Viking Harbors and Trading Sites

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Our understanding of the harbors and centers of trade dating to the Viking Age is limited, as is information concerning the level and scope of trade and its organization. The difficulty of acquiring and assessing such information stems from the fact that most trading points are known only from scant written records—none of which are from the Viking homelands themselves. A map of the known Viking harbors and towns in the Baltic area shows very few places, sparsely situated. The best examples of early trading centers in the Baltic Sea are Birka (Sweden), Hedeby or Haithabu (Germany), Grobin (Latvia), Wolin (Poland), and Novgorod (Russia). These centers, known from written documents or discovered by chance, give a much too simple picture of the true state of affairs.

Indeed, along the Baltic coast there must have been a vast number and variety of harbors and trading sites of all sizes, from small fishing camps to permanently occupied cities. Surprisingly, there are no confirmed harbors and trading centers, for example, along the eastern coast of Sweden, despite the fact that this region is one of the largest, oldest, and most important cultivated areas in all of Sweden. This situation is more or less mirrored along the eastern Baltic shore as well as along the Norwegian coast. The challenge, then, is to identify the spots not mentioned in written sources, with archaeological fieldwork as our best guide.

The island of Gotland provides good examples of previously unknown harbors. Situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea, it was a true center in the Viking world. Nowhere have so many Viking silver hoards been found as on this tiny island. In all, more

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then seven hundred separate caches of silver and gold give clear evidence of the island's widespread trade connections. Despite the even distribution of this treasure (mostly Arabic coins) over the island, only one known harbor on Gotland dated to the Viking Age—Paviken, on the west coast. It is unlikely that all the hoards could have been distributed over the island from just one harbor. There must have been many more.

Excavation of this site took place at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. Starting in the last decade of the twentieth century an extensive project was carried out on Gotland, with the aim of analyzing and describing the numbers of harbors and trading sites and their structure, development, and spatial organization during the period of approximately a.d. 600–1000. The research was conducted using a combination of methods, both notes and maps in museum archives and field studies. Three main criteria have been used as evidence to locate possible harbors: prehistoric graves or grave fields close to the coast, a shore protected from strong winds, and a situation in the cultural landscape diverging from the normal—for instance, a point where cadastral maps show that several roads converged.

The next step in the project involved phosphate mapping of suspected locations. This mapping identified about sixty places along the Gotlandic coast that showed signs of major or minor activities during the Viking Age. Evaluation of these finds indicated many places that can be interpreted as larger harbors or trading sites, distinguishable from the others in their rich and varied number of artifacts. Boge, Bandlunde, Fröjel, Paviken-Västergarn, and Visby belong to this category. Other, smaller places seem to be fishing harbors for the farmers on the island.

The most extensive investigations of one of these previously unknown Viking trading and manufacturing sites were conducted between 1998 and 2002 at Fröjel, along the west coast of Gotland. At this spot there is an area of 60,000 square meters with many traces of buildings and several grave fields. The archaeological excavations have revealed a harbor and trading center that was active from the late sixth century to approximately a.d. 1180. The harbor's activities peaked during the eleventh century and into the beginning of the twelfth century.

Here is ample documentation of intensive trade and manufacturing—a harbor with connections both west and east. Coins from Arabia, England, Germany, and Denmark, and jewelry from places as far-flung as the North Atlantic (walrus ivory), the Black Sea (rock crystal), and the area of Kiev in modern-day Ukraine (a resurrection egg) give evidence of distant trade.

The example of Gotland shows clearly that the system of harbors and trading centers in the Viking Age was far more complicated and intricate than one is led to believe from written sources. Jens Ulriksen did the same type of investigation in Denmark in 1997, with more or less the same conclusions. The picture derived solely from written sources is thus far from complete. To understand fully trade and travel patterns in the Viking Age, one must combine the written sources with extensive archaeological fieldwork.

See alsoTrade and Exchange (vol. 2, part 7); Viking Ships (vol. 2, part 7).


Carlsson, Dan. "Ridanäs"—Vikingahamnen i Fröjel ["Ridanäs—the Viking Age harbor in Fröjel]. Visby, Sweden: ArkeoDok, 1999.

Clark, Helen, and Björn Ambrosiani. Towns in the VikingAge. Rev. ed. Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1995.

"Fröjel Discovery Programme." Gotland University College.

Graham-Campbell, James, Colleen Batey, Helen Clarke, R. I. Page, and Neil S. Price. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Hodges, Richard. Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade AD 600–1000. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.

Ulriksen, Jens. Anlobspladser: Besejling og bebyggelse i Danmark mellem 200 og 1100 e.Kr. [Seafaring, landing sites, and settlements in Denmark from a.d. 200 to 1100]. Roskilde, Denmark: Vikingeskibshallen i Roskilde, 1997.

Dan Carlsson