Pearls of History: There’s a New Tale of Vikings Traveling East
A fact unknown to the world before a Norwegian-born British researcher decided to tell the “big story”
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic paralyzed the whole world, Cat Jarman arrived in Gujarat to begin her first visit to India. A bioarchaeologist whose daily job is to sift through ancient skeletons to understand human history, the Norwegian-born British researcher was looking for a certain type of bead first made over a thousand years ago somewhere on the west coast of India. The discovery she was about to make was not about the Indus Valley Civilization that made these colorful decorative beads. It was the little-known story of the Vikings.
This new story of Vikings was the subject of the first physical session of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) held on March 10. Carried over from its traditional January schedule, the JLF was held from March 4 to 14 in a hybrid format. Among the prominent speakers was Jarman, who made only his second visit to India after his eventful trip to Gujarat three years ago.
“It was a very quick trip right before the pandemic,” Jarman recalled, adding, “I was very lucky he just snuck in.” The Vikings researcher, who teaches at the University of Bristol in south-west England, had arrived in early 2019 to investigate the source of the beads quarried four decades ago from a 9th-century Viking tomb in England and forgotten. It was forgotten because no one had the faintest idea what these objects were hiding. Until Jarman arrives.
“The pearls were excavated 40 years ago. Then it was destined to go to a museum. No one had worked on it,” she said. “I was asked to help. It was sent to my house so I could work on it from home. There were many boxes containing many objects and there I found this pearl. And I realized how important that was. Forty years ago, when it was discovered, no one realized the importance of this pearl,” she adds.
The beads, now lying on the table in his house, were the first thread in a new tale of Vikings traveling east, a fact that had never before been known to the world. Jarman decided she had to tell the “big story” of the connection between West and East. The result is the book, River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road, published last year. The book, which quickly rose to the top of bestseller lists across continents, traces the carnelian pearl’s journey from India to England over a thousand years ago.
Jarman’s research into the unknown history of the Viking incursion into the East would eventually lead 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 see the archaeological sites.
It was their driver who helped Jarman find the missing link. “Our driver put us in touch with this pearl maker, Amar Sayed. He took us to the mountains where the mines are. So we took a ride to see where the carnelian beads came from. He still works using these traditional methods of making carnelian beads and showed us the methods. I even got to try it myself, piercing the beads using the traditional methods,” she says. ends in Gujarat.”This is how my book ends, with my own journey to Khambhat, and thinking about 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 something she loved as a career when she was growing up in the Norwegian capital. “When I was eight or nine years old, I would go to these museums in Oslo and see all these Viking-related items. There were Viking ships, huge and perfectly preserved. I remember looking at them and thinking: “Wow! It was built a thousand years ago, but I can still touch it. That really sparked my interest in the Vikings. Then I went to college and wanted to study bioarchaeology and I realized there was so much we didn’t know about the Vikings.
Jarman, who is regularly consulted by filmmakers, documentary producers and even game developers for her expertise on Vikings, says she sees Vikings as “entrepreneurs”, not raiders. “I like to think of them as entrepreneurs. Yes, sometimes they loot, sometimes they loot, sometimes they trade, sometimes they are peaceful, sometimes they settle. They did what they had to do under given circumstances. If they can get away with the trade, that was great. If they have to loot, they will. They will adapt to all circumstances. It’s part of the success of the Vikings, which they can adapt. They can go east, south, and north,” says Jarman, who was a consultant for the hugely popular game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
River Kings also seeks to change the narrative about Viking women. “Before, we thought that women were not part of Viking society. But we now know, thanks to bioarchaeology, that women migrated. They weren’t sitting at home; they were also going abroad,” she says. A new study from Sweden shows the discovery of multiple weapons at a Viking tomb excavation site. “Everybody thought it was a man. Then the ancient DNA showed it was a woman,” she says, adding, “It wasn’t a complete democracy; was still a patriarchal society.
Jarman thinks the stories about 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 each other and got married. Sometimes in history we forget these things. We only think about war, politics and big things,” she says.
The discovery of Gujarat pearls provided the starting point for River Kings. “I knew I wanted to write a book about the Vikings. The pearl helped me find an angle, a new way to tell the story,” she says.
Jarman’s decade-long research on the Vikings, which became part of the material for River Kings, helps us understand the nature of the history of Viking ties to the East. “Carnelian pearl is basically part of the Silk Road network. The Vikings tapped into these silk networks to descend to connect with the Silk Road to China, Baghdad and Constantinople. It was basically an extension of the networks that already existed, and Scandinavians are connecting to it,” she adds.
Did the Vikings come to India? Jarman doesn’t think they did, but thinks it would be wise for the world to wait on the matter. “I don’t think the Vikings came to India, some of them maybe. But it is above all objects that travel. They came to these trading places in Baghdad. I don’t think we can prove it (that they came to India). Perhaps we find a Viking tomb (in India); that would be perfect,” she adds.
Faizal Khan is independent