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The Harbour of Hedeby

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Dr. Sven Kalmring

With the development of permanent early urban settlements towards the end of the 9th century AD, the demand for ordinary everyday imported goods also increased. This was due, among other things, to the rising numbers of inhabitants. In terms of long-distance trade, this development increasingly led to a shift from trade oriented purely towards prestige items to trading operations which also responded to the demand for mass-produced goods. The carriage of large, heavy and less valuable goods in larger quantities required the development of specialised merchant vessels with a greater cargo capacity.

Hedeby cargo vesselThese cumbersome vessels were, however, easy to attack and could only develop under protection at sea guaranteed by a king and safeguarded with the aid of ships solely carrying crew. On the other hand, the greater cargo capacity of these broad bulbous merchant vessels resulted in them also having a greater draught such that they were no longer able to dock at the customary landing  sites. A direct consequence of these revolutionary changes in the Early Middle Ages, with regard to urbanisation, increasing number of inhabitants, increasing trade volumes and developments in ship building, was the construction of harbour installations which made possible a floating mooring or berth for heavy cargo vessels. For the large maritime trading centres, the construction of these harbour installations was an undertaking essential to their survival as only these could, in the long term, secure the continued existence of these early urban settlements as trading hubs.

The basis for the work outlined here, within the framework of a dissertation study, is the project ‘High Tech in Haithabu’, which was sponsored by European Social Fund and carried out from 2005 to 2008. In spring 2010, the results were published under the title ‘Der Hafen von Haithabu’ (The harbour of Haithabu) as volume 14 in the series ‘Ausgrabungen in Haithabu’.

Hedeby aerial viewThe excavation was carried out in 1979/80 in the harbour basin of the maritime trading centre of Haithabu, with the aid of sheet piling coffer dams and under the direction of K. Schietzel. The primary objective of the excavation was to recover a wreck discovered in 1953 and which today is exhibited as ‘Haithabu Wreck 1’ in the Haithabu Viking Museum. However, it also offered, within the framework of a research investigation involving the large-scale excavation of an area in excess of  2000m2, the rare opportunity to obtain a detailed insight into one of the most important Early Medieval harbours in Northern Europe. Within the sheet-piled (coffer dam) excavation areas, there were, in addition to a variety of well-preserved organic small finds, also the remains of very regularly placed rows of stakes or posts. Due to their arrangement and the fact that they extended almost to the shore, these post settings were very quickly interpreted as substructures for harbour installations.

Hedeby harbour excavation

A geographical information system (GIS) has proved to be a suitable tool for the analysis of the excavation findings. Not only was it possible, for the first time, to make all finds, surfaces and sections from the area of the harbour excavation available in a form that permitted appropriate analysis and interpretation of the excavation results, but a 3D representation could also be created which takes account of the three-dimensionality of the analysed finds. As a consequence, water levels can be simulated, silting-up processes prompted by the massive disposal of domestic waste in the harbour basin can be understood and the docking potential for the heavy cargo vessels can be examined. This tool permits not only the analysis of the harbour in relation to its structural facilities but provides an approach to assessing its complex functionality.

Already prior to the development of the first harbour structures a differentiated development of the shore area can be perceived, permitting the conclusion that this area, parcelled out in the form of regular  plots, was used as a simple landing place on which the vessels initially were drawn up onto the flat shore. The founding of the harbour constructions themselves began towards the end of the first third of the 9th century. The first construction was a fixed access to the landing site on the shore of Haddeby Noor which, at the time, only served to facilitate access to the vessels landed (i.e. beached) on the shore. Around AD 865, the first elongated jetty emerged to the south of this first construction. It was oriented ESE and led further out into the Haddebyer Noor and provided small coastal vessels with a floating berth or mooring. In the northern part of the excavation area, the first wide and solidly founded  jetty was built around AD 886. This reached purposefully far out into Haddeby Noor and made a floating berth available to large heavy ocean-going merchant ships

Hedeby harbour Bauphasen

Surprisingly, this emerging development was not matched by harbour facilities, as it is presently assumed that the numerous  jetties, which led out at right angles from the flat shore into deep water, lay next to each other, in close succession, separated by narrow expanses of open water. The harbour facilities were instead connected to each other by small intermediate constructions such that a U-shaped platform was created around a central elongated expanse of open water. Already in AD 990 and 1010 the harbour builders had to react, with new constructions of harbour installations, to the progressive decline in the water depth consequent on the disposal of settlement waste in the harbour basin, as well the increasing size of the merchant vessels, which resulted in a corresponding deeper draught.

With the sinking of Wreck 1, due to a fire that started on board, and it subsequently ending up immediately in front of the harbour  facilities, port operations around AD 1000 certainly did not come to a standstill. Through targeted breaking of the vessel, both of the northern installations were again rendered accessible from the sea. Only the bow of the vessel, facing towards the southern jetty, was located too far from the beach head to allow the same procedure to be carried out here. In order to restore the usefulness of the jetty, a new front section had to be constructed, which extended out over the wreck.

Individual harbour facilities forming a wooden platform of almost 1500 m2 in area cannot be explained solely in terms of the needs of merchant shipping and the intended movement of cargo between ship and land. As the rich finds assemblage from the harbour reveals, it also served as a market place to the early town. Consequently, the identification of the platforms as a venue for the exchange of goods also makes it possible now to localise the economic centre of the early town.

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