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Copyright C 2000

Acta Archaeologica vol. 71, 2000, pp. 17

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ISSN 0065-001X


the Danish Case

The Vikings raided, conquered, and settled. The Viking achievement has always fascinated historians and
archaeologists. A lot of studies are devoted to the Vikings, in fact too much is written about them as the
late Carl-Axel Moberg emphasised (Moberg 1981).
Nevertheless, the progress in our understanding of
some of the aspects of the period is slow, and indeed
one could ask whether we really understand the background to the Viking activities in the West? I suppose
that most of us must admit that we have very vague
ideas about what triggered the activities of the socalled Vikings, in fact a collective concept of dubious
Else Roesdahl and David Wilson wrote in the Viking catalogue of 1992 that the Vikings shook Europe, but the reasons for their spectacular expansion
will probably never be satisfactorily explained (Roesdahl & Wilson 1992:27). Of course we can all agree
with them that we do not have an encompassing explanation today, but there is a resignation in this attitude that we as scholars should not accept.
Indeed, Roesdahl and Wilson nevertheless continue to give overviews of possible reasons for the Viking activities and present the traditional list of possibilities (cf. Roesdahl 1991:187ff.). First they explain
that early trade contacts had opened the eyes of the
Scandinavians who now realised that a large part of
the world lay undefended, presenting opportunities
for power and glory, gold, adventure, new lands
(Roesdahl & Wilson 1992:27). As in most books about

the Vikings, plunder and profit are first discussed, followed by the wish of the Vikings to take power over
whole regions, and at last to settle there. The authors
state that the Vikings also went abroad as merchants
in order to get a profit from international trade. Or,
that they had to go abroad because they were threatened by famine at home. Or, poverty or lack of land
was the force behind. Or, they had run into political
problems that forced them to go into exile.
All these reasons may have been at play, sometime
and somewhere during the three centuries of the Viking Age in the vast Scandinavian lands. But simply
to repeat a long list of possible explanations does not
help us any further. We have to qualify our debate
considerably. We have to distinguish between the Viking activities of different periods, and we have to
consider the significant regional variation both in the
character of and the reasons behind the so-called Viking expansion. To mix events of the ninth century
with those of the tenth or eleventh can only blur the
picture. To treat the activities of the Norwegian Vikings in the North Atlantic in the same breath as the
Danish actions along the North Sea littoral or the
Swedish operations in the Baltic-Bothnian area can
only be misleading. Indeed, what is needed is a study
of Viking activities abroad subdivided into separate
geographical zones, each with its own chronological
subdivision: the Russian river system, the north Baltic-Bothnian region, the south Baltic area, the North
Sea region, the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea, the
Channel, etc. Several important contributions have

Acta Archaeologica

already been made to the regionalisation of Viking

studies, e.g. the one by Hrdh on economic regionality
(1996). But still discussion is hampered by too slow a
reception of the new archaeological knowledge about
Scandinavia itself, especially concerning the pre-Viking centuries. And it is here we have to look for the
basic explanations, not on the scene abroad after the
Vikings had already made their entry. In spite of the
spectacular events of the Vikings abroad, we must not
neglect the domestic development in the Danish,
Norwegian, and Swedish realm, respectively, and
never forget the regional variation within them.
Being a prehistorian and an archaeologist I suspect
that one of the reasons that there has not been presented new, coherent and convincing explanations of
the main problems in understanding the Viking expansion in the West for years, is, that the mainstream
of Viking research is dominated by medieval historians and by archaeologists specialised in the Viking
Age, and that the contribution of prehistoric archaeology has been relatively limited (but see Randsborg
What we need are long-term studies to get the Viking Age into proper perspective. Long-term means
in my opinion the centuries from the Late Roman
period till the end of the High Middle Ages, i.e. the
millennium from c. 200 to c. 1200 A.D. It was a fine
idea by Else Roesdahl and her colleagues to include
the post-Viking centuries until 1200 in the last large
Viking exhibition (Roesdahl & Wilson 1992), but in
retrospect I must say that I find it a correspondingly
bad idea that the centuries preceding the Viking Age
were not.
Only fifteen years ago the social and political societies of pre-Viking and early Viking Scandinavia
could by British authorities be described as poorly
organised under a series of petty chieftains or dim
kings (Wilson 1981), and a famous Scandinavian history professor looked upon the Danish kings of the
Viking Age as sea-men and pirates (Lnnroth 1963/
1977). The Viking Age was considered to be the era
in which Scandinavian societies still consisted of pagan unorganised raiders, who only eventually
through the events of the Viking Age became three
national states professing the Christian faith.
Today, archaeological long-term study of Scandinavian societies in the first millennium A.D. has laid

