James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
December 13, 2009

Today's recyclers can now conceivably lay claim to a rich, bloody, brawny heritage, if a new Viking discovery is any indication.

The famed Norse warriors, many of whom settled parts of eastern and northern England in the Middle Ages, recycled as they fought, new excavations in the United Kingdom suggest.

An 11th-century metalworking site recently discovered in the city of York (map) is likely evidence of a makeshift recycling center, where Vikings took weapons for reprocessing after battle, according to historian Charles Jones, organizer of the Fulford Battlefield Society, which advocates preserving the battle site against potential development.

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," he told the York Press.

"The iron finds support the idea that metal was gathered and recycled in the area just behind where the fighting took place," Jones said.

Vikings Recycled on and off Battlefield

The artifacts are currently undergoing x-ray analysis at the University of York. The university's Søren Sindbæk said 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," Sindbæk, 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."

Though he knows of no other battlefield examples of Viking recycling, evidence of reuse of metal and other materials has been found at other Viking sites, Sindbæk said.

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.

Viking, 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.

Amateur but not Amateurish?

Project leader Jones, author of The Forgotten Battle of 1066: Fulford, is an amateur historian, and many of the artifacts were uncovered not during professional archaeological excavations but by metal-detector enthusiasts.

But that "doesn't at all devalue" the discovery, said archaeologist Allan Hall of the University of York.

The Fulford Battlefield Society is "working in close cooperation with the archaeological establishment," Hall said. "Archaeology has a long tradition of amateurs taking part."