Reconstructed Viking Age trading site at Ribe, in the Vikings Museum in Ribe, south-western Denmark. Photograph by Ben Allport.
Towns before the Vikings
Before the Viking Age began in the late eighth century, towns didn’t really exist in Scandinavia the way that we think of them today. Rather, activities like trading and crafting were carried out in the environs of royal halls. It is not difficult to see how this situation arose. Scandinavian leaders and their households required a great deal of resources to support their elite lifestyle. Activities such as war, gift-giving and sailing required materials such as metal, precious stones and wood, and were only made possible by craftsmen who fashioned these materials into weapons, jewellery and ships. Naturally, then, royal halls were hotbeds of activity. People flocked to such sites to set up temporary plots and make a profit by trading raw materials and other objects. Others stayed for a time to craft items for sale, whether simple objects of bone, hide, wood and iron that would be sold to less affluent buyers, or exquisite gold and silver items intended for the most elite customers. With so much trade and craft going on, these hall-sites developed into whole complexes which regularly featured market sites, cemeteries, and harbours. People who worked and traded there would have been under the influence of the local ruler. Nowadays these sites are referred to as central-place complexes.
Gudme on the Danish island of Fyn is an ideal example of such a complex. Judging from archaeological excavations, Gudme used to be a site of great wealth and power between the fourth and seventh centuries. At its heart was a huge timber structure some fifty metres long—a site unprecedented before the Viking Age—
Early Viking Age Trading Sites
which was presumably the local lord’s hall. Metalworking remains were discovered around this hall, including crucibles with remains of molten gold and silver. This suggests that the ruler who lived there employed the service of smiths in the town. A short distance away on the coast excavations have uncovered a harbour, Lundeborg. Finds of rivets suggest that ships were constructed and repaired here, and it is likely that the resources worked and traded in Gudme came from Lundeborg. Gudme is a great example of a central-place complex, but it is by no means unique in Scandinavia. Other places such as Helgö, Uppåkra and Tissø provide much evidence of trade and craft sponsored by local rulers.
The Terslev Dirham Hoard at the National Museum, Copenhagen. Photograph by Ben Allport.
What did people make?
By the beginning of the Viking Age, this situation changed to accommodate shifting economic and political circumstances. In the early 800s, extensive craft and trading at central-place complexes like Gudme was significantly reduced. Crafting and mercantile activity had moved to sites which are more recognisable to us as towns. These towns sprung up at the same time across the North Sea area from England to the Baltic. The most important sites of this kind in Viking Age Scandinavia were Hedeby and Ribe in Denmark, Birka in Sweden and Kaupang in Norway. These towns were permanent sites of trade and craft that were not tied directly to royal estates. Unlike the old central-place complexes which were the power bases of the elite, these settlements were located between power-centres—not at them. This meant that, at least in principle, artisans and traders stationed there had greater economic freedom. They could set their own prices, buy what they liked, and manufacture their own items for sale. The introduction of towns coincided with a boom in the production and trade of affordable items for general consumption, such as metal brooches. These were mass-produced by craftsmen for sale in the open market. Silver also emerged organically as a general-purpose currency at these towns. This came both in the form of silver coins (known as dirhams) which entered Scandinavia from the Middle East, and in the form of cut-up silver objects (known as hack-silver).
Towns and kings
It is doubtful that these towns were completely free from the influence of Scandinavian rulers. Unlike central-place complexes, sites like Ribe in Denmark were laid out in regular plots and streets for traders and artisans. This suggests that they were pre-planned—presumably by a local figure of some influence. Later, towns such as Hedeby and Birka received defensive structures like palisades, and this also implies that Scandinavian rulers were involved in the planning and running of towns. The Life of Anskar, a text written by a monk called Rimbert around the middle of the 800s, suggests that Swedish kings had a governor who resided in the town of Birka to oversee the general running of things. According to a German chronicler called Einhard, Hedeby was established personally by the Danish king Godfred at the turn of the eighth century. Still, archaeological evidence suggests that traders and craftsmen were generally free to pursue their own trades.
The buzz of crafting and trading in towns such as Birka and Hedeby had come to an end towards the end of the Viking Age. Kaupang in Norway was abandoned by the middle of the tenth century, and Birka a little later. Hedeby lasted until the middle of the eleventh century, but eventually followed suit. Only the Danish town of Ribe survived as a significant settlement, and is now considered Denmark’s oldest town. The other sites gave way to new towns with which we are familiar today—towns such as Oslo and Trondheim in Norway, Århus in Denmark, and Lund in Sweden. The emergence of these new towns coincides with the increasing political centralisation of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Kings needed ‘urban’ sites to govern from, and bishops needed seats from which to spread the new faith. The minting of coins at these new towns suggests that they were strongly associated with royal authority. Traders and craftsmen were naturally attracted to these new towns, as they had been to the central-place complexes some centuries before. Although life would have not drastically changed for those who worked in the new towns, these sites represent an important historical shift. They tell us that the the era of petty kings and local rulers so characteristic of the Viking Age was coming to an end, and that Scandinavia was entering a new phase in its government and religion that was more similar in line with its European neighbours to the south.