The Viking “invasion” of the Northern Isles of Scotland may not have been the sudden violent takeover of the lands as previously believed.
The perception of Scandinavian warriors suddenly arriving in their longships – raping and pillaging their way through remote villages – is now being questioned.
Recent discoveries made at an archaeological dig on Orkney have opened the debate of when exactly the first Vikings settled on the islands.
Martin Carruthers, lecturer in archaeology at Orkney College, who is leading the excavations at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, claims the findings could suggest a “more prolonged” and “peaceful” period of settlement than previously thought.
What has added to the debate is the discovery of soapstone crafting materials which are dated to before AD600, long before the chronicled Viking colonisation of the 9th century.
Mr Carruthers said these items – a steatite sherd, a cooking bowl and spindle whorl, used for spinning wool – had been found in Pictish-era buildings on the archaeological site, but were of Scandinavian origin.
Both items were in sealed deposits underneath a hearth in a workshop-smithy area – a hearth that archeomagnetic testing appears to confirm was last used around AD600.
He added: “What we may be looking at, provisionally at this stage, is evidence of early pre-colonisation of the Norse.
“The hearth has all the hallmarks of a Viking hearth. What we might be seeing is the process of Viking settlement.
“It’s possible there was a much longer period of interaction between Scandinavia and the Picts on Orkney, with sporadic settlement and colonisation. It could be the precursor to the actual settlement, the taking over of the islands, known as the LandNam Event.”
He added: “If you were being terribly cynical about it, small groups (such as the Scandinavians) could come in to new land and all the while weigh it up, seeing who is who in the hub of the community.
“Some way down the line, you lop off the head of the indigenous groups and take over.The discoveries are suggestive that it was a longer, more strategic process of the seizure of the Northern Isles.
“Was it a violent, bloody, near genocidal wipe out of Pictish society, or may it have been a longer and a more peaceful interaction between one another?”
Mr Carruthers said: “We have to be fairly cautious but the discoveries do suggest early links with Scandinavia.”
This could involve early trading between Scandinavia and Orkney, but he added: “It is difficult to take archaeology and put it into an absolute narrative. It gives details of the nitty gritty of peoples’ lives, but not the complete picture.
“The one thing we know about the Vikings is they are adaptable, occupying lands certainly from the 800s through to the 1100s, including Iceland, Faroe, Scotland, and they even moved down to the Holy Lands.”