What or where was Eysysla, the name used a thousand years ago for the Saare county? It was a starting and ending place of many plundering raids, dispatching sea- farers to bring ruin on the coastal inhabitants across the sea. It was a birthplace of warriors who went on to serve Nordic kings and a place where many young Swedish and Danish men came in their search of good fortune.
The Nordic people of the Viking era (800–1000/1050) did not write down their own stories. Our knowledge of their travels and relations with neighbouring lands comes mainly from sagas that were written during the Christian Middle Ages. Over centuries, each new generation of storytellers had probably supplemented the stories with their own viewpoints. Nevertheless, we can hear a distant echo of the Viking Age in these sagas. The most frequently mentioned region on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea was Eysysla, which in the Old Norse designated a county consisting of islands in a land known as Eistland or Kurland or somewhere in between. It was a group of smaller islands surrounding a larger one, which still bore the name Kuresaar (Couronian Island) as late as the beginning of the 18th century. In the Middle Ages, the group of islands was known collectively as Ösel, and today we call it Saaremaa.
Lusting for the Arabic silver coins of the Viking era, seafarers from the southern half of Scandinavia or the southern shore of the Baltic Sea often traversed the waters around Saaremaa as they headed towards the Gulf of Finland or the Daugava waterway. By that time, maritime culture of Saaremaa was already thousands of years old. The vessels of the islanders, combined with their military and navigation skills, could make life rather difficult for those who were passing by, if they did not accept the local conditions or came with evil intentions. For peaceful travellers and merchants, there were harbours that provided shelter from the storm or supplies in exchange of silver or other valuables to fill the purses of the locals.
According to sagas, the pirates from the eastern shore, usually named ‘Vikings’ in the stories whatever their ethnic background was, had become a threat to the budding kingdoms of Central Sweden even a couple of centuries before the official Viking Age. Mutual raids, as well as trade and personal connections, gained momentum with the adoption of sails around the 7th century. As a result, direct travel across the open sea became a matter of course, with increasingly frequent contacts between coastal inhabitants.
By the time of onset of the Viking Age, a rather uniform warrior culture had developed on all shores of the northern half of the Baltic Sea. It is likely that these people shared many of the same values and beliefs and were able to communicate with each other in different languages. It was a hybrid culture of warriors in which outsiders, especially the victims of raids, were probably unable to discern the different ethnic origins of their attackers. They might have had a specific name for those warriors, such as the Vikings, the Rus or the Curonians, and many of those lived in Saaremaa.
There were also some local differences in the homeland of the internationalising Viking warriors. The jewellery of Saare women, funeral traditions, strongholds, sacrificial places and harbours bear witness to a culture that integrated traits from the surrounding regions and perhaps precisely because of this, had developed a distinctly unique character.
Archaeologists have studied many artifacts of the Viking Age in Saaremaa.
Austrvegr, the eastern trade route of the Viking Age, ran along the southern coast of Saaremaa, through the large island and the island known as Kõrkvere back then, into Väike Strait, and to the western coast of Estonia. Most vessels preferred to stop at a coast for the night, and the only safe way to do it was in harbours. Thus, the southern coast of Saaremaa includes a number of harbour sites of the Viking Age, of which three – Mullutu, Tornimäe and Viltina – have been studied by archaeologists. The recently investigated Mullutu harbour site includes finds from Scandinavia, Finland and Courland, indicating the origin of foreign ships that once stopped there.
There are two confirmed Viking Age strongholds in Saaremaa – Asva and Pöide, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some of the others could have been built in the 9th or 10th century as well. Considering this it is very curious that no burial sites have been found that could be dated back to the period of 650–950; and in addition to Saaremaa, this is characteristic of large parts of the Finno-Baltic areas in general. It is likely that people were not buried along with grave goods in those centuries, and this makes it difficult for archaeologists to find any items. Even in early 7th century, there was a custom of taking the bodies of the dead into special buildings to allow them to decompose next to the remains of others who had died before. One such dead-house has been excavated in Lepna, and another at Pajumõisa near Kihelkonna. It is likely that a similar chamber of the dead was also built on the ships that were found at Salme, providing the final resting place for warriors from different places. Most of these men came from Scandinavia. They were buried in the same place along with their fellow soldiers according to the customs of the island, but also with their weapons and other items, which deviated from the local tradition.
At the end of the Viking Age, when the practice of cremation had been adopted by the local islanders, their remains were buried along with heavily burned items. Some were buried inside a stone circle or under a stone barrow. Such round stone barrows have been excavated, for instance, in Piila, Käku and Kurevere. Many burial sites in Saaremaa are also stony areaswhere the remains from a pyre were simply scattered between stones. These were family burial sites, and it is usually difficult to differentiate between the bones of different people.
Many stone graves have been wrecked or ploughed into fields over time. It is thanks to detectorists who have great respect for national history that new stone graves are discovered every year. Nearly all of them mark the locations of wealthier farms or ancient manors and their ruling families whose earthly remains have been buried between the stones.
Some findings of recent years have also shed some light on the more gruesome aspects of the life of ancient islanders. From the 7th to 9th centuries, many jewellery pins and other attires, were buried inside the high cliff of Viidumäe, while weapons were thrown into the marshy hollow at the foot of the cliff. Archaeologists also found human bones that were buried in ditches after laying exposed on the surface for a long time. The bones included remains of men, women and children and an unusually high number of them had been executed, e.g., by decapitation. It is likely that these were sacrifices similar to those performed in Scandinavia according to some written sources. There, dead victims were hung on tree branches to rot. The finds at Viidumäe point to the existence of a similar custom in Saaremaa.
The rich archaeological material found in Saaremaa stems from its maritime power that persisted for centuries even after the Viking Age. Written sources from early 13th century indicate that Saaremaa controlled several important ports elsewhere on the coast of Estonia and Latvia. The local sea lords did not lose their wealth and power immediately after accepting Christianity and traces of this can still be found in several strongholds and old churches of Saaremaa. But this would be another story.
Be sure to visit the exhibition “Vikings before Vikings” at Saaremaa Museum, where the finds of the Salme Viking ship are on display for the first time. www.saaremaamuuseum.ee
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