new ground on which scholars have to build their

image of the Viking Age. The foundation on which
earlier scholars based their view on the Viking
achievement is today completely out-dated by new
data, observations, and results. A revision of Viking
handbooks is much needed.
Since I believe that too many scholars working with
the Viking Age have an out-dated and insufficient
knowledge about the period up till the Viking Age, I
will try to give a short survey of recent results. And
since I have to live up to my own message that we
have to take regional variation into consideration, I
will only touch upon the Danish area.
An important reason why the centuries preceding
the Viking Age have been neglected by Danish archaeologists and consequently by historians as well
has been the lack of good sources in the Migration
and Merovingian periods (Nsman 1991a). This has
been interpreted as the result of a social crisis of considerable importance followed by population decline
and settlement abandonment (discussion summarised
in Nsman 1988). The sixth-eighth centuries have
certainly seemed to form an historical hiatus. But for
instance recent pollen-analytical studies of the cultural landscape do not support this view (Berglund
1991). Also archaeological research the last twenty
years has improved the source situation (Nsman
1991b); especially the progress of settlement archaeology has enabled Danish, German, and Swedish archaeologists to paint a new picture of the formation
of the pre-Viking and Viking Danish kingdom.

A short synthesis of the large efforts put into research
about the cultural landscape in South Scandinavia
has to include the observations that nucleated settlements appeared already in the Roman Iron Age, that
manors, that is magnate estates, certainly existed long
before the Viking Age, and that the extension of the
arable land increased, especially from the eighth century onwards (Berglund 1991; Hvass 1988; 1993; Fabech & Ringtved 1995; L. Jrgensen 1995). It is also
important to note that the expansion of the rural
settlement both in the coastal zone and in the inland
continued after the Viking Age. A pattern visible in
new pollen diagrams from central rural areas (not

Raids, Migrations, and Kingdoms the Danish Case

from the peripheral wooded areas where most of the
old diagrams were taken) reveals that a rural expansion started already in the Merovingian period and
continued through the Viking Age to end in the wellknown setback of the High Middle Ages. This is a
clear indication that lack of land cannot be a main
cause of the Danish Viking activity abroad. When the
first Danes started to settle in the West, there was
still room left for a considerable population growth in
Agriculture in South Scandinavia developed by
small steps throughout the whole first millennium.
But on the base of changes in the well-studied settlement pattern of Jutland, archaeologists can point to
two periods of transition, the century around 200 and
around 700 A.D. both representing expansions; the
decline during the Migration period seems to have
been of marginal significance. The changes around
200 led to larger farms, each with a large fenced-off
yard with more buildings, including a long dwellingcum-byre house. The change around 700 entailed
much larger farmyards still, more buildings, and a
new house construction, all set in the well-planned
setting of seemingly regulated hamlets and villages. At
present it thus seems certain that the elite of Denmark
could base its social and military power on a growing
surplus. Consequently, it seems improbable that famine was a cause of Danish Viking action.
The study of building and inter-site organisation
demonstrates long continuity and a conservative
tradition reaching back into the Bronze Age (Hvass
1988; 1993). The Viking Age can be characterised
as a period of change, corresponding to increasing
expansion of arable land and an increasingly dense
settlement pattern, however the main change took
place already at the beginning of the eighth century. It should also be emphasised that the typochronology of dwelling-houses in Denmark by and
large follows the development in the continental
north-west plain area down to the Rhine
(Waterbolk 1991; Zimmermann 1991), and that for
example the village Vorbasse in Jutland is quite
similar to Kootwijk just north of the Rhine (Heidinga 1987). The implication is that Danish farms
looked very much like the farms of the northern
Carolingian empire. Thus, the evidence of farm
buildings cannot support any idea that the Danes

