Exploring an Early Medieval Harbour and Settlement Dynamics at Stavnsager, Denmark: A Geo-Archaeological Dialogue

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Introduction

This paper outlines an integrated approach to the investigation of the 100ha early medieval settlement and harbour at Stavnsager, east Jutland, Denmark. This comprised superimposed geophysical and geochemical surveys, followed by excavations and ground- penetrating radar (GPR) survey designed to explore specific questions about the development of the settlement, use of the harbour and changing cycles of maritime connectivity.

The settlement at Stavnsager was discovered as a result of chance finds through ploughing and metal-detecting, and through exploratory excavations by Reno Fiedel and his colleagues from the Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers, in the mid 1990s. It has been the subject of systematic research since 2005 through an integrated survey and excavation methodology, comprising a two-stage approach. Firstly, superimposed gradiometry, electro- resistivity and minor element surveys over a surface area of 20ha, linked to plotting of surface finds scatters; and secondly, targeted excavations, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys and micro-analysis of deposits. This contribution focuses on specific aspects of the methodology, namely the use of GPR and excavation in harness. The application of targeted excavation to images of human action provided by fluxgate gradiometry and minor element distributions enabled the use of GPR as a comprehensive predictive tool to characterise activity and model the nature of deposits in waterfront, residential and funerary spaces.

Stavnsager: situation and research context

Stavnsager is located in eastern Jutland, close to the medieval and modern town of Randers, and in close proximity to the Kattegat Strait--the maritime corridor linking the Baltic and North seas (Figure 1). Today, it is situated on the southern periphery of a wetland area, bisected by the watercourse known as the Oxenbaek. This watercourse runs, in turn, into the river Alling A and into the fjord system of Kolind Sund and the Grund Fjord, which opens into the Kattegat. The modern landscape is characterised by low hilly terrain, interspersed with wide shallow valleys, which formed sea inlets and key transport corridors for much of the human past (Figure 2). These sea inlets have gradually become drained through post-glacial isostatic and eustatic processes and by intensive drainage of the agricultural land during the past two centuries.

The settlement at Stavnsager and a potentially linked focus at Horning to its south-west, are situated on a plateau and slope overlooking what would have been a navigable waterway, between AD 400 and 1000. Dendro-chronological dates of AD 1106 from a raised wooden trackway crossing part of the waterway suggest that it had silted up significantly by the twelfth century (Fiedel et al. in press). A mid to late eleventh-century stave church has been excavated at Horning (see Figure 2). It was built directly on top of a levelled- out, late tenth-century barrow and chamber grave, which had in turn sealed graves from an earlier Viking Age cemetery (Krogh & Voss 1961). To the north, on the opposite side of the wetland, Stavnsager is also overlooked by another early church at Virring.

The artefact evidence viewed alone suggests two major phases of maritime connectivity for the settlement. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, dress accessories and weaponry indicate networks of contact around the western Baltic Sea, the North and Irish seas and the English Channel. These include brooches from Sweden, an Anglo-Saxon sword pommel, a Frisian Domburg-type brooch, part of a Frankish radiate-headed brooch, and brooch fragments from Wales and Ireland (Hoilund Nielsen 2009). These artefacts were discarded alongside votive objects, including a gold-foil plaque (Guldgubbe) suggesting the presence of a pagan cult focus; together with weaponry and riding gear reflecting a secular elite, and hack gold and metalworking evidence from artisan and exchange activity (Fiedel et al. …