View towards the Viking Halls at Tissø © Medievalhistories
View towards the Viking Halls at Tissø © Medievalhistories

Tissø – A Cultural, Commercial, and Elite Centre from the Viking Age

Right on the west bank of Lake Tissø in Western Zealand in Denmark, archaeologists has excavated a significant part of what turned out to be a major Viking manor.

Thor's goats from Tissø © National Museum
Thor’s goats from Tissø © National Museum

Complete with workshops, a market and a plethora of remarkable cultic activities, Tissø turned out to be one of those places that vigorously outline the way of life in Denmark between ca. AD 600 – 1000.

For a long time, it was known that Tissø was a “special place”. Tissø means Tyr’s Lake and refers to one of the main gods belonging to the Norse pantheon. Already in the 19th century weapons and other artefacts were found in the lake. Then, in 1977, a tenth-century golden neck-ring weighing 1.8 kg of gold was discovered in a field nearby. Also, a couple of graves from the beginning of the 11th century were discovered near a 50-metre-long bridge that crossed the River Halleby to the southwest of the lake. Finally, between 1995 – 2003, archaeologists began to excavate the site systematically. To say the least, the finds were and continue to be astounding.

The Home of a Warlord

The Ring from Tissø, demonstrating the size, which indicates its use as a ritual or sacred object. © Fugledegaard
The Ring from Tissø, demonstrating the size, which indicates its use as a ritual or sacred object. © Fugledegaard

The first magnate’s residence at Bulbrogaard could be dated to ca. 550 – 650. This manor held a large hall, a smaller building and a couple of minor houses. The large hall had a length of ca. 38 metres, was unusually well constructed with slightly curving walls, and covered in white plaster. The whitewash is an especially intriguing factor. Limestone is not readily available in the region and had to be sourced from afar. The posts reached 1.5 metres into the ground.

At the same time, settlements in the neighbourhood contracted and were rebuilt as concentrated “villages” identified as –lev’s (the inheritance or bread of someone). However, while Føllenslev = Fialins’ lev, Reerslev = Rethar’s lev and Ørslev = Øthar’s [The destroyer’s] lev, place-names in the close vicinity of Tissø, indicate that the –lev belonged to those with spears = Geir (Gørlev) or just the army, Herslev = Hær’s lev. As at Uppåkra, Bulbrogaard at Tissø was probably both the manor of a chieftain and a garrison.

Fifty years later, the residence was moved ca. 600 metres to the south. Now, the hall was slightly shorter. Now, though, a fenced area was erected next to the hall. Remains of what seems to be a cultic house akin to those found at Uppåkra and Erritsø, the layout of the compounds seem identical. One of the distinctive features are the post-pits, which were up to three metres deep. Perhaps the building had two floors? To the north of the cultic house near the fence was a forge. Maybe the extraordinary golden ring was used to embellish the wooden carved deities exhibited in the cultic house? And later hidden, when the pagan temple was abolished? Another option is, that it was used to signify the sacred nature of the judicial proceedings at the thing. All guesswork, alas!

This complex consisting of a hall, a fenced-in cultic house and a forge was repeated three times, while the surroundings expanded in terms of buildings and activities. The main impression is continuity and conservatism.

Not until the fourth phase from ca. 950 – 1050 did the structure of the layout shift: Now, the hall was differently constructed, while the fenced area disappeared as did the cultic house. After 1050, manors at Lunden at Søby on the southern and eastern side of the lake might have inherited the powers invested in the old complex at Tissø.

Reconstruction of the manor at Tissø © Arkikon, Formidlingscenter Fugledegård, National Museum of Copenhagen

Life at Tissø

Tuning Peg from Tissø © National Museum of Copenhagen
Tuning Peg from Tissø © National Museum of Copenhagen

The lifestyle at Tissø must have been luxurious. Littered around, archaeologists have found numerous fragments and pieces of jewellery, sword belts, and coins witnessing to a lively contact with insular as well as Frankish and Germanic people.

