Photograph courtesy Andres S. Dobat, Aarhus Universitet
An amulet of Thor's hammer found at the site. Photograph courtesy Andres S. Dobat, Aarhus Universitet
Published July 11, 2012
A battle-scarred, eighth-century town unearthed in northern Germany may be the earliest Viking settlement in the historical record, archaeologists announced recently.
Ongoing excavations at Füsing (map), near the Danish border, link the site to the "lost" Viking town of Sliasthorp—first recorded in A.D. 804 by royal scribes of the powerful Frankish ruler Charlemagne.
Used as a military base by the earliest Scandinavian kings, Sliasthorp's location was unknown until now, said dig leader Andres Dobat, of Aarhus University in Denmark.
Whether it proves to be the historic town or not, the site offers valuable insights into military organization and town planning in the early Viking era, according to the study team.
Some 30 buildings have been uncovered since excavations began in 2010. Aerial photographs and geomagnetic surveys indicate about 200 buildings in total.
Chief among them is a Viking longhouse measuring more than a hundred feet (30 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide.
The longhouse's burnt-out remains seemingly bear witness to a violent attack: Arrowheads found embedded in its charred wall posts suggest the communal building was at some point set on fire and shot at, Dobat said.
A caltrop—a type of small, spiked iron weapon that was scattered on the ground for the enemy to step on—was also found at the entrance.
"Maybe [the attackers] even laid out caltrops so people running out of the burning building would run into them," he said.
Other finds include precious jewelry, glass beads, and silver coins.
"Lost" Town Key to Viking Defense
The town is dated to the same period as a nearby fortification known as the Danevirke, a 19-mile-long (30-kilometer-long) system of defensive earthworks built by the Danes in about A.D. 700.
"It's clear from the relation of the site to the Danevirke structure that [the newfound town] was of great military importance as well," Dobat said.
According to the A.D. 804 account, Sliasthorp was used as a base by the Viking king Gøtrik—also known as Godfred or Gudfred—who repaired and reestablished the Danevirke in the early 800s due to the threat posed by the northward-expanding Frankish Empire.
(Related: "'Thor's Hammer' Found in Viking Grave.")
"That's exactly the time that Scandinavia gets on the radar" of the Frankish scribes, Dobat noted.
Though the town itself wasn't fortified, the site is surrounded by water and wetlands, so access was limited to a narrow land bridge.
Small wood-and-earth dwellings, or pit houses, at the site may have served as accommodation for Viking fighters, Dobat added.
"At times it might have been a temporary garrison town," such as when the Danevirke had to be defended, he said.
The town may also have accommodated workers who built the huge Danevirke fortification.
"It was a major construction work, which involved massive investment of human resources," Dobat said.
Viking Power Base
From the town, Viking kings or their chieftains would have controlled trade and access to the region, the study team suggests.
Hedeby, an international port and trading center in Viking times, lay just 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. While the Füsing site is Scandinavian in character, the buildings down the road in Hedeby are German and Slavonic in style.
"We have the international traders and craftsmen at one place, and the Scandinavian elite a few kilometers away," Dobat said.
Füsing's strategic location likely means traders needed permission from Viking leaders to enter Hedeby.
The excavations are "giving us a lot of new perspectives on the character and anatomy of these early urban communities," Dobat added.
Mads Dengsø Jessen, of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, added that the new discoveries are important to understanding the development of Viking-era trade centers like Hedeby.
"Prior to these excavations, we didn't really know what the background was to these rich cities," said Jessen, who isn't part of the study team.
The Füsing site shows "there's actually a significant settlement before the ports of trade start to gain significance," he added. "There is a very deep local foundation for these international ports."
"Local chieftains would control the area," he said. "There might have been some sort of taxation or rent that the traders paid to them."
As for whether the newfound site is Sliasthorp, Jessen urged caution—but conceded it's "the best candidate we have for now."
Photojournalist Allison Shelley documented Haiti for a year after the 2010 quake. She went back this month to check on rebuilding progress.
An innovative mapping project could help indigenous people claim ancestral lands—and protect ancient forest.
With little known about sea snakes, scientists worry that massive harvests could be damaging wild populations.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.