Viking civilization thrived from the 8th to the 11th century, a span of time during the European medieval period. The Viking trade network stretched from Iraq to the Arctic Circle and records from their victims paint a vivid picture of their raids. Beyond these biased descriptions, however, modern historians know very little about the Vikings. New archaeological evidence is emerging that is explaining more about Viking culture.
Scandinavian conversion to Christianity began even before the time of the Vikings. This transition continued during the Viking settlement of Britain, when conversion was necessary to establish trade and maintain peace with native residents. As a result, Christian practices and pagan beliefs influenced each other in Viking culture; for instance, Pagan and Christian symbols appeared on the same coins circulated in York. Traditional Viking religious practices included ritual sacrifice of animals and humans, particularly during funerary rituals; the worship of a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses, and the belief in an afterlife and the end of the world.
Viking society was highly stratified, and was composed of three main classes of people: slaves, who were also known as thralls, yeomen, who were a mid-ranking class of free people, and jarls, who were Viking aristocracy. For yeomen, common trades included metalwork and agriculture; poets were also valued members of society. Free Viking women were responsible for caring for the home and for cattle, were able to inherit property and divorce, and had substantial power in the home, represented by their exclusive possession of the house's keys.
Sailing was one of the most important parts of Viking culture, and Vikings were among the best ship builders in Europe. The craftsmen who built raiding longships were so skilled that they were able to construct the ships by sight without initially fabricating a frame. During the medieval period, Scandinavians built different kinds of ships for raids and trading, all of which were faster and easier to maneuver than other European technology of the time. Viking ships were so prized that many people were buried with them.
Viking funeral customs were similar to Egyptian traditions in the inclusion of grave goods with the burial. Aristocratic Scandinavians were buried in their finest clothes with jewelry, food, tapestries, and sometimes sacrificed slaves and animals to serve the deceased in the afterlife. An eyewitness account depicts a prominent Viking placed inside a ship that had been pulled on shore and then set afire with the body. Discoveries show that another practice was to bury the Viking at a grave site inside a ship filled with luxury goods.
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