Archaeological Dialogues


What really caused the Viking Age? The social content of raiding and exploration

Steven P. Ashby 


The cause of the Viking Age is one of our longest-lived debates. A combination of push and pull factors and a catalysing environment instigated the late 8th-century escalation in maritime activity that ultimately led to social, political and religious transformation. Recent discussions have focused on the macro level, with little consideration of the individual gains to be made by raiding. This paper argues that rewards consisted in more than portable wealth. In the flexible hierarchies of the Viking Age, those who took advantage of opportunities to enhance their social capital stood to gain significantly. The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself.


  • long-distance travel;
  • early medieval Scandinavia;
  • artefacts;
  • power;
  • object biography


Steven P. Ashby, Department of Archaeology, University of York, United Kingdom. Email:

Steven P. Ashby is Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology at the University of York, specializing in portable material culture, having previously worked for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Northamptonshire. He has researched a range of artefacts dating between c. A.D. 800 and 1400, most notably bone/antler hair combs (see A Viking way of life, 2014). A key theme in his current work is the integration of scientific techniques and social theory. Recent and planned publications cover the dating of the start of the Scottish Viking Age, the character of contact between Arctic Norway and the towns of the Baltic, and typochronology around the year 1000. He is a committee member for the Finds Research Group, having previously (2008–14) been their editor. He co-directs (with Aleks McClain) the Torpel Archaeological Project, a community-led landscape study in the west Cambridgeshire area, and is currently bringing to publication (with Søren Sindbaek) Craft networks in Viking towns, and (with Gitte Hansen and Irene Baug) Everyday products in the Middle Ages. Crafts, consumption and the individual in northern Europe c. A.D. 1000–1600 (Oxford).