Thus, the composition of more than 250 kg. animal bones has revealed a varied diet consisting of pigs, cattle, sheep, goat, chicken and goats as well as horses. Of significance are the very young animals, which had been slaughtered and served. For instance, 50% of sheep were slaughtered while lambs. Another remarkable point to be made is that a fourth of the bones came from fish, wild birds and deer. To hunt, the people at Tissø were helped along by to at least three different breeds – sheepdogs, whippets or greyhounds, and hunting dogs. Finally, another type of animals killed were martens, foxes and otters; all eagerly hunted for their furs and pelts.

At one end of the great mead-hall from ca. 800, archaeologists found the bones from a wild boar mixed with fragments from glass-beakers. Did the Vikings drink more than mead? Explorations of pits have uncovered what in a Danish context is unique, remains of wine seeds (Vitis vinifera). Whether consumed as wine or dried raisins, the grapes were likely imported. But wine may have grown at Tissø. The climate would allow for that. At this point, we don’t know.

Did skalds perform their poetry, while musicians played on their harps? One of the significant finds is a tuning peg intricately carved with charming portraits of a man, who on one side opens up his mouth and let his tongue hang out, while the same man on the reverse presents himself all knotted up.

Sacrifices

Apart from the famous sacrifices of tools, weapons and jewellery discovered in the lake, the landscape have also offered evidence of more scattered sacrifices og horses, tools and – perhaps – human beings. On the highest point a cache of burnt bones, coins, Carolingian jewellery, arrowheads. It appears to have been what in the Norse literature is called a hörgr.

 

Map of Tissø with excavations. Based on map by Josefine Franck Bican, Michael Nørgaard Jørgensen & Pia Brejnholt, National Museum of Copenhagen
Map of Tissø with excavations. Based on map by Josefine Franck Bican, Michael Nørgaard Jørgensen & Pia Brejnholt, National Museum of Copenhagen

VISIT:

Formidlingscenter Fugledegård
Bakkendrupvej 28
4480 St. Fuglede

The Viking Exhibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen exhibits the finds from Tissø

SOURCES:

Manor, Cult and Market at Lake Tissø
By Lars Jørgensen
In: The Viking World. Ed. By Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price.

Gudme and Tissø. Two magnates’ complexes in Denmark from the 3rd to the 11th century AD. 2010
By Lars Jørgensen
In: Neue Studien zur Sachsenforschung 1
Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover 2010

Bulbrogaard, the first aristocratic complex at Tissø – and a new approach to the aristocratice sites.
By Josefine Franck Bican.
In: Herrenhöfe und die Hierarchie der Macht im Raum südlich und östlich der Nordsee von der Vorrömischen Eisenzeit bis zum frühen Mittelalter und zur Wikingerzeit. Gedächnis-Kolloqium Werner Haarnagel (1907 – 1984), ed. by Erwin Strahl, pp. 147 -154.
Series: Siedlungs- und Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet, vol 33.

Place names and settlement development around a arostocratice residence. Thoughts from an on-going study of the hinterland of Tissø.
In Viking Worlds.
By Sofie Laurine Albris
In: Things, spaces, and movement.: Papers from the first ‘Viking Worlds’ Conference held in Oslo, 12.–13. March 2013. .
Ed. by M.H. Eriksen; B. Rundberget; I. Axelsen; U. Pedersen; H. Lund Berg
Oxbow, 2014. s. 56-72.

Jagt og Husdyrbrug i sen jernalder og vikingetid på stormandssædet ved Tissø.
Af Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen projektforsker, Zoologisk Museum.
I: Beretning for Kalundborg og Omegns Museum. Kalundborg 2006

Iron and Viking Age Grapes from Denmark – vine seeds found at the royal complexes by Lake Tissø
By Peter Steen Henriksen, Sandie Holst & Karin Margarita Frei
In Danish Journal of Archaeology Vol 6 (2017) no. 1, pp. 1 – 9

Pre-Christian Cult at Aristocratic residences and settlements In Southern Scandinavia in the 3rd –10th centuries AD.
By Lars Jørgensen
In: Glaube, Kult und Herrschaft. Phänomen des Religiösen.
Kolloqien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Vol 12.
Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH
Bonn 2009