Tracing History: The Genetic
Impact of Viking Migrations into the British Isles
By Miles A. Nye
The "Blood of the Vikings" is a five-episode series released by the British Broadcasting Company in 2001. Largely produced and directed by the well-known British documentarian Liz Tucker, this documentary film attempts to capture the use of genetic research by scholars to augment the existing knowledge of the Scandinavian raiders who entered the United Kingdom between the 8th and 1lth centuries. Explaining this new research method as he travels across Northern Europe, author and archaeologist Julian Richards narrates the film with a very personable approach towards his intended audience. Richards' enthusiasm for conveying the importance of the Viking Age in British history is driven in large part by his most recent book at the time, which shares the same title-name and release date as the documentary film. The combined talents of Tucker and Richards helped create an exciting documentary film that provides viewers with a refreshingly new glimpse into the truly mysterious world of Viking Age England.
Aside from evidence gathered from ancient documents and archaeological digs, much of the documentary's knowledge of the influence of the Vikings upon the United Kingdom is derived from a study that was led by Geneticist Professor David Goldstein. Goldstein, who also appears in the film, headed a scientific study in which "scientists at UCL (University College London) took mouth swabs from 2,000 people from 25 different locations across Britain." This colossal study of a large number of British males is specifically concerned with tracing the Y-chromosome and linking it back to Scandinavian settlers of ancient England. As the documentary develops it reveals the Viking peoples to the viewer by visiting archaeological digs, museums, and other historically important sites that are relevant to the documentary.
In order to help the intended audience better understand the legacy of these invading Norsemen, there are five episodes within the documentary series that run close to fifty minutes each and are divided chronologically from their first invasions of the British Isles until their eventual assimilation into English society and government. However, it is also the intention of the filmmakers to display accurately how the marauding Vikings impacted the English population in return as cultural diffusion took place between the two peoples.
To gain a sense of the impact of the Vikings upon the UK, the narrator talks about the different areas of the British Isles that have Scandinavian origins in name and custom. Not surprisingly, much of Northern England contains place-names that still show signs of Scandinavian invasion and settlement. For example, the series points out how the ending "-by" is Scandinavian in origin, making towns such as Derby directly related to the Norse invaders. One thing that was cautioned against by Dr. Goldstein in the second episode of the series when approaching the subject of Scandinavian place-names, however, was assuming that a Scandinavian place-name meant that the Norse settlers had brought a large colonial party with them. Oftentimes, small raiding parties could dominate a newly-found area without totally overwhelming the native inhabitants, making the process of relying upon place-names for evidence of Viking origins somewhat inaccurate. Scandinavian influences also appear to the viewer in the form of modern governmental traditions in certain areas of the British Isles, such as the Isle of Man. It is on the Isle of Man where the members of the Tynwald meet annually in July on Tynwald Hill to hold their parliament, a form of local government that is descended from the Vikings. The significance of place-names and culture is widely explored in this series, establishing an essential element to the better understanding of the way that the Viking settlement of England forever changed its future.
As the various groups of invading Norsemen began settling in England following the arrival of the first Great Heathen Army, their genetic coding would become permanently imprinted upon the British population and passed down through the generations. The new genetic testing done by Dr. Goldstein was remarkable and unique for this documentary film, as it revealed new knowledge regarding the genetic makeup of the British Isles following the migration of various Viking tribes across England. Interestingly enough, there was an extremely strong connection between the genetic coding of the peoples of Dublin, Ireland as well as the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland to Norwegian DNA patterns. Some areas of the British Isles could match over fifty percent of their male population's Y-chromosome to Norwegian blood, making a strong case for the assertion by historians that the Norwegians tended to have a foothold in the Northwestern region of the British Isles in comparison to the Danes who settled further south.
Because the genetic coding of the Danes is remarkably similar to the previous invading tribes of England, the Saxons and the Angles, the genetic researchers in the documentary were forced to lump all these DNA matches together. By doing so, the researchers were able to identify exactly how much of the population carried DNA that was not related to the original inhabitants of the British Isles. In some areas, the numbers reached well over fifty percent or more, making these new findings paramount to our understanding of Vikings and their importance to British history. Not surprisingly, the modern citizens of the British Isles that reside in the North supply more instances of possessing the genetic traits of invading Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Danes) than do the citizens living in the southern and eastern regions of the nation. These newly discovered genetic patterns reinforce the scholarly theories surrounding the Viking Age invasion of the British Isles by the different tribes during that time period. The strong indication of Norwegian genes in the northwest and the large concentration of Danish and Anglo-Saxon genetic coding to south along the Danelaw both serve to add merit to the beliefs of scholars such as Julian Richards, whose book also focuses on these strong genetic divisions between the British population following various Viking patterns of settlement.
Unlike the recent Viking documentaries produced by other companies, the BBC has done a truly magnificent job of intertwining history, archaeology, and the science of genetics to give its viewers a more descriptive documentary that provides a fresh look at the world of these Norsemen. Many of the new documentaries that have come out about the Vikings contain very little about the details of their actual settlement and intermingling with the native population in England. This documentary provides an in-depth look at the legacy that these Norsemen left behind in the form of place-names, artifacts, and DNA. And while many of today's Viking documentaries can tell you the narrative of the Viking invasions of England, they still fail to provide details about the Norse settlement of the British Isles after the fighting had come to an end. By providing the results of the new genetic research that had been conducted at the University College London, the producers of this documentary were able to better explain the history of the Viking Age in the UK than ever before. Moreover, this legacy can also be traced to areas all across the present-day British Isles, making it all the more relevant to scholars and people of British descent today. It provides the viewer with a more comprehensive view of the Viking homeland that the Norsemen were fleeing from the 8th to 11th centuries—and how they ultimately ended up in the present-day United Kingdom. By studying Viking trade routes and their seafaring skills, the narrator is able to connect decisively how these factors came to affect the rich heritage of Britain itself. Following these water passageways to the North, Richards visits museums in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia to bring new information to the documentary that pertains to just how the Vikings were able to travel great distances to colonize the United Kingdom. Although many other documentaries will describe the importance of Viking nautical knowledge, there are very few documentaries that actually have a narrator participate in the practice of rowing a replica Viking Age ship. This "hands-on" approach to history utilized by the narrator, taking place in the same unforgiving regions of the North that the Viking raiders travelled through, helps bring the past alive in ways that reenactment footage and brief historical overviews simply cannot bring to the program.
There have been many documentaries made about the multifarious Viking tribes that entered the British Isles during the numerous waves of Norse migration occurring between the 8th and 11th centuries. Notwithstanding all of the other documentary films surrounding this fascinating subject, this documentary seems to reinvigorate the topic of Viking Age England more than any of its predecessors have in the last decade. According to IMDB.com, the series received an overall viewer rating of 7.3 out of 10 stars2. This high rating by a sample of the documentary's viewers is quite sagacious in its perception of the quality of the film, in regards to both its overall entertainment and scholarly value. A major factor in this high approval rating by consumers is that the documentary film moves beyond the standard narrative of Viking military history and closely examines the lesser-known prevalence of Norse genetics in the modem population of the British Isles. For anyone who desires to learn more about the Vikings, or simply refresh the memory of the subject, this documentary film series is the perfect combination of information and entertainment that will leave the viewer amazed at the lasting impact that these Norsemen have had upon the British Isles.