were more barbaric than Franks or Frisians, nor

that their agriculture was much less productive.
In fact, many settlement archaeologists today dare
to say that the historical pattern of church villages,
hamlets, and single farms has its roots as far back as
in the Migration or the Late Roman period (Callmer
1992; Fabech & Ringtved 1995; L. Jrgensen 1995).
In general continuity in the settlement pattern is more
probable than discontinuity, and the changes of the
Viking Age merely represent a speeding-up of a development well under way. The main contribution of
Danish settlement archaeology to our problem is its
emphasis on the ability of the Danish countryside to
produce provisions and men to feed the Viking expansion. But the availability of resources is not an
explanation why it happened.


The Vikings trade with the west was nothing new but
a phenomenon with deep roots, as demonstrated by
several studies. In the Migration period new links
were established between Scandinavia and AngloSaxon England, a phenomenon perhaps most convincingly illustrated by a map produced by the late
Hayo Vierck (1970 Fig. 52; 1983). His and other
studies of imports found in Scandinavia demonstrate
that links between South Scandinavia and the Continent, as well as England, were established already in
the Migration period (cf. Hines 1984) and that they
were increasing in the Merovingian period (cf. rsnes
1966; Nsman 1986). The Viking Age did not create
new contacts, but traditional sailing routes became
more frequently used, and the character of the contacts changed. As is well-known, some were quite violent.
Complex settlement centres appeared in Scandinavia already in the Late Roman Iron Age, as evinced
by Gudme, Funen, including the beach market at
Lundeborg (Nielsen et al. 1994). Gudme and Lundeborg lost importance in the seventh-eighth centuries,
but new sites took their place. The number of centralplaces grew rapidly and by the year 700 we know of
at least one in virtually every settlement area of South
Scandinavia (Callmer 1994; Ulriksen 1994), revealing
that society was more hierarchical and more organised than believed only a few years ago.

Acta Archaeologica

These central-places were not simple trading stations, many of them certainly fulfilled important political, social, and religious functions (Nsman 1991c;
Fabech & Ringtved 1995). Most seem to have served
as manorial residences and consequently as administrative centres. Thus, an increasing complexity in the
settlement pattern accompanies the growing number
of rural settlements and the increasing agrarian production. In fact, this demonstrates that the elite of
the centres based their power on the mobilisation of
agricultural produce; at the same time one has to say
that rural surplus was created by the demands of the
The growth in the number of new central-places
seems to slow down in the Viking Age, however.
What happened in this period is rather a restructuring
of central places and trading. Some old sites were replaced by new ones, and proper urbanisation began,
during which process the old central-places gradually
lost their position and were superseded by towns like
Hedeby, Ribe, rhus, and so on.
The first proto-town was founded already around
700 A.D. at Ribe in South Jutland (Bencard et al.
199091; Jensen 1992; Feveile 1994; cf. Feveile &
Jensen in this volume). It was a planned site with plots
for craftsmen and merchants along a street parallel to
the river. A cemetery reveals that the population has
not been small. A boundary ditch is dug around the
site in the ninth century, and in the 850s the missionary Ansgar got permission by King Horik to build a
church. The town was fortified by moat and wall in
the eleventh century. Hedeby and Ribe are the first
urbanised settlements in Denmark, and excavations
show that they started a little later than the famous
emporia of the Franks, Frisians, and English, but also
that their lay-out, buildings etc. are fairly similar
(Hodges 1982). Thus, the foundation of Ribe and
Hedeby represents more or less the same phase of
urbanisation as Quentovic, Dorestad, Hamwic, and
Ipswic. Indeed, this links South Jutland closely to a
West European development. Notably both Ribe and
Hedeby had functioned almost a hundred years when
the Viking raids started.
Today we must conclude that at the threshold to
the Viking Age, Scandinavian societies had a much
more advanced economic system and a social organisation much more complex than generally believed

fifteen years ago (but see Randsborg 1980). The

consequences of this for our understanding of the Viking activities abroad have not yet been fully spelled

