Today’s investment recovery professionals can now conceivably lay claim to a rich, brawny heritage, if a 2009 Viking discovery is any indication. The Vikings, those macho, marauding bad boys of early medieval Europe, apparently had an eye for recycling.
 Recycle during the Week? In 2009, excavators working in the city of York in England found what was ultimately identified as an 11th-centurymetalworking site. Closer examination of the smelting pits containing partially melted axes, sword parts and arrowheads, revealed that the site was actually a kind of medieval recycling center where Vikings took weapons after battle— both their own damaged weapons and the weapons of their fallen enemies—for reprocessing into new weapons.
Despite their bad boy image, archaeological evidence show that the Vikings, who thrived between 700 and 1066 A.D., created a trade network that spanned the globe as far east as the River Volga and Byzantium (Istanbul), west to Dublin and Newfoundland, and north to Greenland and the North Cape. There is also evidence that they had contacts with the Middle and Far East and were among the first visitors to North America.
Although we typically think of the Vikings as war-like, Vikings were not professional privateers or full-time soldiers—or at least not at first. Originally they were full-time fishermen and farmers who spent much of the year at home and also had an established manufacturing capability. Only in the summer would they have rallied to the call of a local leader and ventured across the sea to raid, trade or seek out new lands to settle.
The Vikings developed several manufacturing centers supplying a wide hinterland with a range of everyday items. Raw materials flowed into towns from estates in the surrounding countryside, and specialist craftsmen fabricated them into necessities for sale in their street front shops and market places. For example, the name Coppergate comes from Old Norse words signifying “the street of the cup-makers,” and the excavation there duly exposed hundreds of wooden cores, the characteristic debris from turning wooden cups and bowls on a rotary pole-lathe. Such vessels were the normal tableware of the period, and it is clear that the cup-makers of Coppergate were mass-producing these items on a commercial scale.
The excavations produced evidence of the entire process of metal working from ores, metal-separating trays, crucibles and molds, through to the finished articles. These items, in addition to the waste products in the form of dribbles, offcuts and failed castings, indicate the presence of a blacksmith’s workshop on the site.
The famed Norse warriors recycled as they fought, new excavations in the United Kingdom suggest. An 11th-century metalworking site is likely evidence of a makeshift recycling center, where Vikings took weapons for reprocessing after battle, according to historian Charles Jones.
Jones and his team have found hundreds of pieces of ironwork—including axes, sword parts, and arrowheads—along with lumps of melted-down iron and the remains of smelting pits. “We found several ‘smithing hearth bottoms’—the remains of the molten metal which dribbles down during the reprocessing of the weaponry ironwork,” Jones notes.
“The iron finds support the idea that metal was gathered and recycled in the area just behind where the fighting took place,” he concludes.
The artifacts are currently undergoing x-ray analysis at the University of York. The tests should reveal whether the corroded items were forged using Norse ironwork, which involved using distinctive alloys of soft iron and hard steel.
“The Vikings were very skillful metalworkers,” Sindbaek, an archaeologist, told National Geographic News. “Their weaponry is famous for the way iron is treated. Any metal was a precious material that would be recycled,” he added. “Whoever won a fight in this period would collect what was left on the battlefield.”
Recent excavations in York, which was captured and settled by the Scandinavian seafarers in 866, for instance, show that Vikings recycled boats for building material for houses and even sidewalks, Sindbæk said.
Recycling Interrupted
Jones believes Viking forces worked on the metal in 1066 after defeating English warriors at the Battle of Fulford, a village long since subsumed by the expanded city of York. The historian’s team believes the Vikings were forced to abandon their recycling work five days later by a second English attack, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, led by England’s King Harold II.
The Viking leader in the battle, King Harald III of Norway, was killed and his forces routed. The English king lost his own life the following month, when his war-weary troops were defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William, Duke of Normandy, who became the new English king.