were warriors, but it was a society within which warfare and warrior identities had important roles, and an impact which went far beyond those directly involved in warfare. This lecture considers Viking warfare in its wider social context, as seen through a combination of history, literature and archaeology. This includes the extent to which heroic traditions in poetry and saga had any foundation in reality, and the question of whether there were female warriors, as well as the concept of the berserker, and its possible links to warrior belief systems. This leads into a fitting conclusion for the day by looking at traditions of death and burial for Viking warriors.

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Dr Gareth Williams

Gareth Williams studied history at St Andrews and Bergen, and since 1996 has been a curator at the British Museum, where he is now responsible both for Early Medieval Coins and the Viking Collections. He has published extensively both for academic and more general readers, and has featured on several TV and radio programmes. Gareth was the curator of the special BP Exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum, and co-curator of the exhibition Viking Voyagers at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Gareth is an Honorary Reader in Archaeology at UCL, and is also a Senior Researcher on the research project The Viking Phenomenon, funded by the Swedish Research Council. He is also a member of the Steering Group at the University of Oslo for the development of a new and expanded Viking Museum to replace the current Viking Ship Museum.


When asked ‘What was best about the day?’ at previous Study Days by Gareth respondents said:

  • Amusing, amenable, v approachable speaker and so knowledgeable
  • Such an interesting presentation. Easy to follow.
  • Every section interesting and high quality
  • Expertise and knowledge of leader
  • High calibre of speaker and his willingness to talk
  • Very good guest speaker with fantastic knowledge.
  • Gareth has a very good delivery and a deep knowledge. Bring him back soon.
  • Well done Wuffings, you are doing what is says on the tin and offering an excellent programme of high quality experts and great topics.


Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

  • Brink, S. & Price, N. (eds), The Viking World (Routledge 2008)
  • Carroll, J., Harrison, S.H. & Williams, G., The Vikings in Britain and Ireland (British Museum Press 2014)
  • Hall, R.A., Exploring the World of the Vikings (Thames and Hudson 2007)
  • Heywood, J., The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (Penguin 1995)
  • Nylen, E. & Lamm, J.P., Stones, Ships and Symbols (Gidlunds 1988)
  • Sawyer, P.H. (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford University Press 1997)
  • Sjøvold, T., The Viking Ships in Oslo (Universitetets Oldsaksamling 1985)
  • Thirslund, S., Viking Navigation (Viking Ship Museum 2007)
  • Williams, G., The Viking Ship (British Museum Press 2014)
  • Williams, G., Pentz, P., & Wemhoff, M. (eds), Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum Press 2014)