Tag Archives: Europe
Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower in ancient northern Europe
Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.
The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.
The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.
By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.
Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.
Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.
Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.
Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.
Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.
In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.
The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.
But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.
This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.
Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.
Cultural and social dominance
Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.
By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.
One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.
Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.
The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.
Intersections of language and culture
We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.
This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.
When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.
Vikings are often seen as heathen marauders mercilessly targeting Christian churches and killing defenceless monks. But this is only part of their story. The Vikings played a key role in spreading Christianity, too.
Norse mythology has long captured the popular imagination and many today have heard stories about the pagan gods, particularly Odin, Thor and Loki, recently reimagined in Marvel’s comic books and movies. Some now even follow reconstructed versions of these beliefs, known as Ásatrú (the religion of the Aesir).
Our main source for this mythology, the Prose Edda, was written by a 13th-century Christian, the Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson. Scandinavia converted to Christianity later than many parts of Europe, but this process is still an important part of the Vikings’ real story. Indeed, there are fascinating works of Norse literature with a Christian theme, including sagas of bishops and saints.
It would be wrong to minimise Viking violence, but raiding – hit and run attacks for plunder – in the medieval period was not confined to these Scandinavian seafarers. The Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster, record far more attacks by Irishmen on other Irishmen, including the raiding and burning of churches, than attacks by Scandinavians.
An ideological clash is one suggested cause of the “Viking Age”. This line of thinking suggests that pagan Scandinavians sought to avenge Christian attacks, such as the Frankish emperor Charlemagne’s invasion of Saxony from 772AD to 804AD. This 30-year conflict involved forced mass baptism, the death penalty for “heathen practices” and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon rebels at Verden in 782AD.
It seems more likely, however, that Christian monasteries were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.
The rise of Christianity
The conversion of Scandinavia was gradual with Christian missionaries preaching intermittently in Scandinavia from the eighth century. While there was some resistance, Christianity and Norse paganism were not always fundamentally opposed. A 10th-century soapstone mould from Trendgården in Jutland, Denmark, allowed the casting of metal Thor’s hammer amulets alongside crosses. The same craftsman clearly catered for both pagans and Christians.
The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak. He was baptised in 826AD with the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious as his sponsor, in exchange for imperial support for an (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to regain his throne.
Guthrum, a king from the Viking Great Army which attacked England in the ninth century, was also baptised as part of his agreement following defeat by the West Saxon king Alfred “the Great” in 878AD. Indeed, coming into contact with Christian kingdoms which were more politically centralised arguably led to greater unification of the Scandinavian realms.
One of the most significant turning points in the Christianisation of Scandinavia was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s. Bluetooth technology is named after Harald because he united disparate parts of Denmark, while the technology unites communication devices.
Harald proudly proclaimed on the now iconic Jelling stone, an impressive monument with a runic inscription, that he “made the Danes Christian”. And this connection between kingship and Christianity continued.
Norway was converted largely due to two of its kings: Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson. The latter was canonised shortly after his death in battle in 1030AD, becoming Scandinavia’s first native saint.
Future Norwegian kings benefited from their association with Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway’s patron saint. Other royal Scandinavian saints would follow, notably Erik of Sweden and Knud the Holy of Denmark. The Norse earldom of Orkney also produced a martyr from its ruling family: St Magnus, who was killed in around 1116 in a dynastic squabble.
The 2018 Danish Eurovision entry (Rasmussen’s song Higher Ground) portrays Magnus as a pacifist viking refusing to fight. Saga sources do suggest that Magnus refused on one occasion to raid with the Norwegian king and fled from the fleet, but his career was not without violence.
Scandinavians who settled abroad in Christian lands were also converted to the dominant religion. While Scandinavian settlers initially buried their dead in traditional pagan ways, they soon adopted the customs of those living around them. And their settlements became part of the political and cultural makeup of their host societies.
Some of the most celebrated pieces of medieval Irish ecclesiastical art were likely made by Hiberno-Scandinavian craftsmen from Viking-founded towns like Dublin. These objects also feature stylistic elements which had spread from the Scandinavian homelands.
For example, the 11th-century Clonmacnoise crozier is decorated in the Scandinavian art style of Ringerike, with snake-like animals in figure-of-eight patterns. Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, associated with the sixth-century St Ciaran, is one of Ireland’s oldest and most important ecclesiastical sites. And the ancestors of these craftsmen might have been the very raiders who had attacked Irish churches.
Soldiers of God
Even Scandinavian settlers in the remote islands of the North Atlantic joined the European mainstream with some enthusiasm. Partly due to pressure from Norway, Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Following consultation at their national assembly (the Alþing) it was decided that the country would convert but that some pagan practices would still be tolerated.
The settlements on Greenland eventually failed in the 14th and 15th centuries, but even when the inhabitants were starving they still devoted precious resources to importing luxury goods for the church, including wine and vestments.