Sacrifices of spoils demonstrate frequent warfare in
South Scandinavia from the first to the fifth century
A.D. (Carnap-Bornheim & Ilkjr 1996; Fabech
1996). Recent analyses of the military equipment of
the sacrifices demonstrate that the warriors involved
were not an unorganised wild bunch, but probably
trained soldiers with a command structure and considerable knowledge of the tactics of contemporary
continental warfare. The raids of the Danish King
Hugleik and other Scandinavians against the Merovingian realm in the sixth century (Wood 1983) reveal
that the military expeditions were not restricted to
Nordic waters.
The erection of the first Danevirke in the seventh
century and the reinforcements of the dyke in 737
A.D. (Andersen 1998), as well as the building in 726
A.D. of a canal across the island of Sams at the
northern approaches to the Danish Belts (A.N.
Jrgensen 1995) demonstrate the presence of external
military threats to Denmark, as well as the existence
of a competent military organisation, including both
navy and army to meet the threats. Indeed, the mentioning of Danish fleets and armies in the Frankish
annals around 800 A.D. should not be taken as evidence of the very emergence of Danish activity in the
military theatre of the South Baltic and the North

The conversion to Christianity is often considered a
major turning point in Scandinavian history, and in
a way it was, of course, but the importance of the
Christianisation is heavily overestimated in Scandinavian history. Almost everything observable in the
High Middle Ages of Denmark has been explained
by the Christianisation. Modern archaeology, however, has been able to demonstrate that many if not
most of these phenomena started to develop before
the official conversion of Denmark. The conversion

Raids, Migrations, and Kingdoms the Danish Case

was simply a late step and not the last in a process
of West-Europeanisation that had begun long before.
A result of this is that the paganism of Scandinavia
must not mislead us to believe that the Scandinavians
were de facto barbarians.
Charlotte Fabech has demonstrated that a great
change in cult practice took place around 500 A.D.
when the use of bogs and lakes for offerings stopped
(Fabech 1994). Instead, religious objects were
hoarded in settlement contexts, sometimes in the
postholes of the hall of a magnate, e.g., at Gudme
(Petersen 1994). This indicates a change of religious
practice in which the elite now controlled the cult. As
it were, the elite made a personal institution out of an
earlier collective religious practice. This leads, perhaps, to a new understanding of the concept sacral
lordship in Merovingian and Viking Scandinavia. A
close link between cult and elite was created that continued unbroken after the Christianisation in that the
churches were built by the magnates, and on their
land, i.e. probably at exactly the same spot where the
pagan cult had taken place until then (Riddersporre
1989; Brink 1992). In this sense we certainly have a
cult site continuity from the pagan period into the
Christian era. The great break in cult practice took
place in the Migration period and is associated with
other social and political changes, from the archaeological perspective, in fact more radical than those
at the conversion in the tenth century.
The archaeological record demonstrates close
contacts between the South Scandinavian polities
and several of the so-called successor kingdoms, i.e.
the Germanic kingdoms which in the course of the
Great Migration took control over former Roman territory. These were all more or less Romanised and Christian, so the contacts must have
mediated the ideas, thoughts, and ideals of the
Central European Germanic realms to Scandinavia.
On the basis of the new archaeological picture of
the relation between Scandinavia and Central Europe in the pre-Viking centuries, the significance of
a late antique legacy in the formation of the Nordic
pagan religion, as it is recorded in much later
sources, deserves a new investigation. This may actually explain why the Vikings settled in the West
so quickly adapted to local customs as well as
Christianity (Sawyer 1982: 98ff; 137ff.).

