Transporting the Bell from haitahbu to Ribe summer 2017 © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Ansgar’s Church at Ribe Viking Centre c. 860

Ribe Viking Centre is an open-air museum faithfully working to recreate life at the Danish Viking emporium from the 9th and 10th centuries. This summer a major attraction is the recreation of Ansgar’s church from 860.


Ansgar's Church being reconstructed at Ribe summer 2017 © Ribe Viking Centre
Ansgar’s Church being reconstructed at Ribe summer 2017 © Ribe Viking Centre

When our venerable priest [Ansgar] came into the presence of the king, having as his helper the most noble Burghard, who had formerly assisted the elder Horic in all matters and had great influence with both kings, because he was their relation, the king showed his pleasure in receiving him [Ansgar] by permitting him immediately to do everything connected with the Christian religion, which his predecessor had formerly allowed being done. Moreover, he agreed that there should be a bell in the church [in Haithabu], the use of which the pagans regarded as heinous. In another village called Ripa, situated within his kingdom, he likewise gave a site for the erection of a church and granted permission for a priest to reside there.[1]

Sometime around 850 Ansgar, Apostle to the North and missionary Bishop in Hamburg got access to the Danish king, Haarik II. Soon after – we are told in the vita of Ansgar – he received a piece of land in Ribe and permission to build a church there. The king also allowed for a priest to reside there on a permanent basis. At the same point he allowed the rebuilding of the church at Haithabu, which we hear had been torn down by the local count; and even that this might be fitted with a bell – as it says – to the chagrin of the heathens who considered it “abominable”. [2] All this took place at least a hundred years before the official recognition of Denmark as a Christian Realm at Jelling.

The Church in Ribe

Ribe at the Time of Ansgar c. 850. reconstruction © Ribe Museum
Ribe at the Time of Ansgar c. 850. reconstruction © Ribe Museum

The early Viking emporium at Ribe was located at a crossroad where the road from the north meets another from the east and links up at a natural harbour by the river Ribe – Ribe Å – securing access through the marshes leading out to the west. On both sides of this harbour are located two dry “islands”. On the north of these, the early market town was located. The southern one – the present centre of the town – had until recently been considered uninhabited until the 11th century.

The first excavations at Ribe in Western Jutland were carried out in the 1950s and 60s. The first finds, though, did not reach back beyond the 13th century. In the 1970s, however, remains from the 8th century and north of the river were excavated. Later excavations have continued to fill out this history yielding multiple evidence of Ribe as an important Viking emporium from the beginning of the 8th century. Various workshops built on the land, which had been systematically divided into regular plots, demonstrated what has later been decided was a permanent settlement. [3]

Recent excavations (2008 – 09) south of the river have significantly added to this picture. In 2000, just south of the Cathedral a fire led to the complete destruction of a building, which had to be torn down. Before rebuilding took place, the site was excavated. Moving down through the layers, the results of the excavation were sensational. At the bottom, a Christian burial ground with inhumations was discovered. This – arguably the first Christian cemetery in Ribe – had been surrounded by a 1, 5 meter wide and 50 cm deep ditch and an inner fence of thornbushes, marking off the consecrated ground. 14C dating of the skeletal material narrowed the period down to c. 800 – 1000 with a final abandonment of the burial ground  c. 1050. This terminus ante quem for the burials was indicated by dendrochronology (respectively 1039 and 1048). Two coins corroborated this approximate date.

Graves from Ribe's first cemetery © Ribes Vikinger
Graves from Ribe’s first cemetery © Museet Ribes Vikinger

Formerly, a heathen burial ground had been partly excavated to the north-east with an additional small burial ground with what was probably a mixture of heathen and Christian burials from the 10th century. What had now been found was not only an earlier burial ground to the south of the river. It had apparently also been planned to lie outside the main market with its harbour; furthermore, the newly discovered burials were presumably Christian.

Due to the depth of the cultural layers, five meters, only twelve of eighteen graves were deemed available for excavation. Of these seven skeletons still held collagen and could be 14C dated. Four of these probably fell before the official date of the Christianisation of Denmark c. 965. Two of these early graves were furthermore dated to the 9th century. Even though 14C is a debated method, the over-layering of the graves plus a find of some 10th-century beads helped to relatively date the graves.

