Scandinavia, Day 5: Viking Ruins

Travel by Adam on 2009-02-22 04:20

Scandinavia is densely wooded with hardwood forests. This was a major impediment to farming, but the upside was an unlimited supply of timber for building structures: longhouses, forts, and ships.

But the downside of wood construction, for modern-day scholars, is that wood decomposes. So there is very little left of viking-age settlements. The best we can do, in most cases, is to guess the construction of structures based on impressions left in the ground by the wood which has long since rotted away.

Ring Fort

I rented a car to reach a few excavation sites that were a bit more out of the way than my last two days’ travels. The first of these was the viking ring fort (sometimes called Trelleborg, for the name of the Swedish town the first one was discovered in) located near Slagelse.

The site is clearly visible from the satellite imagery:

A circular earthwork wall with four gates, and within the traces of the longhouses it protected a thousand years ago. Outside, another series of longhouses is arrayed in a fan following the shape of the circle in a pleasing arc.


Near those was a graveyard. Hundreds of skeletons were excavated from here, but little was produced in the way of grave goods, as these were not noble burials.

The fort was ideally located at the fork of a river which had easy access to the sea, and at a relative high point in the landscape. Standing atop the walls, I could see how this was an ideal location for a stronghold.


A reconstructed longhouse, based on a design guessed from the findings of the excavated site, sat nearby.


Incidentally, the museum was closed for the winter, but a sign on the front invited visitors to walk out and examine the fort and outdoor museum pieces. This free-access attitude seems to be common at Danish historical sites, which is excellent.

All six of the ring forts found so far date from around the same time, and were probably built during the reign of the same king who erected the runestones in Jelling, Harold Bluetooth.

(Aside: the Bluetooth pairing technology used by cell phones and other devices is named for Harold Bluetooth. The logo is the norse runes for H and B superimposed.)

Traversing the Great Belt

The second site sent me across the bridge known as the Great Belt Fixed Link, spanning the Baltic Sea from Zealand to Funen. The toll was crazy expensive ($30 each way), but given that the bridge makes the Golden Gate look like a child’s toy, I guess it makes sense. Driving across this was pretty intense - there’s a feeling you get when out to sea on a ship, where the sea stretches out in every direction, with the kind of waves you only see out to sea. Having this feeling combined with that of being in a car was an interesting juxtaposition.


Dragonship Burial

Near a tiny town called Ladby is the only viking ship burial found in Denmark. This is a burial mound not unlike those in Jelling (though smaller), but the contents are much more interesting: a king or leader was buried within the mound, along with a fully functional viking ship.


And not just any ship, but a dragonship. This is a longship of the normal sort, but its stern and prow are decorated with the head and tail of a dragon - indicating the leader of the fleet, and intended to strike fear into the hearts of enemies.

Modern minds may speculate that a ship made to look vaguely like a dragon isn’t particularly intimidating, but it seems that in its time it had the intended effect. An oft-quoted section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is the first recorded viking raid on England, dated at 793, against a the Lindisfarne monestary:

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindesfarne.”

Like the ring fort, the ship was completely rotted away. But the impression it left in the mud is very clear, and combined with all the iron and bone artifacts from the site: hundreds of nails, weapons, a full anchor and rare iron chain:


The skeletons of horses and dogs sacrificed for the burial:


All of which provided a wealth of information about viking dragonships. A replica of the ship is currently under construction; I was able to walk into the basement room where it is being constructed, again showing the tendency of Danish museums to allow free access.

The body of the person buried in the mound was not found within; grave robbers had desecrated the site, as is the case with many tombs - including the most famous of all, Tutenkamen’s tomb in Egypt. Apparently it’s difficult to create a burial monument that doesn’t attract the destructive attention of wealth-seekers or later rulers looking to display their power over previous dynasties.

Bronze Age Dwellings

Bytoften was the final site I visited, which has been excavated for evidence of a number of pre-viking age longhouses. There wasn’t much here, except for another longhouse reconstruction, but it made for a pleasant walk in the woods. Until it started to rain. Funen doesn’t seem to be quite as cold as Zealand; unfortunate, because snow is vastly more enjoyable than rain.



Some cool features on the car I rented: a switchblade key (to make the key and remote entry fob more compact in your pocket):

…and the number of kilometers left on the current tank of gas:


There was a really cool looking lighthouse on the small island connecting the two sections of the Great Belt Fixed Link, but it doesn’t seem to be open to the public.


Expenses: $293. Higher than it should have been due to insufficient planning. $130 car rental, $60 bridge tolls, $40 gas, $10 museum entry, $3 bus, $20 food, $30 hostel.

2 comments per 'Scandinavia, Day 5: Viking Ruins'

  1. Casper says:


  2. terra nova season 2 says:

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    Adam @ Dusk Scandinavia, Day 5: Viking Ruins

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