Icelandic Vikings Were Less Plundering, More Drunken Feasting

Vikings have the reputation of being ruthless warriors that took land and power by force, but the historical reality was that in Iceland, they were mostly flexing by feasting.

Dec 5 2014, 9:00pm

Despite the fact that it's been centuries upon centuries since they roamed the Earth and seas, Vikings continue to intrigue us with tales of their epic ships, arsonous funerals, intriguing facial hair configurations, and penchant for raiding, plundering, pillaging, and ravaging. Despite the fact that they were a historical reality, they almost represent the same kind of pseudo-fantastical cultural team as vampires, pirates, and zombies—there just always seems to be some kind of market for them, and their reputation has long been one best described as "ruthless."

But archaeologists have recently gained insight into the Viking lifestyle, and it turns out that they were much more intent on demonstrating their strength by brewing beer and feasting on beef than burning down villages.

A group of researchers from Baylor University recently published the results of their examination of a former Viking site in Iceland called Hrísbrú, which they dug up and studied for a look into what Vikings were really up to besides throwing around swords and inventing new styles of braids. As it happens, the key to political leverage in Iceland—a new territory relative to their home base of continental Scandinavia—basically hinged on being a grill-master. Texans and Vikings: not as different as one might think.

Danish archaeologist Davide Zori, PhD—who led the study—tells Science Daily that Norse machismo was alive and well in Viking culture, as one would expect, and that it centered around an economy that saw leaders and power players flexing by partying hard in halls decked out with mass quantities of beer and beef. "It was somewhat like the barbecue here," he says. "You wanted a big steak on the grill."

A giant slab of juicy meat cooking over a flame was as telling as a vintage Rolex would be on a CEO's wrist today. Feasts were essentially Medieval political fundraisers, building relationships with local leaders and offering a sense of decadent showmanship that would both impress and intimidate. Your seat at the table signified your clout; displaying the skull of the cow that was being dined on added a special Viking touch.

At the Icelandic site, Zori and his team found barley seeds on floors and in piles, which were likely used primarily to create beer (one can only imagine the flavor of a true Viking brew). Although barley was also used in manufacturing bread and gruel, beer was—and remains—a staple of greater value. Few are impressed by a feast well-stocked with bread. Hrísbrú, which had once been home to some of the most notorious Vikings, was once essentially the Icelandic equivalent of the Playboy Mansion.

But Vikings had difficulty acclimating to Iceland's harsh winters and less-than-ideal conditions for raising cattle. Sheep, which come with their own woolly coats, can be left outside to graze, but cattle demanded barns and ample feed. The struggle to feast got realer and realer.

It was at this crucial apex, when they were experiencing increased strain in preserving and storing beef and barley, that the once-indomitable power of Icelandic Viking chieftains began to recede. In a wintery bummer of a landscape without steak and beer, social roles shifted and diminished. Of the oral history that described this period, Zori tells SD, "Yes, the Vikings may have put axes to one another's heads—but these accounts also describe milking cows."

Eventually, barley production was halted altogether, and everyone settled down and started raising herds of sheep rather than continuing the expensive, Sysiphean task of trying to feast hard.

One of Zori's biggest takeaways from the archaeological study is that the Viking proclivity for fancy meat and beer was essentially prioritized over the benefits to their community—an economy-damaging tendency of political leaders that doesn't sound so surprising even today.