Further excavations in 2012 added significantly to this. Following a total renovation of the square south of the Cathedral, digging resulted in a total of 83 graves. Of these 77 could be excavated. Most had been laid to rest in different kinds of coffins – small dug-out troughs or boats, coffins made of planks and even a wagon-burial.

More sensational, though, it was shown that the ditched cemetery had surrounded the present cathedral making it likely that remains of older wooden churches could be found beneath the cathedral. Tentatively it has been suggested that this was, in fact, the location of the first church of Ribe, which Rimbert writes so eloquently about in the vita of Ansgar. [4]

Reconstruction of the Church

Model of the Carolingian Church from Tosstedt c. Source: Wikipedia
Model of the Carolingian Church from Tosstedt c. 804. Hamburg Museum. Source: Wikipedia

This autumn a reconstructed church will be completed at the open-air museum, Ribe Viking Centre. The reconstruction is based on the layout of the church excavated in Tostedt near Hamburg, where Ansgar was Bishop.

The church form Tostedt church has been dated precisely to the beginning of the 9th century. We know from the French Royal Annals that Charlemagne in 804 pushed his conquest of Saxony into the north and beyond the river Elbe. According to the Royal Frankish Annals[5] he is said that year to have “deported all Saxons living between the Elbe and Weser” in the district of Wigmodi. Another source (Einhard) tells us that the number of deported people were more than 10.000 persons. Afterwards, the land was given to the Obodrites – heathen Slavs from the East. This military manoeuvre was obviously intended to use the Obodrites as a shield against the Danish king Godfred, who turned up in Haithabu followed by his entire fleet and cavalry to defend his southern border at Dannevirke. On the other side, south of the river Elbe, Charlemagne set up a fortified camp at Hollenstedt. According to the Annals, complicated diplomatic negotiations ensued. Not far from here lies the small village, Tostedt, where archaeologists have excavated the remains of an early wooden stave church dated to the beginning of the 9th century.

The reconstructed church will be decorated with typical Norse woodwork on the outside and continental paintings on the inside. This was the aesthetic programme discovered in the excavations of the stave church at Hørning from c. 1000.[6]  The exterior and interior decoration is inspired by archaeological finds of early stave churches in Scandinavia.

Visitors are invited to watch the carpenters and workmen reconstructing the church and its interior this summer.

The Bell

Carting the bell from haitahbu to Hollongstedt. It took five hours © Wikinger Museum Haithabu
Carting the bell from Haitahbu to Hollongstedt. It took five hours © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

In 836 Hrabannus Maurus sent a letter to the Gauzbert (Simon) in whose hands Ansgar had left the blossoming congregation at Birka. This letter was accompanied by a missal including a lectionary and Evangeliary, a psalter, and a book with the acts of the apostles. Also, he sent two priestly costumes, two chasubles, two albs, two belts, plus a cloth to cover the chalice – a corporale – and finally a pallium – indicating that Gauzbert was vested with the status of missionary bishop. Hrabannus also sent a bell and a handbell (glocka and tintinnabulum).[7]

At present, it s not known to what extent the new church at Ribe will be fitted out with such a treasure. One item, though, has already arrived, namely the bell. Forged at Haithabu, this is a precise copy of the bell, measuring 51 cm in height and 42 cm in with, which was discovered in the Viking Harbour in the emporium near Dannevirke in 1978. Unfortunately, the bell could not be dated, as it was found in the upper silt of the harbour. The bell, however, was forged from c. 75% copper, 17% tin and 7% lead. As the copper stemmed from Rammelsberg in Harzen, it is likely that the bell must be dated to the 10th century. (Mining at Rammelsberg is first mentioned in 968 in Widukind: Rex Gestae Saxonicae).

A reproduction of the bell was already forged in 1981 to enable us to listen to the sound. Unfortunately, the original was too fragile to be used in such experiments. As the bell was found together with its wooden suspension, it is believed that the bell had hung in Haithabu and perhaps been hidden in the harbour during hostilities. But then: why was it never recovered? Also – as was the case in Ribe – it is likely that the first church was built outside the town several km to the north near the present church of Haddeby. Why hide it in the harbour?

