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An Inquiry into a Scandinavian Homeland for the Rus

An Inquiry into a Scandinavian Homeland for the Rus

by Hugh R. Whinfrey

The ethnic origin of the Rus' is generally indicated by various historical sources to be Scandinavian, although a wide variety of alternative theories have been proposed. If the Scandinavian origin is taken as a given, then next question that logically arises is one of locating their homeland in Scandinavia. Extant evidence is tenuous at best, and serious scholars of the Rus' seem to prefer to avoid tangling with the homeland issue altogether. It is however the one great burning curiosity that pervades the Normanist position.

In the course of examining the evidence for possible clues to the homeland, I was struck numerous times by the urge to want to draw the conclusion that the core of the Rus' were probably Gotlanders in origin. There are some bold leaps of association in this, and yet if I were forced to pronounce some conclusion regardless of any gaps, vagueness, and contradictions in the evidence, it would be precisely that. This paper investigates the arguments surrounding the two major threads that need to be tied together to draw this conclusion. The pedantic value will be in the obviating of the weak points which will serve as a critique of the extant body of scholarship applicable to the homeland issue.

There is a set of archaeological evidence that indicates Scandinavians were among the inhabitants of northwestern Russia in the eighth and ninth centuries. There is an unstated but nevertheless omnipresent supposition in much of this archaeological work that relates these Scandinavians to the Scandinavian tribe of the Rus'. It needs to be stressed that these two groups need not necessarily be the same, although the fact that they shared some of the same time, some of the same territory, and had a common ethnic background does indeed give some justification for the supposition. One major thread of a homeland argument needs to tie the Rus' to these Scandinavians, who in turn need to be tied back to a homeland by the other major thread. The latter is examined first.

Five settlement areas in northwestern Russia have produced Scandinavian finds: Pskov, Novgorod, the Riurik fortified site, Old Ladoga, and Beloozero.1 Two runic inscriptions have been recovered from Old Ladoga and also two from Novgorod.2 However none of the settlements has produced what could be called numerous finds, least of all in Novgorod.3 (The appearance of two Rus' travellers at Ingelheim in 839 predates the founding of Novgorod.) From the dating of the artifacts, Stalsberg draws the conclusion that a Scandinavian presence is likely from the very beginning of these settlements.4 However, the archaeological evidence is not sufficient enough in her view to estimate the size of a Scandinavian component in the local population.5

The Old Ladoga finds are the most promising. The most important early Scandinavian find is a smithy with Scandinavian tools, dendochronologically dated to the 760's.6 The only cemetery in Russia that has been identified as Scandinavian, Plakun, is on the Volkhov opposite Old Ladoga.7 It consists of thirteen graves from the ninth and tenth centuries. Plakun has been fully excavated, but the results have not been fully published.

All other other relevant pre-tenth century archaeological evidence in northwestern Russia comes from gravesites. Issues of subjective interpretation surround these gravesites. Stalsberg summarizes the difficulties in the following passage:

The common Scandinavian rite of burial, a cremation under a mound, is, per se, useless for our purposes since it also was the predominant rite in Russia. It is not a distinguishing feature. Burial in, or with, a boat has to be regarded as Scandinavian. Burial in a chamber (here a wooden structure larger than a coffin in which are placed the dead person and the grave goods) is regarded by some as Scandinavian, but there is considerable disagreement about this.8

Judging a particular grave as Scandinavian is necessarily a judgment about the grave goods. One peculiar Scandinavian feature, which may be associated with military activity, is the placing of swords and spears, often bent to make them unusable, in the graves. Stalsberg accepts however only one-third of the graves with swords in northwestern Russia as Scandinavian.9

There are three very glaring weaknesses in the methodology based on analysis of grave goods. The first is that a grave is not classified as Scandinavian unless it is stringently proved to be so, biasing the resulting synthesis of the research away from Scandinavian elements. The second problem is the spread of Christianity, which forbade all but simple grave goods.10 The third is that pagan burial customs varied widely in Scandinavia. Danish graves, for example, are systematically characterized by a paucity of grave goods.11 No clear solution has emerged to compensate for these weaknesses in the methodology, and all one can do is note that those graves which have been deemed Scandinavian are only indicative of the lower limit.

