Evidence for settlement


Q4. Review the evidence for settlement in Scandinavia in the period c.600-1050AD. To what extent is Viking activity visible in the archaeological record?

Today the term 'Viking' has become synonymous with piracy and, in particular, raping, pillaging and plundering but in the Viking Age (800-1050 AD), according to Haywood (1995: 8), 'the term víkingr applied only to someone who went í víkingr, that is plundering'. Haywood (1995: 8) therefore concluded that the majority of the people living in Scandinavia at that time were not technically Vikings, in the true sense of the word, as they were farmers and craftsmen who stayed at home, and that those Scandinavians who did become Vikings only did so until they had obtained enough money to acquire a farm of their own. This essay, which concentrates on the period c.600-1050 AD, will examine the material evidence for settlement in Scandinavia and assess what can be attributed to the Vikings. For the purposes of this essay Scandinavia is taken to comprise of the modern-day European countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

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One of the problems facing anyone living in Scandinavia is the paucity of fertile soils with which to grow crops on. While Norway is restricted to two main areas, Trondheim and Oslo, Sweden has some fertile land in the south of the country. Denmark however, which is the smallest of the three countries, has, in relation to its size, by far the greater proportion of fertile land suitable for cultivation (Haywood 1995: 22-36). Therefore Denmark offers the greater potential for finding evidence of an agrarian settlement.

In 1986 an excavation at Ejstrup, in northern Denmark, exposed part of a settlement which, on the basis of recovered artefacts, was dated from the Late German Iron Age (600-800 AD) to the early Viking Age (800-900 AD), with most of the settlement structures dating from the 9th century. Post-excavation analysis of carbonised cereal grains from sieved soil samples taken from the contents of a posthole (N328) and the 'floor layer' of the pit-house (N57) (Fig. 1) revealed that the main crops exploited by this section of the settlement were barley and rye. Also present in the samples were wheat, oats and flax but it is not certain whether their inclusion was as an intentionally cultivated crop or incidental weeds. The analysis also indicated that the 'rye and barley grew well' and that it produced 'large well-formed grains suggesting competent agriculture and favourable growing conditions' (Robinson and Michaelsen 1988: 223-28).

The nucleation of farmsteads into villages is probably best illustrated by the completely excavated settlement site at Vorbasse in central Denmark which uncovered a collection of individual farmsteads that had united together to form a community (Vejle 1979: 137). The excavations revealed that this village settlement had evolved overtime, from 1st century BC to 11th century AD, and that it had moved its location by a few hundred metres every one or two centuries (Haywood 1995: 37; Roesdahl 1998: 97).

In the period when it would have been occupied by Vikings (i.e. 8th - 10th century), Vorbasse (Fig. 2), as dated by recovered pottery sherds, comprised of seven fenced-in farmsteads centred around an 8-10m wide communal 'road' running in an east-west direction; four farmsteads on the north side and three on the south (Roesdahl 1998: 98-9; Vejle 1979: 168). The foci of each farmstead, as delineated by postholes in the ground, was a 'boat-shaped' longhouse approximately 30m in length, which had human habitation at one end and livestock, as evident by ground traces of stall partitions, in the other (Roesdahl 1998: 100; Vejle 1979: 144-45). Several smaller structures were also visible in the archaeological record for each farmstead, including pit-houses, and, according to Roesdahl (1998: 99) one of the outer farmsteads had a smithy.

Artefacts recovered from this period of Vorbasse's occupation included items that had originated from the Scandinavian Peninsula (i.e. whetstones and a few shards of soapstone cooking pots) and the Rhineland (i.e. fragments of basalt querns and a sherd of Pingsdorf ware pottery) (Roesdahl 1998: 101; Vejle 1979: 169). It can therefore be conjectured that the village must have produced a surplus from its farming endeavours to enable its inhabitants to acquire items that had come from far outside its locality, and one of those distant Scandinavian trading places was Kaupang in Norway (Fig. 3).

