Scientists Uncover Secrets of the Germanic-Viking Alchemists of Ribe

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Scientists Uncover Secrets of the Germanic-Viking Alchemists of Ribe

Archaeologists at sites in Ribe, a Danish trading port in southwest Jutland, have published a new study in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

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Archaeologists at sites in Ribe, a Danish trading port in southwest Jutland, have published a new study in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences related to the evolution of metalwork skills and craftsmanship of early Viking craftspeople in Denmark in the 8th and 9th centuries. Founded in the early 8 th century during the Germanic Iron Age, Ribe is the oldest extant town in Scandinavia. Having analyzed a hoard of alchemical tools discovered there, they have uncovered a hitherto unknown secrets about the evolution of metallurgy at the dawn of the Viking Age.

Sorting Through a Vast Hoard of Viking Alchemists’ Tools

Led by Dr. Vana Orfanou, a research team from Aarhus University in Denmark have analyzed a collection of 8th century artifacts excavated from two sites in Ribe. The study details “1,126 samples of metalworking tools (crucibles and molds), 24 keys and brooches, and 24 metal bar ingots and fragments of spare metal.” The goal of the research project was to analyze samples from the tools surfaces in order to identify the types of metals contained within and used in making each of the objects.

At the Viking site of Ribe, visitors can take part in Viking activities which were part of daily life during the Viking Age, including metalworking and Viking alchemists. ( Ribe Vikinge Center )

Orfanou said that by analyzing both tools and finished objects the team were able to better understand how metalwork processes developed in Ribe over time. The plethora of crucibles (clay cups) that were discovered stand testimony to the vast amount of metal that was smelted over fires at this settlement. The authors found that early Viking craftspeople in the 9th century adopted a different and “more heat-resistant clay for their crucibles, which would last longer,” according to the research paper.

Mapping Metals Across the Viking Age

A series of “rapid technological advances” were noted at the beginning of the Viking Age and the researchers wrote that this was because craftspeople were exposed to new skills. The findings published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences suggest that early Viking craftspeople in Ribe were “innovative and industrious, advancing from mixing metals somewhat randomly to refining their process and creating very specific metal mixes, within a century.”

A hoard of ancient metal tools found in Ribe in Denmark is uncovering metalworking secrets of 8th century Viking alchemists. ( Валерий Моисеев / Adobe Stock)

A hoard of ancient metal tools found in Ribe in Denmark is uncovering metalworking secrets of 8 th century Viking alchemists. ( Валерий Моисеев / Adobe Stock)

The results of the analysis of the artifacts show that Viking craftspeople combined two or more metals into their alloys. But it was also noted that these simple alloys “were not produced by combining materials in a consistent manner.” This is in contrast to metal workers of the 9th century who had tight controls of their alloys, which is seen in the consistency of their metals. The scientists noted that “leaded brass” was a common component in the 8th century, while by the ninth century “high-zinc brass” was developed and used more commonly.

Where Did the Viking Alchemists Learn Their Craft Secrets?

The team of archaeologists discovered that the craftspeople at Ribe melted metal ingots to create artifacts, leading them to conclude that some of the ingots might have been traded with a nearby Viking settlement. Having calculated which metals were used to make different artifacts, the researchers began to notice patterns in their construction. In the eighth and ninth centuries, for example, leaded alloys were used for practical objects such as keys, “because leaded alloys are easier to cast into molds.” By the 9th century, brass was used mostly in decorative brooches. The scientists concluded that this was most probably possibly because it looked better due to its bright golden color.

The result of their research has led the researchers to believe that the developments in craft processes and procedures in Ribe may indicate a system of skilled craftspeople teaching new generations the tricks of their trade. However, the alchemical skills of metallurgy might have been imported to Ribe. They may also have been taught by traveling craftsmen who honed their crafts at contemporary Viking settlements such as Hedeby, the second largest Nordic town during the Viking Age after Uppåkra in present-day southern Sweden. Over the years, archaeologists have found many traces of metalworking and advances in the production of alloys, which was part and parcel of the processes of globalization in Scandinavia which resulted from the Viking Age.

Top image: At the Ribe Viking Center in Denmark, visitors can take part in activities such with their blacksmith, bronze caster and more, to discover more about Viking alchemists and metalworking. ( Ribe Vikinge Center )

By Ashley Cowie

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