The British archaeologist David Wilson addresses the issue of the slim and uncertain nature in general of the Scandinavian evidence in northwestern Russia by noting that a similar set of scanty archaeological evidence emerges from the Viking areas in England, where their settlements unquestionably occurred on a large scale.12

The evidence from graves that are accepted as Scandinavian leads Stalsberg to synthesize a picture of these Scandinavians as intermingling with the local population in a non-hostile relationship. The immigrants frequently brought their wives with them and were not the lowest class in the society. This, in turn, implies to some extent that the Scandinavians were traders.

There is a suggestive archaeological parallel to this picture from the Swedish colony in Grobin, modern-day Latvia. The colony is presumed to have existed from ca. 650 to ca. 800. Excavations there show a Swedish and Gotlandic ethnic mix, apparently in cooperation rather than rivalry, where the Swedish component is unmistakably military in character and the Gotlandic community civil in character. The Gotlanders brought their wives and apparently engaged in trading activities.13 There exists no evidence suggestive of where any survivors of these colonists went after the settlement was abandoned.

Using the Grobin evidence as a template, one would have some justification for suspecting that the settlers in northwestern Russia were predominantly Gotlanders. Stalsberg notes however that Viking Age finds of Gotlandic character are rare in Russia, and laments that this has been known since the 1930's but has been generally disregarded.14 Grobin has however been used in support of prior suppositions by scholars that peaceful trading activity by Scandinavians in the eastern Baltic was an occupation dominated by Gotlanders up to the beginning of the raiding period.15

The history of Gotland as told by the Gutasaga recounts a Viking Age emigration to the island of Dago, in the Gulf of Riga, which they later abandoned, sailing up the Dvina into Russia.16 Whether some of these Gotlanders eventually ended up in northwestern Russia or in the Volga system is in the realm of speculation. There is some archaeological evidence indicating a Scandinavian presence in the Gnezdovo-Smolensk area17, which certainly is up the Dvina. The Gutasaga does mention that some of them travelled as far as Greece.

The only other glaring clue as to the origin of the northwestern Russian settlers comes from the Yngling Saga. It recounts the tale of the semi-legendary Ivar Vidfadmi (ca. 650-700?) who drowned on an expedition to Russia. The saga asserts that part of his realm included the area around Lake Ladoga.18 The time in which Ivar lived is coincident with the depiction of the Gotlanders as traders. Political control of the Lake Ladoga area would also seem to imply some mainland Swedish military presence there. After Ivar, there are no indications of direct Swedish political control of the area.

The two Rus' in Ingelheim in 839 were envoys from the Rus' to Constantinople. This implies a lack of political association between the Rus' and Sweden already by 839. Furthermore it indicates that the Rus' probably established their own political identity prior to the beginning of age of the Viking raids, usually dated as around 800. It should also be noted that Gotland had no consistent history of political unity with Sweden.

Peter Sawyer notes that "among the hundred runic inscriptions commemorating men who died in the east, almost all refer to warriors and were made in the eleventh century."19 Sawyer finds only one runic inscription that does imply the man mentioned was a trader in Russia20. These offer no clues about the eighth and ninth century settlers.

The other major thread that needs to be tied in is a connection between the Rus' and the presumably Gotlandic trading element in northwestern Russia. Economic arguments are the only way do this as the physical and literary evidence goes from slim to none down this path. That the Rus' lived by some combination of raiding and trading is generally accepted, as are their trading contacts with the Bulgars in the Volga basin and with Constantinople. To set the context properly, it has to be emphasized that during the eighth and ninth centuries, it was silver that drove the Swedish economy, and Islamic silver at that.

An analysis of the trade routes that brought Islamic silver to Sweden reveals that the major route was through northwestern Russia, with a minor route going through Poland. The Dneiper and the Volga were the two arteries to the Islamic world within Russia. At Old Ladoga, easily accessible from the Gulf of Finland without portages, travellers chose which river system they would enter. Beloozero was on one of two possible routes beyond Old Ladoga that led into the Volga system.21 Izborsk was on the only other direct river route that led into the Dneiper system from the Gulf of Finland.

Izborsk, and later Novgorod and Pskov, could also be reached by the southern Dvina from the Gulf of Riga. The ethnic Baltic areas were successfully resistant to Swedish armies in the ninth century and the Gulf of Finland seems to have been the preferred route. Coin evidence indicates that overland routes through Finland were of no major significance.22 Thus the flow of silver to Sweden was constricted into a a narrow geographical bottleneck in northwestern Russia, precisely where we have located presumably Gotlandic traders. At this point the implication that elements of the Scandinavian community in northwestern Russia may have profited by journeying down these river systems into Russia and evolving into the Rus' is clear.

