New book tells the full story of the Viking-Age Settlement and Fortress at Aggersborg in Northern Jutland from the reign of Harold Bluetooth
Between 1945 – 52 the National Museum of Denmark carried extensive excavations out at Aggersborg, the largest of the Viking Ring fortresses. Later other explorations were carried out. Unfortunately the reports were never published. For a couple of years a dedicated group of medieval archaeologists from The National Museum of Denmark as well as the University of Århus have worked diligently to amass, complete and rethink this vast material. This spring the group presented not only a report in Danish but also a translation into English of most of the Danish publication. With more than 477 pages the English edition should answer a whole lot of those questions posed by archaeologists and historians without proficiency in the “Danish Tongue” (as the Vikings used to call their language).
It is of course a complicated book to review: dense and knowledgeable it presents us with a very detailed overview of not only the location and the history of the pre-fortress settlement and the fortress itself but also a catalogue of the finds, the zoological finds plus not least the view of the editors on the purpose of the fortress.
The fortress was probably the earliest of the ring-fortresses built between AD 970 and 980 (the fifth, the most recent, is still awaiting a proper dating). It overlaid an earlier settlement consisting of an impressive amount of sunken huts connected with a couple of large farms. Perhaps it was already a royal manor at the time when the fortress was constructed on a morainic island sloping down to the Firth of Lime (Limfjorden) between the later church to the North and the medieval manor (to the South). Even though it was abandoned very quickly (20-30 years after its construction) it continued to be prominent in the landscape. Today the rampart, the ditch and the axial streets between the four gateways of the fortress can be seen in the landscape marked out for the visitor by stones. Visiting the site even today, It is evident that it occupied a strategic location controlling the traffic of ships from Norway (entering through a channel from the North) as well as ships passing through the firth (which was at that point not a firth proper, but a belt or strait of narrow water connecting The North Sea and Kattegat. Visually it would have been possible to see bonfires lit as warning from afar (p. 24).
Aggersborg was laid out within a rampart enclosing a circular area covering approximately 240m in diameter. The rampart was laced with timer and fitted with four impressive gateways, from which four axial timber-paved roads divided the circle into four quadrants. Each of these quadrants held a group of four timber-houses of the Trelleborg Type positioned symmetrically around a courtyard. All-in-all the fortress contained 48 identical timber-houses. Excavations have yielded an elaborate number of archaeological finds – pottery, jewellery, tools etc. demonstrating that the site was inhabited while in use.
As to the current understanding of the fortress, the primary investigators have obviously struggled to make proper sense of not only Aggersborg, but also the other ring-fortresses belonging to the military system, of which they were obviously a part (witness their design).
It appears, though, that the current most plausible theory is that the ring-fortresses were erected as part of a defensive system developed in view of the the militant aggressions of the German emperors Otto I and II and the new forms of warfare developed in the 10th century, characterised by wintering armies. In view of this Harold Blutooth not only strengthened the border at Danevirke near Haithabu, but also built the ring fortresses as inland defensive structures, where dues and taxes could be collected, stashed and defended. But it also explains why they were abandoned soon after. In AD 983 Otto II died and left his reign in the hands of a three-year old boy. Until 994 his mother and later his grandmother were busy defending the boy from a Bavarian rebellion as well as the incursion of Slavs across the Eastern border. When at the age of sixteen, Otto III took over the reign, he marched to Rome in order to claim the titles as both King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor. During this power vacuum the son of Harold, Sweyn Forkbeard, was able to mount his consistent raids on England, which ended in the final conquest in AD 1013. During this period the need to maintain the costly defensive ring fortresses seemingly disappeared. After the year 1000 they were history (see p. 393 ff). We know that Sweyn revolted against his father post 983. Perhaps the fight between father and son was about where to allocate the military resources of the realm – for defense against a German aggressor or as investment in a major conquest?
The present report is obviously directed at specialists. Nevertheless it is very interesting as it makes not only Aggersborg but in fact the context of all the impressive ring-fortresses accessible to an English-speaking public. This is not least pertinent in view of the present endeavours to seek World Heritage Status for the ring-fortress at Trelleborg as well as a number of other Viking sites and monuments.
It is to be hoped that the editors and authors of the volume will consider a smaller publication presenting all the fortresses and their monumental context in Jelling as well as near Haithabu in Schleswig.
Aggersborg. The Viking-Settlement and Fortress.
By Else Roesdahl, Søren M. Sindbæk, Anne Pedersen and David M. Wilson
Jutland Archaeological Society
Århus University Press 2014