"... Ships Are Their Main Strength." Harbour Sites, Arable Lands and Chieftains on Saaremaa/". Nende Suurim Joud on Laevad." Sadamad, Pollud Ja Pealikud Saaremaal

By Magi, Marika | Estonian Journal of Archaeology, December 2004 | Go to article overview

"... Ships Are Their Main Strength." Harbour Sites, Arable Lands and Chieftains on Saaremaa/". Nende Suurim Joud on Laevad." Sadamad, Pollud Ja Pealikud Saaremaal


Magi, Marika, Estonian Journal of Archaeology


It would be difficult to find another prehistoric Estonian district bound so strongly to the sea as Saaremaa. The role of maritime activities in its subsistence system was primarily defined by the insular location of the district, more precisely its spread across several islands. (1) Various imported items among the otherwise local archaeological material give evidence of overseas communication, and even the settlement pattern is clearly oriented towards the coastline. Early medieval written sources emphasize without exception the power of the Osilian navy and the secure situation of the Osilians, especially in summer time when it was impossible to reach the island without using sea vessels.

"The Osilians are wicked Pagans, they are the neighbours of the Curonians. Their land is surrounded by sea, They are never afraid of large armies; In summer time, we know that They plunder surrounding lands, Which can be reached by sea... ... Ships are their main strength."

(Older Rhyme Chronicle, 357-367) (2)

Nevertheless, the maritime activity of the Osilians was certainly not confined to plundering. Fishery and seal hunting, as well as barter and control over international trade might have actually played much more important roles in the local economy.

This article is an overview of what has been done in the research of Osilian maritime landscapes in the last decade. In this, the main attention was paid to the last prehistoric centuries and to the (local) early Middle Ages, that is, to the period 900-1400. It covers both the Viking Age and the 12th century, the era of prosperity for Saaremaa, as well as the obscure and controversial 13th and 14th centuries when Saaremaa still kept a great part of its one-time supremacy.

The study of Osilian maritime landscapes started as early as in the middle of the 1990s, when a number of prehistoric harbour sites were detected as a result of theoretical constructions and several surface survey trips. The financing of the "Coastal Settlements on Prehistoric and Medieval Saaremaa" (Estonian Science Foundation Grant No 5432), started in 2003, made it possible to intensify the research. This article is among the first publications scheduled in the framework of the project.

1. Research material

1.1. Agrarian and maritime landscapes

In areas closely connected to the sea, the terrestrial/agricultural and maritime (cultural) landscapes should be considered in their mutual relation and interaction. On the island(s) of Saaremaa, due to its geographical position, one cannot overestimate the significance of the sea in the archaeological interpretation of a cultural landscape. The soil of these islands is usually thin and infertile, and cattle breeding has been believed to be relevant for the local subsistence industries. Maritime activities--fishing, seal hunting, barter--have always been of great importance on the islands.

There is however no doubt that settlement units on prehistoric and medieval Saaremaa were first of all agrarian. A settlement unit consisted of dwellings and other buildings, arable lands, meadows, pastures, forests and other components used by its inhabitants. The settlement unit was normally an independent economic unit and thereby distinguishable from other similar ones within the same area. The traces of former settlement units preserved up to the present comprise primarily archaeological sites such as e.g. hill-forts, dwelling sites, cemeteries, cult places, and fossil fields. The landscape maintaining these traces, i.e. physical terrain influenced by human activity, can be designated as the cultural landscape.

Whether the primary settlement units on Saaremaa were predominantly villages or single farmsteads is not known. No archaeological excavations have been carried out at these sites, and the former settlement units were, therefore, traced back with the help of other types of archaeological sites, mainly stone graves, hill-forts and ancient field patterns. …

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"... Ships Are Their Main Strength." Harbour Sites, Arable Lands and Chieftains on Saaremaa/". Nende Suurim Joud on Laevad." Sadamad, Pollud Ja Pealikud Saaremaal
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