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New Aspects on Viking-age Urbanism, c. 750–1100

Dr. Sven Kalmring, Dr. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson (Historiska museet), Assistant professor Lena Holmquist (Stockholms universitet)

International Symposium at the Swedish History Museum Stockholm

April 17–20th 2013

New Aspects on Viking-age Urbanism, c. 750–1100

The idea to invite to a joint conference comparing the Viking age sites of Birka and Hedeby in a larger context arose from a guest researcher stay at the Arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet at Stockholm university granted by the Alexander von Humboldt-foundation (cf. yearbook 2011; 2012). It led to a subsequent and vivid debate of the two iconic early urban sites among the organisers. An inspiring workshop hosted by Laila Kitzler-Åhfeldt and the Riksantikvarieämbetet entitling “Där förändringen börjar” was held in February 2013 in Visby, where many related topics, which would become central to the conference, were previously addressed.

An attempt to relate and compare just these two sites with each other is not novel at all: As early as in 1926 Sune Lindqvist pointed to the close connections between the two maritime trading centres in his article “Hedeby och Birka“, published in the periodical Fornvännen. In 1941 Herbert Jankuhn penned an article on “Birka und Haithabu” in the Ahnenerbe-periodical Germanien on the sites’ different nature in trade. Today scholars perceive Birka and Hedeby as two of the very few proto urban centers in a yet rural society of Northern Europe forming nodal points in the far distant trading network of that time. In fact both sites do not only have similarities in their extraordinary size and different structural respectively logistic details, but also feature direct links such as the missionary attempts by the church of Hamburg-Bremen and bishop Anskar († 865) or having a certain comes or prefectus vici safeguarding the kings interests on-site. However the traditional royal administrational and cultic centers of the regions, as e.g. Gamla Uppsala for Uppland, remained seemingly unaffected by the establishment of the new and quite alien economic centers. It was only with the Christian high medieval towns of Sigtuna and Schleswig that all of the functions merged at one place.

The aim of the conference was particularly the discussion of structural aspects of Viking age urbanism at two specific regions in lake Mälaren in Eastern Sweden and at the Schlei fjord at the margin between the North and Continental Europe. The problem of Viking age urbanism has not yet found a simple explanation and rather old models such as the Central place theory by the German geographer Walter Christaller (1893–1969) are still being endeavoured. In recent years important progress has been done regarding questions of structural details, creating a new basis for the aspired discussion: Birka-research has focused on the fortifications, the still submerged harbour areas and the general layout by means of large scale geophysical surveys, while there are ongoing excavations in Gamla Uppsala due to the development of the Ostkustbanan. For Sigtuna the insightful Trädgårdsmästaren-excavations have recently been reported. In Hedeby large scale geophysical and metal detector surveys have been carried out and important aspects of the large settlement excavations, its harbour and its burial grounds finally have been published. With Füsing and Husby in Angeln potential royal sites have been located by means of metal detecting while Schleswig is currently in the focus of a large Volkswagen-research project. Finally with the Swedish-German excavation on the hill fort of Hochburg next to Hedeby (cf. yearbook 2012) a new level of cooperation has been reached.
In order to assure the thematic frame of the conference hosted at the Swedish History Museum colleagues were directly requested and asked to give a paper on predefined topics according to the problem. The symposium itself was laid-out in two main sections: While the first part of the conference was entirely focusing on Birka and Hedeby, their broader hinterland and declared successors, in a second part the emphasized developments in the presented regions were confronted with examples from one of the most important centers of the world at that time in order to put the gained results into a perspective. Here speakers on Anglo-Saxon England, the Carolingian Realm, Bohemia, the Rus’, the Byzantine Empire and even the Muslim Caliphate could become enlisted. With the examples of Constantinople and Baghdad/Samarra especially the latter two as major capitals of the then known world were recognised as an uttermost important thematic opening.

    The symposium started off with a public evening lecture on “Urban Vikings in Birka and Hedeby” (Björn Ambrosiani & Sven Kalmring) summing up the history of research of both sites in order to prepare ground for the academic debate to follow. After a warm welcome by the Swedish History Museum and an introduction to the conference aim (Lena Holmquist) the first day was dedicated to the section “Viking-age Urbanism at Lake Mälaren and the Schlei Fjord”. It was grouped in thematic pairs and comprised sessions on Birka (Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson; Ingrid Gustin) and Hedeby (Joachim Schulze; Volker Hilberg), Gamla Uppsala (Lena Beronius; Alexandra Sanmark) and Füsing/Husby (Andres Dobat; Thorsten Lemm) as well as Sigtuna (Sten Tesch; Jonas Ros) and Schleswig (Felix Rösch; Michaela Schimmer). On the synthesis (Fredrik Svanberg) followed a reception in the Guldrummet of the museum at the end of the first conference day.
    The section “Early Medieval Urbansim. Town Layouts and Central-Site Functions of Contemporaneous Superregional Centres” on day two brought the thematically extension. Where possible, pairs of sites were chosen to test the question of the very location of administration, cult/religion and trade. In the Western Europe session Winchester/Hamwic (Martin Biddle) and Cologne/Aachen (Sebastian Ristow) as well as in the Central and Eastern Europe session Rjurikowo Gorodischtsche/Nowgorod (Evgenij N. Nosov) and the Hradschin and Suburbium of Prague (Jana Marikova-Kubkova) were presented. After a poster session the section was concluded by the Southern Europe and Middle East session on early medieval Constantinopel (Jesper Blid Kullberg) and Abbasid Baghdad/Samarra (Andrew Petersen) followed by a synthesis of the section (Barbara Crostini). In the evening the participants could enjoy a conference dinner in the Swedish History Museum. The next day a post-conference tour led to Gamla Uppsala, were the current excavations (Lena Beronius) and the site itself (Ingmar Jansson) were presented.
The international symposium as a cooperation between the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm university and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology was well received and attended by more than 100 auditors. Its realisation was kindly supported by the Letterstedtska föreningen. The subsequent proceedings of the conference will be published in “studies”-series of the National Historical Museum, Stockholm.