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Burning halls (completed)

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Dr. Lydia Klos

The symbolic significance of halls in the early history of northern Europe

Reconstructed hall building (after Olrik, Nordisches Geistesleben)

The investigation of hall-like buildings is closely associated with what is known as central-place archaeology, which continues earlier geographical research (Christaller 1933) in an attempt to demonstrate the existence of networks of neighbouring seats of power (Steuer 2007). The centres of power that have been reconstructed in the course of this research can be placed archaeologically in certain specific periods between the Bronze Age and the Middle Ages (approx. 1800  BC - AD 1500) and classified on the basis of their central-place functions. Lists of central-place indicators have been published, for example, by Fabech (Fabech 1997, Fig.3) and Helgeson (Helgeson 1998, Tables I and II).

The discovery of a hall of the Roman period at Gudme in Denmark and, simultaneously, a hall of the Viking period at Borg in northern Norway, gave renewed impetus to this research in Scandinavia from the end of the 1980s (Østergaard Sørensen 1994; Stamsø Munch et al. 2003). Since then, numerous other halls have been found in Sweden (e.g. Uppåkra, Slöinge, Helgö), Norway (e.g. Forsand, Borre) and Denmark (e.g. Tissø). This in turn has led to a resumption of interest in the historically known princely residences that had already been investigated, in the hope of demonstrating the presence of halls there, too, e.g. in Gamla Uppsala. In 1993, a total of 12 hall and central-place complexes were known in Denmark: just ten years later, the number has already risen to 40 (Steuer 2007, 878).

Of fundamental importance in the discussion of halls in northern Europe is the contribution made by the Swedish archaeologist Frands Herschend. In his opinion, halls were part of a farmstead complex but seem to have been used exclusively as assembly halls rather than for any other observable practical purpose (Herschend 1993, 182f.). Exceptional finds and only a few – but massive – roof-bearing posts give the building a monumental character. Frands Herschend is credited with a frequently quoted definition of a hall (Herschend 1999, 415):

1)     a hall is part of a farmstead complex;

2)     it consists of a single room with a minimum number of posts;

3)     it has a special location within the farmstead;

4)     the hearths were not used for everyday purposes (cooking, craft production);

5)     the finds within the hall differ in character from those outside the building or in other buildings on the farmstead.

Only recently have other scholarly disciplines taken an interest in the subject of halls. Place-name researchers have pointed out that evidence of halls may have survived in the names of farmsteads, as in the case of Uppsala, for example (Brink 1996). Investigations undertaken by historians of literature increasingly include more far-reaching interpretations (e.g. Heimer 2009, Svanberg 2005): the epic poem Beowulf, in particular, can be mentioned as providing a literary description of a scene that takes place in a hall (e.g. Hills 1997, Herschend 1997). First comparisons with medieval Scandinavian literature are also now available (Lönnroth 1997, Herschend 1997, Meulengracht Sørensen 2003), but these refer mainly to literary descriptions of houses, which help us understand the archaeological features rather than contributing to a discussion of the possible purpose of the hall based on the written sources. Moreover, it is noticeable that archaeologists are again turning their attention to the investigation of the imperial residences on the Continent (Jørgensen 2002, 243f.). On the whole, however, the majority are still individual studies with certain common features.

Previous research clearly shows that the investigation of the halls has, so far, been mainly undertaken by archaeologists and that other approaches have not yet been pursued thoroughly. The present project therefore seeks to build on the information already obtained to investigate the symbolic meaning of the halls for society in the early history of Scandinavia and thus close a gap in the research.

Preliminary investigations have already demonstrated that a remarkably large number of the recently examined halls were destroyed by fire (e.g. the burnt-down hall discovered at Uppåkra in the summer of 2009; oral communication from Professor Larsson in September 2009). This observation would indicate that a hall was not simply abandoned or transferred at some point in time like a normal inhabited farmstead, but only lost its significance after its total destruction by fire. In one extraordinary case, a (burial?) mound was erected over the burnt-down hall (Högom). In the written sources, too, a hall is surprisingly often set on fire. This constitutes a striking agreement between the archaeological findings and the much later written sources. Thought must therefore be given to the possible motivation behind the burning down of the hall and the precise significance accorded to the act. Many of the epic poems relate that the total destruction of the enemy and the elimination of his line is accompanied by the burning down of his ceremonial hall (e.g. Atlakviđa). Consequently, the protagonists often set a hall alight to demonstrate their power and the impotence of their opponents (e.g. Hervarar saga ok Heiđreks). Could the hall perhaps have had a symbolic function as a mark of sovereignty?