Wood carving intended to decorate the reconstructed church of Ansgar © Ribe Viking Center
Wood carving intended to decorate the reconstructed church of Ansgar © Ribe Viking Center

Whatever the answers to this conundrum, a fortnight ago a copy of the precious Haithabu-bell was carted down to Hollingsted, where a Viking boat, Erik Styrimathr, was loaded with the valuable cargo and rowed on the river Treene down to Friedrichsstadt, from where it was transported to the coast bypassing Eiderstedt. Hugging the seashore, the ship with the bell arrived safely on the first of July by way of the ancient sailing route.

It is of course fitting that the bell at Ribe is a copy of the one from Haithabu. However, the size of another 10th-century bell, of which more modest fragments were found in Oldenburg, might perhaps have been more proper. At least, it is likely the “glocka”, which Hrabannus sent to Birka would have been smaller. The bell from Oldenburg measured only 22 cm in height.

The church will be consecrated as a church, but it will not be possible to “book” it for Christenings, weddings or burials. The dedication of the church is planned for spring 2018. Whether the bell will be accompanied by a handbell plus the other vestments remains to be seen.

The church will be consecrated as a church but it will not be possible to “book” it for Christenings, weddings or burials. The dedication of the church is planned for spring 2018.

The reconstruction of the wooden church is funded by a grant from the foundation A. P. Møller and Hustru Chastine McKinney Møllers Fond til almene Formaal.


[1] From: Anskar – The Apostle of the North, 801-865 – Translated from the Vita Anskarii by Bishop Rimbert, His Fellow Missionary and Successor by Charles H. Robinson, The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign Parts.1921. XXXII. Adam of Bremen later claimed that Horic II became a Christian and also that the priest was called Rimbert. (Hist. Eccle. XXVI)

[2] Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in Usum Scholarum ex Monumentis Germaniae Historicis Recusi. Vitae Anskarii et Rimberti. Hannoveae Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani 1884., Capt. 32. p. 64. ”Insuper etiam, quod antea nefandum paganis videbatur, ut clocca [cloca] in eadem haberatur ecclesia, consensit. In alio quoque vico regini sui Ripa vocato similiter locum, ubi ecclesia fabricaretur, tribuit et, ut ubi sacerdos praesens adesset, sua potestas licentiam dedit.

[3] Ribe on the North Side of the River, 8th – 12th century – overview and Interpretation. By Claus Feveile. In Ribe Stdier 1.1. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab. Den Antikvariske Samling 2006.

[4] Ansgars Kirche in Ribe. By Morten Søvsø. In: Mythos Hemmaburg. Ed. By Rainer-Maria Weiss and Anne Klammt. Veröffentlichung des Helms-Museums, Archäeologisches Museum Hamburg und Stadtmuseum Harburg nr. 107. 2014, pp. 245 – 254.

[5] Royal Frankish Annals 804. In: Carolingian Chronicles. Translated and ed. By Berhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers. The University of Michigan Press. 1972, p. 83 – 84.

[6] Fra hedenskab til kristendom i Hørning. By Knud J. Krogh. In: Nationalmuseets arbejdsmark, 1961, s. 5 – 34

[7] Forschungen zur deutschen Geschichte. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Munich. Historische Kommission. Göttingen 1865, Vol 5. P. 381 ff


Ribe Vikinge Center
Lustrupholm, Lustrupvej 4
DK 6760 Ribe

Museet Ribes Vikinger
Odins Plads 1, 6760 Ribe
76 16 39 60

Ribe Cathedral
DK 6760 Ribe


Tidlig kristne begravelser ved Ribe Domkirke – Ansgars kirkegård?
By Morten Søvsø.
In: Arkæologi i Slesvig/ Archäologie in Schleswig, 2010, Vol 13. Wachholtz Verlag Neumünster 2011, pp. 147 – 164

Ansgar Kirke år 860

Eine Glocke für die Kirche in Ribe – Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Die Glocke von Haithabu. Fund und nackguss einer frühmittelalterlichen Bronze Glocke.
By Kurt Denzer. Cinarchea 1981/91.













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