Recent studies of the material culture of South Scandinavia show decreasing regional differentiation and
increasing social integration during the middle and
second part of the first millennium A.D. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many other Danish archaeologists, this shows that a Danish kingdom probably
appeared not later than at the end of the Migration
period, in the sixth century (Hedeager 1992; Nsman
1991a; 1997). At first one can surmise a process of
amalgamation of several tribal units into a confederation under Danish hegemony, later developing into a
more coherent kingdom. This had its core in Central
Denmark, South Jutland-Funen-Zealand; its hegemony covered a close periphery in North JutlandSouth Halland-Scania-Blekinge-Bornholm, and a
more distant periphery in South Sweden; perhaps,
also some parts of South Norway came under Danish
influence already during the Merovingian period
(Myhre 1992).
The early Danish kingdom had, I imagine, at least
a couple of centuries behind it when it appears in the
written sources at the end of the eighth century. On
the basis of archaeology, we have no reason at all to
believe that the Danish elite and the kings were not
very well-informed about what happened in Europe,
and that they could cope with the problems that appeared. The earliest written evidence of some extent,
the Frankish annals, supports such a view if read with
the new archaeological record as the background.
The first written source in which Danish involvement in European politics is clearly observable dates
to 777 when it is reported that the rebellious Saxon
chieftain Widukind instead of appearing at a meeting
called at Paderborn by Charlemagne took refuge in
the land of King Sigfred, king of the Northmen, i.e.,
the Danes. In 782 Sigfred sent representatives to a
meeting with Charlemagne at Lippe. After another
defeated revolt, Widukind once more fled to Northmannia, that is Denmark. In 798 we hear of a legate
that Charlemagne sent to the Danish King Sigfred.
In 804 we have the first mentioning of an encounter between Charlemagne and King Godfred; it is explicitly said that Godfred arrived with both fleet and
equitatus, i.e., the cavalry, or simply his army. Godfred
went to the borderland at Sliesthorp, probably at
Hedeby, and sent representatives to Charlemagne

Acta Archaeologica

who had his camp at Hollingsted near Hamburg.

Then follows in 808 the famous episode when King
Godfred conquered Reric, moved the merchants to
Hedeby, and rebuilt Danevirke.
Negotiations between representatives of Charlemagne and Godfred in 809 ended without result.
Godfred was not satisfied with the situation and the
following year sent the Danish fleet to harry Frisia
and make the Frisians pay tribute. After Godfreds
death a peace agreement between Charlemagne and
King Hemming was arrived at in 811. And so on ...
This short review of the early written sources must
suffice to demonstrate that the Danish kingdom already when it first appears in the written record was
an important political and military actor on the European scene. Add the new archaeological light thrown
upon the Danes and their kingdom and there is certainly no reason to uphold the historians traditional
dark picture of the Danes as a barbaric hoard of
It is against this backdrop that we have to study the
evidence of the early European activities of Vikings
coming from Denmark. We have to acknowledge that

the first many Danish expeditions seem to have been

formed on royal initiative. They are, I suggest, best
understood as elements of a national policy of the
Danish kings against Franks and Saxons led by Charlemagne and his successors. Eventually things developed and changed, and went for a large part out
of royal control, but that is another story. Perhaps it
would be rewarding to compare the actions of the
Vikings Great Army of the ninth century with the
behaviour of the Swedish Great Army during the
Thirty Years War (Englund 1993).
To sum up, archaeology has in the last twenty years
painted an entirely new and much more complex picture of South Scandinavian societies in the centuries
preceding the Viking Age. The background of the activities abroad of the so-called Vikings cannot be
brought up to constructive discussion before the new
results have been digested by Viking archaeologists
and historians alike. Since we now realise that preViking Denmark was very different from what was
believed only few years ago, we must also accept that
the basis of all earlier assumptions about the early
Vikings has to be revalued.

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