Scandinavians also joined the Crusades; now they were the Christians attacking the so-called heathens. The Norwegian king Sigurd “Jerusalem-farer” – named for his visit to the Holy Land – was, in fact, the first European king to participate in the Crusades personally, making a journey from 1108 to 1111, a short while after the First Crusade culminated in the Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem in 1099.
Crusading was, after all, not so different from Viking raiding, but this time the killing and looting had Christian backing. Instead of an afterlife of feasting in Valhalla as a reward for dying in battle, those who died on Crusade would go straight to Heaven.
Indeed, the Viking world was as much populated by missionary kings, bishops and saints as it was by raiders, gods and giants.
Britain’s wrestling with the scope of its future trade links with Europe may seem a very modern phenomenon. But early trade between Britain and Europe was much more widespread than previously thought. Our new research reveals remarkable evidence of a copper-mining bonanza in Wales 3,600 years ago that was so productive that the metal reached France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
Understanding Britain during the Bronze Age (c.2,400-800BC) relies entirely on archaeological research. During this period, agricultural communities combined stock rearing with cereal cultivation. While they constructed numerous circular monuments, evidence for settlement is generally scarce before 1,500BC and on a small scale. Despite this somewhat insular vision of scattered farming communities, there is growing evidence of strong trade or exchange links with continental Europe. What the nature of these contacts were, in a pre-monetary economy, remain a matter of debate.
Copper objects (daggers, axes) first appeared in Britain around 2,400BC and were associated with people arriving from continental Europe. According to recent DNA studies, these arrivals eventually replaced most of the preexisting Neolithic population over the following centuries.
Britain’s copper supplies initially came mostly from southwest Ireland – Ross Island. As this source became exhausted, around 1,900BC, however, small mines opened in Wales and central northwest England. Production in these mines was relatively small, and had to be supplemented with metal from the continent.
This all radically changed around 1,700BC, with the discovery of the exceptionally rich copper ores of the Great Orme mine on the north Wales coast. This was one of the largest Bronze Age copper mines in Europe. Probably in response to the sheer richness and easily-worked nature of the Great Orme ores, all the other copper mines in Britain had closed by 1,600BC. The Great Orme mine met an increasing demand for metalwork of all types (axes, spearheads, rapiers).
Until recently, it was thought that the Great Orme mine was only large in size due to nearly a thousand years of small-scale seasonal working. This assertion was based on claims that the mine only produced high purity copper, which is uncommon in the artefacts of that period.
But our new research, which combines archaeological and geological expertise with the latest scientific analytical techniques, reveals a radically different picture. Extensive sampling of ores throughout the kilometres of Bronze Age workings, along with associated bronze tool fragments and copper from a nearby smelting site, have allowed “fingerprinting” of the mine metal based on chemical impurities and isotopic properties.
The surprising results revealed a distinctive metal rich in nickel and arsenic impurities and, combined with its isotopic “signature”, closely matched the metal type that dominated Britain’s copper supply for a 200-year period (c.1600-1400BC) in the Bronze Age. Remarkably, this metal is also found in bronze artefacts across parts of Europe, stretching from Brittany to the Baltic.
This very extensive distribution suggests a large-scale mining operation (in Bronze Age terms), with a full-time mining community possibly supported or controlled by farming communities in the adjacent agriculturally richer area of northeast Wales, where there are signs of wealth and hierarchy in grave goods. Geological estimates suggest that several hundred tons of copper metal were produced. This would have been enough to produce thousands of bronze tools or weapons every year, equivalent to at least half a million objects in the 200-year period.
When the mining boom turned to bust by around 1,400BC, the distinctive Great Orme metal gradually disappears. This major decline was probably due to the exhaustion of the richly mineralised central area of the mine that corresponds today to an impressive manmade underground cavern and an extensive deep area of surface mining (possibly a collapsed cavern). Both of these can be seen at the mine visitor centre. The bonanza was followed by a twilight period of many centuries, when all that remained were narrow ore veins that required a huge effort for a small output and probably only satisfied local needs.
Bronze Age trade
Tracing the metal from the extraordinary 200-year copper boom across Britain and into continental Europe suggests that Britain was much more integrated into European Bronze Age trade networks than had previously been thought. This is reinforced by fascinating new isotopic evidence from other researchers suggesting that the copper replacing that from Great Orme may have come from the Eastern Italian Alps, which would further extend the long-distance trade networks.
The next big challenge is to understand how important the exceptionally rich British tin deposits in Cornwall and Devon were in enabling the complete changeover from copper to bronze (10% tin, 90% copper), not only in Britain (c. 2,100BC) but also across Europe and beyond, where tin is very scarce. Researchers in Germany recently suggested a link between Bronze Age Israeli tin ingots and European tin deposits, rather than Central Asian deposits, and tentatively suggested a source in Cornwall, although much more research is required.
So we now have increasing evidence that Britain’s trade with continental Europe – although currently turbulent – has deep roots that go back several thousand years.