The past year has given us the opportunity to catch up on our reading, with books both old and new being devoured eagerly! Of the new books we’ve read one that has stood out is ‘River Kings’ by Dr Cat Jarman. It had been some time since we’d read much about the Vikings and although there has been a recent crop of publications on the Vikings in Britain, we were intrigued by the idea of a new history of the Vikings moving beyond the confines of Europe, and thought this might be a good place to start.
The journey begins quietly enough with a small bead nestling in a Tupperware tub encountered during a visit to an archive. The archive belonged to one of the excavations that had been carried out in the small, sleepy Derbyshire village of Repton, most famous for its public school. The only remarkable feature of the bead is the material it is made from – Carnelian. Whilst only considered a semi-precious stone its sources – it is commonly found in Germany, Siberia, India and Indonesia – lead us in to the world of the Vikings.
By establishing where in the excavation the bead was found – in a context or layer associated with the known Viking attack on the settlement by the River Trent – the bead was dated to the 9th century, and this is where it starts to get interesting. Back then, the main sources of Carnelian were to be found in what is known as the Islamic Caliphate, particularly in modern day Iraq and Iran. That the Vikings had connections with the Islamic world is well-known from several ‘hoards’ of treasure discovered in Britain to date including the Cuerdale Hoard found near Preston. This hoard contained over 8,500 objects and is to be found in the British Museum. Among the objects there were Islamic coins – dirhams – which were probably not used as money by the Vikings in the strictest sense. You can explore the hoard here.
Not wanting to give too much of the game away, River Kings brings our understanding of the world of the Vikings several steps closer. Dr Jarman asks us to think about many aspects of Viking life – and death – such as their social relations with each other and other cultures, trade, diplomacy (not usually thought of as a Viking strong point), gaming, warfare and tactics. There is of course some of the latter as it cannot be avoided, but it was just one course of action open to the Vikings as they encountered the world. It is this that’s the important point made here by Dr Jarman.
The story told here is a ‘detective’ one, of following the leads and seeing where they take you. In this case it is one that challenges the orthodoxy of the Vikings and their expansion out of Scandinavian. Dr Jarman assembles a fantastic amount of resources to re-consider the story and provides us with a detailed examination of excavation reports, documentary evidence, DNA analysis and more. Whilst this might sound daunting, it is all presented in a reader-friendly style that is easy to follow. If you’re a KS2 teacher with the Vikings in your topic subjects this is the book for you!
You can buy River Kings here or in most real-life bookshops!