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History or "Just a Story"?

Authored By: 
Gabriella Skwara, History Teacher

Some history is easy to document. We have a wealth of primary sources to reference, and proof is as easy as pulling up news footage. But how do we teach the history about which we can't be quite sure, where we may not have any written documents, or where the records that exist are inherently suspect? Some Beekman students have been grappling with this question as they examine the Viking world through reports written by British monks who lived in terror of their raids, Arabic travelers with whom they traded, and most importantly through the sagas and myths that were only recorded long after the Viking era had effectively come to an end.

The Vikings represent a unique example, since many of the facts that we commonly associate with them happen to be pure fabrication. First, we should refer to them as the Norse; Vikings is the incorrect term, albeit one that even the experts frequently default to. Furthermore, while visually compelling, their famed horned helmets are entirely fictional. The actual historic Norse were fearsome warriors, but were also sophisticated shipbuilders and navigators who journeyed as far as North America while engaging in the robust international trade networks of their day. Indeed, some facts about the Norse world which had once been thought the fantastical provenance of sagas have since been confirmed through archeological evidence.

There is much that we still don't know for certain about the people who managed to permanently capture our imaginations during their brief, violent moment on the world stage. Our collective fascination, along with many unanswered questions, leads to new discoveries now serving as "click bait" in newspapers around the world. Witness two recent reports surrounding boat burials in Sweden and whether a warrior's skeleton was in fact female or if the embroidery pattern on burial clothes represents Arabic script. These and other findings have fueled heated debates amongst both the experts and the general public, and illustrate how some history is just one discovery away from being rewritten.