We’re back to the Nordics: this is my fifth read for Annabookbel’s NordicFINDS challenge, and I’ve actually now finished reading six of the ten books I selected for the challenge: as this challenge runs until the end of Sunday, I’ll finish and review Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “Heaven and Hell” trilogy in one go later in the week, and hope to get through the short book of Reykjavik stories, too.

This is one of the books I acquired in December when I really shouldn’t have been going around acquiring books, thanks to my lovely friend Gill’s “book token” for a local indie bookshop. I have now actually read three of those (one for another challenge, one for Shiny New Books and this one), which gives the lie to my claim I read in strict acquisition order, doesn’t it! I’m very glad this lovely challenge gave me the chance to pull this off the TBR and read it.

Cat Jarman – “River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads”

(12 December 2021, using Gill’s Bookshop on the Green book token)

… surprisingly, it’s only relatively recently that the Viking woman has been given much attention; now, in the twenty-first century, she seems to have come back with a vengeance. (p. 135)

It’s generally been assumed that, while the people we know as the “Vikings” travelled both west, to the British Isles and Iceland, and east, to trade or work with communities as far away as Constantinople, they didn’t do both. Taking as her seed of inspiration a little carnelian bead found in a mass burial in Repton, Derbyshire, and using very new archeological methods and reports as she goes, Jarman, a Norwegian bioarchaeologist, traces the routes of the Vikings back up across rivers (portaging between them) to the east coast of Britain, across to Scandinavia, through Russia and down to the Far East and the Silk Roads. She’s always really careful to explain what’s conjecture (not much) and what’s backed up by evidence (although see below) and even extends things right into India in the epilogue, although that’s more of the former.

The sections are named after artefacts found on the way and have an illustration of each plus a good few maps. At the start of each section is a little vignette around the piece, maybe about the maker or wearer or someone around it, sometimes Jarman herself on a dig. She does warn us that these are sometimes invented, and I bristled at that a little, but then remembered that I’d coped with the creative writing bits in Thomas Williams’ “Viking Britain” and they were in fact just little, quite charming, moments in the text reminding us of the human side of all these skeletons and ship-burials.

As we move east and encounter the theory that the Rus’ of (broadly) Russia were easily conceivably Vikings under another name (Jarman fleshes this out and makes it likely while acknowledging other political and historical ideas), she does the interesting thing of looking at Scandinavian accounts of going east and contemporary Muslims’ accounts of the tall, blond travellers who come into their territories. This is fascinating and gives a great, rounded picture. And she finishes where she started, with a carnelian bead, close to what might be its home, far from her own.

There’s lots of good stuff really interrogating how we and previous generations of archeologists and historians have thought about topics like how high-status items got into graves (were women’s items always presents from their husbands?); who were in the graves in the first place (there’s an assumption that someone buried with a sword must be a man which is quite easily disproved); how enslaved people fitted into the equation; and what sort of autonomy and agency women had and where they were. This, along with the advanced scientific techniques described, makes it a really modern and fresh read with underpinnings you trust.

An excellent, approachable and clear text, highly recommended and a book of the year for sure.

This was my fifth NordicFINDS read and touches down in Norway and Sweden as well as mentioning Iceland; the author is also Norwegian!