The beads of history: There is a new narrative about the Vikings travelling to the east


Just before the Covid-19 pandemic paralysed the whole world, Cat Jarman arrived in Gujarat to begin her first visit to India. A bioarchaeologist whose day job involves sifting through ancient skeletons to understand human history, the Norwegian-born British researcher was looking for a certain kind of bead first made more than a thousand years ago somewhere on the western coast of India. The discovery she was about to make was not on the Indus Valley civilisation that crafted these colourful 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 its traditional January schedule, JLF was held during March 4-14 in a hybrid format. Among the prominent speakers were Jarman, making only her second visit to India after her eventful journey to Gujarat three years ago.

“It was a very quick trip just before the pandemic,” recalls Jarman, adding: “I was very lucky it just squeezed through.” The Vikings researcher, who teaches at the University of Bristol in southwest 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 nobody 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. Nobody had done any work on them,” she says. “I was asked to help. It was sent to my house so that I could work on them from home. There were lots of boxes containing many objects and there I found this one bead. And I realised how significant it was. Forty years ago, when it was found, nobody had realised the importance of this bead,” she adds.

The beads, now lying on the table in her home, were the first thread of a new narrative about the Vikings travelling to the East, a fact that had never been known to the world 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, published last year. The book, which soon raced to the top of bestseller lists across continents, traces the journey of the cornelian bead from India to England more than a thousand years ago.

Jarman’s research into the unknown history of the Vikings’ foray into the east would eventually take her to the coast of Gujarat. “I looked at the records to find 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, came with me. We hired a driver and went to look at the archaeological sites.”

It was their driver who helped Jarman find the missing link. “Our driver connected us to this bead worker, Amar Sayed. He took us up to the mountains where the mines are. So, we got a tour to see where the cornelian beads came from. He still works using these traditional methods of carnelian bead making and showed us the methods. I even got to try myself, drilling the beads using the traditional methods,” she says. The untold story of the Vikings in River Kings ends in Gujarat. “That is how my book ends, with my own trip to Khambhat, and thinking what it was like a thousand years ago,” says Jarman.

Born in Oslo and now living in Bath in England’s Somerset county, Jarman chose as her career something she loved as a child growing up in the Norwegian capital. “When I was eight or nine, I used to go to these museums in Oslo and saw all these objects relating to the Vikings. There were Viking ships, huge and perfectly preserved. I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘Wow! This was built a thousand years ago, but I can still touch it’. That really triggered my interest in Vikings. Then I went to university and wanted to study bioarchaeology and realised there was so much we didn’t know about the Vikings.”

Jarman, who is regularly consulted by filmmakers, documentary producers and even games developers for her expertise on Vikings, says she sees Vikings as “entrepreneurs”, not plunderers. “I like to think of them as entrepreneurs. Yes, sometimes they plunder, sometimes they raid, sometimes they trade, sometimes they are peaceful, sometimes they settle. They did what they needed to do under given circumstances. If they can get away with trading that was great. If they have to plunder, then they will do that. They will adapt to all the different circumstances. That is part of the Viking success, that they can adapt. They can go east, south and north,” explains Jarman, who was a consultant for the hugely popular games, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

River Kings seeks to change the narrative on Viking women too. “We used to think that women were not part of the Vikings’ society. But we now know, thanks to bioarchaeology, women were migrating. They were not sitting at home; they were also going abroad,” she says. A new study in Sweden shows the discovery of several weapons at an excavation site of a Viking grave. “Everyone thought this was a man. Then ancient DNA showed it was a woman,” she says, adding: “It was not complete democracy; it was still a patriarchal society.”

Jarman believes stories on Vikings 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 in history we forget about these things. We only think about war, politics and the big things,” she says.

The discovery of the Gujarat beads provided the point of departure for River Kings. “I knew I wanted to write a book about the Vikings. The bead helped me find an angle, a new way of telling the story,” she says.

Jarman’s decade-long research on Vikings, which became a part of the material for River Kings, helps us understand the nature of history of the Vikings’ ties with the East. “The carnelian bead is essentially part of the Silk Road network. The Vikings are tapping into 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 they did but believes it would be wise for the world to wait on the question. “I don’t think the Vikings came to India, some of them, maybe. But mostly it was the objects that travelled. They came to these trading sites, to Baghdad. I don’t think we can prove it (that they came to India). Maybe we find a Viking grave (in India); that would be perfect,” she adds.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer