A fact unknown to the world before a Norwegian-born British researcher decided to tell the ‘big story’
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic crippled the world, Cat Jarman arrived in Gujarat to begin her first visit to India. The Norwegian-born British researcher, a bioarchaeologist whose day job is sifting through ancient skeletons to understand human history, was looking for a particular type of bead first created more than a thousand years ago somewhere on the west coast of India. The discovery she was about to make was not on the Indus Valley civilization that made these colorful decorative beads. It was about the unknown history of the Vikings.
This new history of the Vikings was the subject of the first physical session of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) held on March 10. Postponed from the traditional January schedule, JLF was held from March 4-14 in a hybrid format. One of the prominent speakers was Jarman, who was only making her second visit to India after her eventful trip to Gujarat three years ago.
“It was a very fast journey just before the pandemic,” Jarman recalls, adding, “I was very lucky to just squeeze it through.” The Vikings researcher, who teaches at the University of Bristol in southwestern England, had arrived in early 2019 to investigate the source of beads excavated four decades ago from a 9th-century Viking grave in England and forgotten. It was forgotten because no one had a clue what these objects were hiding. Until Jarman came along.
“The beads were excavated 40 years ago. Then it was meant to go to a museum. No one had done anything about it,” she says. “I was asked to help. It was sent to my house so I could work on it from home. There were many boxes with many objects and there I found this one bead. And I realized how important it was. Forty years ago, when it was found, no one would have realized the importance of this bead,” she adds.
The beads, now on the table in her house, were the first thread of a new story about the Vikings traveling to the East, a fact the world had never known before. Jarman decided she had to tell the “big story” about the link between the West and the East. The result is the book River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road, which was published last year. The book, which quickly reached the top of bestseller lists across continents, chronicles the cornelian bead’s journey from India to England over a thousand years ago.
Jarman’s research into the unknown history of the Vikings’ journey east would eventually lead her to the coast of Gujarat. “I looked in the archives where the best carnelian beads came from,” she says, adding, “It was all around Khambhat in a place called Ratanpur in Gujarat. So I went there. My husband who is an architect , went with me. We hired a driver and went to see the archaeological sites.”
It was their driver who helped Jarman find the missing link. “Our driver connected us with this beadworker, Amar Sayed. He took us to the mountains where the mines are. So we got a tour to see where the cornelian beads came from. He still works with these traditional methods of making carnelian beads and showed us the methods. I even tried it myself, by drilling the beads in the traditional way,” she says. The untold story of the Vikings in River Kings ends in Gujarat. “That’s how my book ends, with my own journey to Khambhat, and thinking about what it looked like a thousand years ago,” Jarman says.
Born in Oslo and now living in Bath in Somerset, England, Jarman chose something she loved as a child growing up in the Norwegian capital. “When I was eight or nine, I went to these museums in Oslo and saw all these objects related to the Vikings. There were Viking ships, huge and perfectly preserved. I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow! This was built a thousand years ago, but I can still touch it.” That really piqued my interest in Vikings. Then I went to university and wanted to study bioarchaeology and realized there was so much we didn’t know about the Vikings.”
Jarman, who is regularly consulted by filmmakers, documentary makers and even game developers for her expertise in Vikings, says she sees Vikings as “entrepreneurs”, not looters. “I like to see them as entrepreneurs. Yes, sometimes they plunder, sometimes they plunder, sometimes they act, sometimes they are peaceful, sometimes they settle. They did what they had to do under the circumstances. If they can get away with trading, that was great. If they have to loot, they will. They will adapt to all different conditions. That’s part of Viking success, that they can adapt. They can go east, south and north,” explains Jarman, who was a consultant to the hugely popular games, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
River Kings also wants to change the story of Viking women. “We used to think that women were not part of the Viking community. But thanks to bioarchaeology, we now know that women migrated. They weren’t at home; they also went abroad,” she says. A new study in Sweden shows the discovery of several weapons at a Viking grave site excavation. “Everyone thought this was a man. Then old DNA showed it was a woman,” she says, adding: “It wasn’t a full democracy; it was still a patriarchal society.”
Jarman believes that Viking stories available on streaming platforms today “remind us that these are people like you and me.” “These are people who lived, they had friends and families, they loved and got married. Sometimes we forget these things in history. We only think about war, politics and the big things,” she says.
The discovery of the Gujarat beads was the starting point for River Kings. “I knew I wanted to write a book about the Vikings. The bead helped me find an angle, a new way to tell the story,” she says.
Jarman’s ten-year research on Vikings, which became part of the material for River Kings, helps us understand the nature of the history of the Vikings’ ties to the East. “The carnelian bead is essentially part of the Silk Road network. The Vikings use these networks of silk to go down to connect with the Silk Road to China, Baghdad and Constantinople. It was essentially an extension of the networks that were already there, and the Scandinavians are connecting to them,” she adds.
Did the Vikings come to India? Jarman doesn’t think so, but believes it would be wise for the world to wait for the question. ‘I don’t think the Vikings came to India, some maybe. But mostly it was the objects that traveled. They came to these trading places, to Baghdad. I don’t think we can prove it (that they came to India). We may find a Viking grave (in India); that would be perfect,” she adds.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
This post The Beads of History: There’s a New Story of the Vikings Traveling East
was original published at “https://www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/the-beads-of-history/2465347/”