The Norse Metallic Ages – Cultural Evolution through Metal

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The Norse “Metallic Ages,” so called because they date the time periods when the Norse people are recorded to have been working with metals such as: copper, bronze, and iron.

This Age also includes the Migration Period (the Age of Heroes), because it happened during the time of the Germanic Iron Age when there were great southerly migrations of the Nordic people.

The Norse Metallic Ages are:

  • The Nordic Bronze Age 1700 BC –500 BC.
  • The Pre-Roman Iron Age 500 BC – 1 AD.
  • The Roman Iron Age 1 AD – 400 AD.
  • The Germanic Iron Age 400 AD – 800 AD.
  • The Migration Period (“The Heroic Age”) 400 – 800 AD.

 

The Nordic Bronze Age

The Nordic Bronze Age, also called the Northern Bronze Age, occurred approximately 1700 BC through 500 BC. The Scandinavian Norse joined the European Bronze Age relatively late and began from importing goods such as European bronze and gold items by means of trade.

During this time many rock carvings depicting ships began showing up, along with the early burial custom of making monument “Stone Ship” burial mounds. These Stone Ships varied in size from small to huge and were generally around other burial grounds and religious ceremonial locations. It is believed that the building of these ships, along with equipping the bereaved with other items, would help them along in their journey to underworld of Hel.

The Nordic Bronze Age 1700 BC –500 BC. The Pre-Roman Iron Age 500 BC – 1 AD. The Roman Iron Age 1 AD - 400 AD. The Germanic Iron Age 400 AD – 800 AD. The Migration Period (“The Heroic Age") 400 - 800 AD.
Two of the viking stone ships (burial grounds) at Badelunda near Västerås, Sweden. Photo by: “Berig.” 1 May 2005.

There wasn’t a written language developed during this Age yet and most stone carvings depicted either ships or elk.

The stones are dated in comparison with bronze axes and swords found from the same era.

Also marking the Nordic Bronze Age was the fact that there was a warmer climate in the region similar to that of Northern France today due to climate change that happened around 2700 BC. This allowed Norse communities to live closer together in denser populations as they experienced better farming conditions. Grapes were even grown in parts of Scandinavia during this time.

This did change because during the end of the Norse Bronze Age, from around 850 BC through 650 BC, the climate changed again becoming colder and wetter which dramatically altered living conditions and southerly migrations began.

Pre-Roman Iron Age

The Norse then developed into what’s called the Pre-Roman Iron Age that ranged from around 500 BC through until the 1st century BC when they came into contact with the Romans. This time line is the earliest part of the Nordic Iron Age that occurred in Norse inhabited areas where a wealth of archaeological artifacts have surfaced leading scholars to believe that Pre-Roman Iron Age Norse evolved without completely making a transition out of the Nordic Bronze age.

Although the use of iron began to increase, bronze was still mostly used during this time. The Norse use of iron gradually increased with strong Celtic influences until greater contact with the Romans in the 1st century BC, when Nordic use of Iron became even more influenced by Roman culture.

It was during this period of the Nordic Pre-Iron age before 71 BC, that many Norse came down to unite with a Germanic leader by the name of Ariovistus. Ariovistus had promised the Norse lands for resettlement in Gallic areas as reward for joining his army and fighting for him.

Ariovistus is described by Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, as Rex Germanorum (King of Germania), even though Germania wasn’t united under a single King. The Celtic/Gallic Sequani People asked Ariovistus for assistance in their war against their hereditary rivals, the Gallic Aedui. The Aedui people were aligned with the Romans and the Sequani were in need of assistance in their war against them. Ariovistus seen this as an opportunity for expansion.

Ariovistus, with an army built up from various Germanic and Norse tribes, came to the assistance of the Sequani and defeated the Aedui. However, the Sequani people ended up worse off then before and had lost a third of their lands that were seized by Ariovistus, whom threatened to take a third more because he had to make room and provide the promised settlements for the approximate 24,000 Norse Harudes that had come to assist him from the North. He had also subjugated the Sequani people he had come to help into semi slavery.

The Harudes (or Charudes) were the Norse/Germanic group first mentioned by Julius Caesar as one of the tribes whom had joined Ariovistus crossing the Rhine River to battle the Gallic Aedui. The Norse Harudes had gathered in Jutland (Denmark Today) from the North in Scandinavia and then came South to join with the Germanic tribes that were forming. Their name suggests that they may have come from Hardanger region in the county of Hordaland, Norway and sailed to Jutland.

