Danish Sites and Settlements with a Maritime Context, AD 200-1200

Article excerpt

Denmark's long coast-line, with its fjords, sounds, minor waterways, and small islands, provides every need and opportunity for a marine aspect to society. The maritime settlements of the early centuries AD, a special case within the north European pattern of sea-trading, are being studied by a new Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Roskilde, whose projects include a study of the Shore of Roskilde Fjord.


The Danish settlements of this period, with a maritime context and a special function which links sea-faring with agrarian settlements in the hinterland, may offer insight into the development of Danish society from the Iron Age to the early Middle Ages -- a period when maritime factors grew in political and economic significance.

Awareness of relations between coastal and inland settlements in the late Iron Age and Viking Age -- not a new phenomenon in Danish archaeology -- has become the recent focus of close attention, particularly with regard to the Viking Age. As new coastal sites have been found and partially investigated, the picture is of pronounced variations in site size and structure, and in the quality and quantity of the objects found. The common denominator is the unusual topographical siting for a settlement from this period -- on the shore.

The role of sea-faring

During the centuries from AD 200 to 1200, as Denmark developed from a tribal society into a Christian kingdom, sea-faring was important. The topography of Denmark had naturally made the use of boats necessary throughout prehistory. The Nydam boat, excavated in 1863 (Engelhardt 1866) and recently dendro-chronologically dated to AD 310-320 (Bonde & Christensen 1993), is clearly a forerunner of the Nordic ship-type known from the ship-burials at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway, at Ladby in Denmark, and not least from the Skuldelev barrage in Roskilde Fjord. The significant change between the 4th and 9th centuries is the introduction of the mast and sail (Crumlin-Pedersen 1991a). Written and archaeological evidence of the many and often remote destinations visited by Scandinavians, and the tributes to the dragon ships included in skaldic poetry, show the central role of ships and sea-faring.

The establishment of the Kanhave canal across Samso around AD 726 and the construction of the circular fortress of Aggersborg on the Limfjord at the end of the 10th century AD bear witness to a large-scale and well-organized effort, over a long period, to secure military control over sea-routes in inner Danish waters. The majority of important trading-places and early towns in Denmark were on the sea or on navigable rivers, an expression of the dependence of trade on the sea.

Natural elements in the infrastructure of seafaring were the coastal sites, which one can call landing-places. This functionally neutral name can cover sites with functions as regional or local markets, leidang harbours (leidang -- the naval force gathered among the free men by order of the king, and under his command. It is first mentioned in 1085 in connection with King Knud the Holy), fishing hamlets, sheltered moorings, docks or slipways for winter lying-up of local boats. Their functions could either directly arise from sea-faring or follow political circumstances, among which control of trade and collection of taxes would be economically important.

The landing-places investigated span the period from the 3rd to the 12th century AD. Older coastal sites known from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and early Iron Age were exclusively concerned with hunting and fishing; sea-faring was not decisive in their use. After the 12th century AD, local harbours were used for fishing and ferry-traffic, in addition to the large coastal market-sites. Both noblemen and farmers in the Middle Ages and later initiated large-scale sea-transport of agricultural produce, by-passing the monopolies of the market-towns. Throughout the Middle Ages the towns gradually took more comprehensive prescriptive rights over trade, and the conflict between the legal harbours and the private 'pirate-harbours' changed the conditions for harbour-sites. …