Up until ca. 800 the Dneiper route was blocked by the Avars, which meant that the easier pickings were in the Volga basin. It seems then no coincidence that the earliest Rus' are sometimes placed in the Volga basin.

The most innovative argument I can offer is one that convolutes the generally accepted view of cause and effect. That much of the silver trade went through northwestern Russia rather than through the Gulf of Riga is a disturbing point since the distances to the Swedish mainland were shorter if one bypassed the Gulf of Finland altogether. The hostility of the Baltic peoples to journeying traders on a fairly wide river is not an adequate explanation.

If one contemplates the fact that after long journeys, travellers like to return home, then the situation starts to clarify itself. If the silver trade was begun by the Scandinavians of northwestern Russia, then the trade route would have developed fanning out from their center, which would appear as an unexplained constriction in the route. And once established, a trade route has a certain inertia to it. This would require the placement of a lively market in the center. Such did develop in Novgorod, a peculiarly out-of-the-way place, and I can only suggest that it was the later by-product of this need for a market at the center.

The generally disregarded remark in the Primary Chronicle that the Novgorodians were of the Varangian race, may contain more truth to it than is realized from a strictly genetic and linguistic viewpoint. It does appear that it could be the culmination of the legacy of these presumably Gotlandic traders of northwestern Russia.

In summary, the Gotlandic connection is plausible, but not conclusive. The evidence and conjectures raise more questions than they solve. Nevertheless, I get the sense that conclusively disproving a Gotland connection would be a far more difficult task than conclusively proving it, which under the circumstances is a significant statement.

Seattle, December 1993


1 Anne Stalsberg, "Scandinavian Relations with Northwestern Russia during the Viking Age: The Archaeological Evidence," Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), p.272.

2 Elena A. Melnikova, Skandinavskie runicheskie nadpisi: Teksty, perevod, komentarii (Moscow: Izdatel'vstvo "Nauka", 1977), pp.156-169.

3 Stalsberg, "Scandinavian Relations," p.272.

4 Ibid, p.272.

5 Ibid, p.273.

6 Ibid, p.272.

7 Ibid, p.274.

8 Ibid, p.269.

9 Ibid, p.269.

10 Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p.332.

11 Ibid, pp.330-332.

12 David M. Wilson, "East and West: A Comparison of Viking Settlement," Varangian Problems, Scando-Slavica supplement 1 (Copenhagen, 1970), p.113.

13 Jones, A History of the Vikings, p.243.

14 Stalsberg, "Scandinavian Relations," p.271.

15 Johannes Brondsted, The Vikings, (London: Penguin Books, 1965), p.20.

16 Jones, A History of the Vikings, p.196 and 252.

17 Ibid, p.253.

18 Ibid, p.241.

19 Peter Sawyer, "The Viking Perspective," Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), p.181.

20 Ibid, p.181.

21 Jones, A History of the Vikings, p.252.

22 Tuukka Talvio, "Finland's Place in Viking-Age Relations between Sweden and the Eastern Baltic/Northern Russia: The Numismatic Evidence," Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), p.246.


Sørensen, Hans Christian. "The So-Called Varangian-Russian Problem." Scando-Slavica, Tomus XIV (1968), pp.141-148.

Stalsberg, Anne. "Scandinavian Relations with Northwestern Russia during the Viking Age: The Archaeological Evidence." Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), pp.267-295.

Stein-Wilkeshuis, Martina. "A Viking-Age Treaty Between Constantinople and Northern Merchants, With Its Provisions on Theft and Robbery." Scando-Slavica. Tomus 37 (1991), pp.35-47.

Talvio, Tuukka. "Finland's Place in Viking-Age Relations between Sweden and the Eastern Baltic/Northern Russia: The Numismatic Evidence." Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), pp.245-255.

Vernadsky, George. A History of Russia, Volume II: Kievan Russia. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1948.

Waller, Jutta. "Swedish Contacts with the Eastern Baltic in the Pre-Viking and Viking Ages: The Evidence from Helgo." Journal of Baltic Studies, XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1982), pp.256-266.




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