The Sequani, whom had asked Ariovistus for help but became subjugated and lost their lands in doing so, appealed to their previous enemies the Romans for help now. Julius Caesar came to their aid and drove back the Germanic and Norse tribesmen across the Rhine in 58 BC. However afterward, various tribesmen continued opportunistic raids on Gaul. They would cross the Rhine to raid and then afterwards sought refuge from retaliation by crossing back to the eastern side of the Rhine. This pushed Caesar to build a bridge to cross the Rhine and confront the opportunistic raiders and to show support for the Germanic tribe, the Ubians that were also allied with the Romans.

The first bridge Caesar had built in 58 BC, was built with a Legion of 40,000 troops in ten days. He crossed his army into Germania and burnt down some villages, but the tribes had moved eastward and converged together to meet Caesar’s army in force. Caesar had heard of this plan and crossed back over the Rhine into Gaul and took the bridge down with him. He had only been in the area for 18 days.

In 55 BC, Caesar came again with his army and built a new bridge within a few days and again crossed the Rhine. However, the tribes retreated so Caesar returned back into Gaul and took his second bridge down as he did so. Caesar had displayed to the Norse and Germanic tribes that the Rhine wasn’t a natural obstacle that would provide them with security from the Romans, as Rome could cross the river at any time they wished. This act secured the eastern front of Gaul, which later had built permanent bridges for trade with allied Germanic tribes that sought out the stability that Rome offered.

The Roman Iron Age

This was during the time period known in the Nordic Iron Ages as the Roman Iron Age, which ran from around 1 BC to 400 AD, when the Roman Empire had the greatest hold and influence over the Germanic tribes to the north of their empire. An Roman influence that reached all the way into Scandinavia, as climate change continued to push many Norse south to seek places for resettlement.

This was also a time when a great amount of imported goods spread throughout Scandinavia that originated from the Roman Empire such as coins, glass beakers, bronze and iron items such as weapons and other objects. More gold and silver came into Nordic regions towards the end of the Roman Iron Age when Rome began to falter and were ransacked more often by neighboring Germanic tribes.

At the end of the Roman Iron Age, cultural change began happening in Norse areas that was again also influenced by climatic changes that had caused dramatic changes in the flora and fauna. This period in Scandinavia is called the “Findless Age” due to the lack of archaeological finds resulting from the scarcity of populations in the area that left behind few traces of their presence. The deteriorating climate pushed Norse populations south as they sought better more arable lands.

The Germanic Iron Age and Migration Age

This “findless” time period is called the Migration Age which happened at the same time as the Germanic Iron Age that occurred from 400 AD to 800 AD. It is a time period that is also called the “Heroic Age” and the period of “Barbarian Invasions,” because of the consequence of Norse southerly migrations that encroached into the lands of other tribes that were already present. This Nordic incursion caused much friction between pre-existing populations and resulted in many battles and wars. The result of some of these many battles became Sagas about warrior heroes – making it the Heroic Age.

The expansion of the Norse and Germanic tribes 750 BC– 100 AD.
The expansion of the Norse and Germanic tribes 750 BC– 100 AD.

The waning of the once powerful Roman Empire and the growing Celtic and Germanic Kingdoms led to an increase in gold flowing in the north resulting in many works of gold as the Norse used it to make decorative ornaments. After Rome fell, gold then became scarce in the northern regions and the Norse began to use gilded bronze once again.

The Nordic Migration Period happened in two phases. The first phase happening between 300 AD to 500 AD, which put control of the then Western Roman Empire into the hands of the Germanic people.

The second phase of migrations took place 500 AD through 700 AD with settlements expanding into Central and Eastern Europe. This expansion spread all the way into the Lombardy region of Northern Italy.

There is some dispute as to whether this age should be called the Migration Period or the Invasion Period. As there are several explanations as to why the sudden and heavy appearance of ‘barbarians’ on the Roman frontiers. Climate change pushing populations south into more fertile croplands and the effect of tribes coming in from every direction pushing one people into another, causing a ‘domino-effect.’ It’s also seen that the increased barbarian and Norse movements into formerly controlled Roman lands are the result of a falling Rome, not the cause.

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Article Source:

  • Kane, Njord. “Chapter 3 – The Metallic Ages.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018 
  • Featured image: Land of Legends (Sagnlandet Lejre) at www.sagnlandet.dk/en/ (This is an awesome place to visit – highly recommend!)

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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Njord Kane is an infantry and cavalry veteran who also served in law enforcement just prior to entering into the world of academia where he pursued the disciplines of military science, social psychology, and anthropology. Having left his profession, he now takes care of his adult autistic sons at home while passionately writing about early Norse and Mesoamerican culture and history at spangenhelm.com and readicon.com. Kane is also the author of numerous books including, The Vikings, The Maya, and The Viking Hero Series.

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