Networks and Nodal Points: The Emergence of Towns in Early Viking Age Scandinavia

Article excerpt


Urban life was once considered alien to Scandinavia in the Viking Age. But in recent years the list of sites associated with trade and urbanism has grown lengthy. Embryonic towns are now claimed in some regions to have outnumbered the municipal towns of the late medieval period. Yet some of the sites discussed were hardly comparable to towns. This paper will examine a number of recent excavations in order to define the anatomy of trading-places in early Viking Age Scandinavia. By attempting a direct, comparative analysis that has only recently become possible with the publication of detailed information from a number of important sites, it will point to the fine distinction between the few nodal points and the many local markets. This distinction may be understood, it will be argued, in a network perspective, as motivated by the traffic and exchange between sites. The implications are that paths towards urbanism wind on many trails, that trade is not a byword for politics, and that long-distance routes are sometimes more important than hinterlands.

Early urbanism: a network perspective

The early Viking Age (eighth-ninth century AD) offers a classic focus for discussions of early towns and trade. Early synthesis pictured a very limited number of trading-towns positioned along a single great trunk route (e.g. Jankuhn 1956). This reflected a traditional diffusionist outlook, seeking the impetus for urbanism from the outside. More recent reconstructions have envisaged a dense scatter of sites, suggesting that each would have acted as 'central place' to a region (e.g. Carlsson 1991; Callmer 1994; Ulriksen 1998; Nasman 2000). The implied view is that urban milieux evolved by means of a local process of urbanisation. Both these ideas strongly reduce the spatial aspect of interaction, in terms of linear outreach or ease of access respectively. Both imply trading-sites to be a type of 'town', a generalised concept laden with many assumptions.

A more promising model is offered by a third concept, which has recently attracted interest from many sides in the humanities and social sciences: that of network. Since the late 1990s network-science has discovered a range of distinctive structures in complex networks, most famously the 'scale-free networks' in which a few nodes are far more connected than the average (Barabasi & Albert 1999). The discoveries have made a deserved impact in a broad range of studies. In social theory, an original translation of the network concept was recently presented in Bruno Latour's 'Actor-Network Theory' (2005: 175ff). Unlike most social theorists, Latour does not reduce the connecting points or 'actors' in a network to a single first principle, like social power or economic constraints. 'Actor-Networks' are mixed assemblages of heterogeneous materials, like pots, people, kingdoms, ships or seascapes. The character of the network cannot be reduced to any one of its properties.

A different but related usage of the concept of networks, of particular relevance to the present discussion, is proposed by Paul M. Hohenberg and Lynn Lees (1996: 55ff). They suggest that early urbanism arose from conflicting locational principles, and suggest a distinction between 'network towns' connected to long-distance connections, and the more familiar concept of 'central places' concerned with local relations. Though Hohenberg and Lees single out only two types of connection, which could both be described as networks in Latour's sense, they concur in acknowledging heterogeneous formative principles and a complex topological structure.

The conceptualisation of spatial, social or economic relations as a network, continuously being formed by a heterogeneous assemblage of actors, offers a more organic approach to prehistoric trade and its locations than the previous perspectives that assigned agency in advance to external force or internal social process. …