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Located on the western side of the mouth of the Oslo fjord, in a naturally protected bay, Kaupang was situated along a narrow shoreline whose sea level was about 3m higher than it is today. Excavation of the site centred on the 'Black Earth', which was believed to be the result of human habitation (i.e. domestic waste which had turned the soil black), and revealed six houses and two jetties, together with more than 10,000 artefacts which indicated that the site came into use c.750 AD and was then abandoned c.900 AD. However what puzzled the archaeologists was the construction and alignment of the houses, with respect to the shoreline, which was different to other excavated Viking trading centres like Birka (Sweden) and Hedeby (Denmark) (Fig. 3). Also the houses did not have hearths in them which appeared to suggest that the site was not permanently occupied. Therefore to help answer these questions a research excavation was carried out in 2000-02 (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 65; Skre 2008: 112-15).

Although analysis of the data gathered from the research excavation has yet to be completed the archaeologists are confident that the development and structure of Kaupang is known (Fig. 4). Occupation began in 800 AD with the division of the shoreline land occurring no later than 803 AD, at which stage the excavated area had been divided into 6 plots where trade and craftwork (i.e. blacksmithing and bead making) was being carried out; at this time there were no buildings present. Then c.812 AD, with the occupational work continuing, five of the six plots acquired a single house. This appears to be the set-up until the site is abandoned in the mid 10th century. It was also noted that there was no evidence of any permanent structures in the zone surrounding the plot-division area despite artefact retrieval implying that that occupational work was being carried out there. Consequently it is believed that this area was used for temporary structures like huts and tents for people attending the trading markets. No traces of any defences, land or sea, were found (Skre 2008: 115-18).

While Kaupang, whose name means 'market place', appears, on the basis of recovered artefacts, to have declined from c.900 AD other Scandinavian trading places had developed into large, defended, towns (Skre 2008: 116). One of these thriving urban centres was Birka in eastern central Sweden (Ambrosiani 2008: 94) (Fig. 3).

Situated on the north-west side of the small island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, the town of Birka, which is 30km west of Stockholm, comprises of a shoreline settlement which is enclosed by a defensive rampart linked to a hill fort (borg). Lying outside the town's fortifications are a number of cemeteries (Ambrosiani 1992: 11; Ambrosiani 2008: 94;Roesdahl 1998: 123). Like Kaupang, the settlement area of Birka is characterised by 'Black Earth' and a phosphate density study of the soils on Björkö has produced a data 'spike' in the area of the 'Black Earth' (Ambrosiani 1992: 17). However, due to the issue of land uplift the present land level is 5m higher than it was in the Viking Age and therefore the 'Black Earth' is not waterlogged, which means that it has not preserved any organic material (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 73; Roesdahl 1998: 123).

Excavations in both the 'Black Earth' and the cemeteries have allowed archaeologists, by studying the recovered artefacts, to create a chronology of occupation. Consequently Clarke and Ambrosiani (1995: 75) argue that the foundation date for Birka should be put back due to the discovery of combs that are identical to ones found on another site whose context was given an absolute date of c.760 AD by dendrochronology (i.e. relative dating). Also some of the earlier graves at Birka have funerary objects which, in addition to having Viking Age characteristics, are from the Late German Iron Age (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 75).

During the 10th century Birka was enclosed by a defensive landward rampart that contained several gaps which, it is conjectured, contained wooden watch towers (Roesdahl 1998: 124). In addition a defensive palisade of wooden stakes, of which only a few submerged fragmentary remains survive, was placed in front of the settlement to protect the small harbour (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 74) The remains of some of the jetties, which would have been accessed by the shallow draft trading ships, have also been uncovered (Roesdahl 1998: 124) (Fig. 5).

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Archaeological evidence indicates that the town was laid-out such that plots of land containing wooden houses and outbuildings radiated out from the shoreline in a fan-like pattern. These plots were initially demarcated by ditches but were later superseded by wooden fences. Recovered artefacts also indicate that trade and craftwork (i.e. metal working and jewellery making) were being carried out and that this was supported by Birka's surrounding hinterland which supplied it with 'produce, fuel and raw materials.' In particular the residents of Birka processed thousands of animals for the fur and pelt trade as evident by the recovery of countless paw bones from foxes, squirrels and martens (Ambrosiani 2008: 96-98). Such was Birka's predominance that it was visited by the Christian missionary Ansgar who, after returning in 852 AD, had the first church in Sweden built in the town (Roesdahl 1998: 124).