Furthermore, there is the fact that the word ‘house’ – even today – designates not only a simple building. The expressions ‘scion of a noble house’ or ‘the House of Windsor’ show that a house is not only understood as a dwelling place, but also has a figurative meaning and can be seen as a synonym for the lineage of the family living in the house. Various types of dwellings have already been investigated, documented and interpreted: the present research project will therefore concentrate, not on the house as a physical building, but rather on its symbolic meaning. What is the difference between a hall and a simple house? Why does the hall play such an important role in medieval literature? Is the hall a dwelling or a monument? Did its function change over time or was it originally built for a specific purpose already? Even the fate of the Nordic gods is sealed in a hall, when Loki disturbs the peace in Ägir’s hall, insults the gods who are present and threatens to burn down the hall. This is the beginning of Ragnarök, the end of the Nordic gods (Lokasenna).



Brink 1996: Stefan Brink, Political and social structures in early Scandinavia. A settlement-historical pre-study of the central place. In: Tor 28. S. 235-281.

Christaller 1933: Walter Christaller, Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland: Eine ökonomisch-geographische Untersuchung über die Gesetzmäßigkeit der Verbreitung und Entwicklung der Siedlungen mit städtischen Funktionen. Jena 1933.

Fabech 1997: Charlotte Fabech, Slöinge i perspektiv. In: Johan Callmer/Erik Rosengren (Hrsg.), „... Gick Grendel att söka det höga huset ...“ Arkeologiska källor til aristokratiska miljöer i Skandinavien under yngre järnålder. (Seminar Falkenberg 1995). Halmstad 1997. S. 145-160.

Heimer 2009: Olle Heimer, Att bygga aristokrati. In: C. Hadevik, Tematisk rapportering av Citytunnelprojektet. Rapport över arkeologisk slutundersökning. (Rapport/Malmö museer, arkeologienheten;2009,48). Malmö 2009. S. 331-387.

Helgeson 1998: Bertil Helgeson, Vad är centralt? - fenomen och funktion: lokalisering och person. In: Lars Larsson (Hrsg.), Centrala platser, centrala frågor: samhällsstrukturen under järnåldern. En vänbok till Berta Stjernquist. Uppåkrastudier 1. Stockholm 1998. S. 39-45.

Herschend 1993: Frands Herschend, The Origin of the Hall in Southern Scandinavia. In: TOR 1993, H. 25. S. 175-199.

Herschend 1997: Frands Herschend (Hrsg.), Livet i hallen. Tre fallstudier i den yngre järnålderns aristokrati. (= Occasional Papers in Archaeology 14). Uppsala 1997.

Herschend 1999: Frands Herschend, Halle. In: Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde², Band 14, Berlin/New York 1999. S. 414-425.

Hills 1997: Catherine M. Hills, Beowulf and Archaeology. In: Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D. (Hrsg.), A Beowulf Handbook, Lincoln 1997. S. 291-310.

Jørgensen 2002: Lars Jørgensen, Kongsgård - kultsted - marked. Overvejelser omkring Tissøkompleksets struktur og funktion. In: Jennbert, K./Andrén, A./Raudvere, C. (Hrsg.), Plats och praxis. Studier av nordisk förkristen ritual. Lund 2002. S. 215-247.

Lönnroth 1997: Lars Lönnroth, Hövdingahallen i Fornnordisk myt och saga. Ett mentalitetshistoriskt bidrag till förståelsen av Slöingefundet. In: Callmer, Johan; Rosengren, Erik (Hrsg.): "...gick Grendel att söka det höga huset..." Arkeologiska källor till aristokratiska miljöer i Skandinavien under yngre järnålder. Seminarium Falkenberg 1995. Halmstad 1997. S. 31-38.

Meulengracht Sørensen 2003: Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, The Hall in Norse Literature. Aus: G. Stamsø Munch / Olav Sverre Johansen / Else Roesdahl (Hrsg.): Borg in Lofoten. A chieftain's farm in North Norway. (=Arkeologisk Skriftserie 1). Trondheim 2003. S. 265-272.

Stamsø Munch/Johansen/Roesdahl 2003: Gerd Stamsø Munch / Olav Sverre Johansen / Else Roesdahl (Hrsg.), Borg in Lofoten. A chieftain's farm in North Norway. (= Arkeologisk Skriftserie 1). Trondheim 2003.

Steuer 2007: Heiko Steuer, Zentralorte. In: Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde², Band 35, Berlin/New York 2007. S. 878-914.

Svanberg 2005: Fredrik Svanberg, House symbolism. In: Tore Artelius (Hrsg.), Dealing with the Dead. Archaeological perspectives on prehistoric Scandinavian burial ritual. (=Riksantikvarieämbetet Arkeologiska undersökningar skrifter 65). Stockholm 2005. S. 73-98.

Østergaard Sørensen 1994: Palle Østerggard Sørensen, Gudmehallerne. Kongeligt byggeri fra jernalderen. In: Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark 1994. S. 25-39.

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