Urbanism and exchange in the North Atlantic/Baltic, 600–1000 ce

Authored by: Søren M. Sindbæk

The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415841306
eBook ISBN: 9781315449005
Adobe ISBN:


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By 600 ce, the islands and coasts by which northern Europe merges into the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea were culturally and socially almost a world to itself. Trickles of exotic objects, such as Indian amethyst beads or Red Sea cowrie shells, marked the existence of global flows of material culture, which spread by long and roundabout chains of intermediaries, mainly through western Europe and the Mediterranean. It is doubtful if people in northern Europe had any clue as to the real-world origin of these objects, and their involvement is likely to have been limited to the last of many steps in their exchange. This situation was to change. By 1000 ce, sailors from this part of the world were exploring the coasts of Greenland and Newfoundland for walrus ivory and other high-value commodities to be brought back to urban markets in their homelands, while merchants from the same market towns were trailing successful trade routes to the Black Sea and the Caspian for commerce in slaves, silk and silver. The experience of northern European societies during this period, including the Scandinavian Viking Age, highlights two patterns in the pre-modern path towards globalization: first, the agency and social incentives, which generate transcultural interconnectivity, issue from “marginal” actors and societies as much as from “core” ones and may lead perceived peripheries to take on a pivotal role. Second, the trends towards global connectivity, then as now, follow a punctuated pattern: the willingness to invest energy and resources in communicating with societies at the edge of the known world, or beyond, thrives from imagined as much as from perceived gains – and is often adjoined by periods of disappointment, disinterest and cultural detachment from the globalizing process.

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