Birka's trading links, which had primarily been in the south-west, later included the east (i.e. the Baltic) where it obtained the much sought after Arabian silver. However, a hoard discovered in Birka's 'Black Earth' contained a large number of Arabian silver coins which, having been dated, indicate that the town began to decline after 970 AD. Reasons given for its demise are those of land level rises impacting on water routes coupled with the use of larger trading ships (Ambrosiani 2008: 98-99).

The largest of the Viking trading places was the town of Hedeby (Fig. 3), which was located on the shoreline of Haddeby Noor on the western side of Denmark's old southern border. Excavation of the site has revealed that Hedeby's earlier settlement, the remains of which have been found both underneath and outside the ends of the later semicircular defensive rampart, dates from the 8th century and was, like Kaupang, both open and undefended. However, in 808 AD King Godfred of Denmark sent some merchants to Hedeby which resulted in a new town being created around Hedeby's east-west flowing stream (Fig. 6).

The new town was laid-out in a grid-like pattern of building plots that emanated at near right-angles from the stream which had been constrained, canal-like, by a lining of timber planks. The 'plots' were bounded by fences and demarked by streets (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 58-60; Roesdahl 1998: 120-22). As a result of the post-Viking Age waterlogged conditions, which have preserved both wood and organic material, it was possible to recover timbers from the uncovered buildings and wells, and dendrochronological analysis has given a range of habitation dates of between 811-1020 AD (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 63).

One of the most significant discoveries at Hedeby was the unearthing of entire walls and a gable end from a single timber building (Fig. 7). Archaeological evidence is usually such that only the ground plan of a building can be discerned, but the recovery of these items permitted a full reconstruction to be undertaken. Of particular importance was the gable end which provided the pitch (i.e. angle) of the roof. Overall the timber framed building was about 12m long and 5m wide. It was divided into three areas: a living area with a hearth in the centre section; an oven, later replaced by a trough, in one gable end; and a stable or store in the other. Dating of the house timbers by dendrochronology indicate that it was built in 870 AD and then subsequently repaired in 882 AD. However, wedges used with the buttress posts were dated earlier at 848 AD (i.e. date of felling), therefore indicating that they were probably used somewhere else (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 142-48).

In the middle of the 10th century Hedeby, like Birka, was enclosed by a semicircular defensive rampart which was connected to the earlier Danevirke (a defensive earthwork built to augment Denmark's natural defences along its southern border), although it is conjectured that before its construction the population of Hedeby would have sought safety in the nearby hill fort at Hochburg (Clarke and Ambrosiani 1995: 56). A defensive palisade was also discovered in the harbour, as were shoreline jetties and a 30m long Viking warship dated to c.982 AD. Three other ships were also found lying at the bottom of the harbour, one of which was a large trading ship (Hilberg 2008: 103; Roesdahl 1998: 122).

Located on the crossroads of the major trading routes (Fig. 3) Hedeby's estimated 1,000 to 1,500 inhabitants were involved in trade and craft production (i.e. metal work and jewellery). The town also had its own regular mint, the first in Scandinavia, and to emphasis its reliance on seaborne trade one of its early 9th century silver coins depicted a ship (Haywood 1995: 42-43) (Fig. 8). The Christian missionary Ansgar also visited Hedeby where, c.850 AD, he was given royal approval to build Denmark's first church there (Roesdahl 1998: 120). Sacked in 1050 AD by Harald Hardrada, Hedeby was ultimately abandoned in 1100 AD (Haywood 1995: 42).

It has therefore been demonstrated, using archaeological evidence, that settlements were present in Scandinavia during the period of interest and that much of the activity relating to them is attributable to the Vikings. The Scandinavians were competent farmers and, at the start of the Viking Age, 'villages' had been created by the nucleation of farmsteads. However, as a result of their seafaring prowess the Vikings created an east-west trading network which led to them developing market places, and ultimately towns, at sites in Scandinavia. These shoreline Viking trading centres, whose locations were dictated by geography and the requirements of external seaborne traders, were therefore placed in areas that were vulnerable to attack, which is evident by their fortification in the 10th century.