The Ring Fortresses along the Dutch Coast in Holland have recently been reinterpreted as likely Viking base-camps from the 9th century
A Viking Age Landscape of Defence in the Netherlands? The Late Ninth- and Tenth-century Ringwalburgen in the Dutch Province of Zeeland.
By Letty Ten Harkel
In: Baker, J., S. Brookes and A. Reynolds (eds), Landscapes of Defence in the Viking Age, 223-59.
Turnhout: Brepols 2013
Situated in the Scheldt estuary in the Dutch province of Zeeland are five circular fortifications called Ringwallburgen or Ring Fortresses from the late 9th century.
Scholars traditionally view these fortified sites as defensive structures – refugees – for the local population, harassed and pillaged during Viking attacks in the 9th and 10th century.
However, new investigations and reinterpretations of the archaeological sites in the Scheldt have recently been published, which overturns this understanding. Rather they must be understood as Viking Winter-camps erected in a hostile environment.
Already in 1904 an excavation in Middelburg revealed that the city’s medieval circular street plan followed the line of an earlier earthen rampart, writes Letty Ten Harkel. Thirty years later Huizinga identified eight other similar towns between Somme and the Scheldt. It was Huizinga, who originally floated the idea, that the fortresses should be understood as refugees for the local population. During and after WW2 a number of these sites underwent careful archaeological investigations. Later surveys and excavations have uncovered yet another series of such ring fortresses from the Picardie, through Flanders and into Northern Friesland.
There is no doubt that the 9th century was a period of profound unrest along the Frisian coast and all the way down to Normandy. Repeated Viking incursions continued to pave the way for a regular takeover such as is well-known was the result in Normandy. For instance in the years AD 834, 836 and 837, the Annales de Bertin reported a series of attacks. In connection with these (and other reports)
However, according to Letty Ten Harkel, the evidence for the ring fortresses to have served as refugees for the local population is rather thin. For instance residue of dung should have been expected in a landscape heavily depending on sheep-farming. Also, evidence of a settled population in the marshland is nearly entirely lacking.
Instead, she believes that the “ringwallburgen” were not defensive [structures erected] against the Vikings, but constructed by the Vikings as strongholds and impositions of foreign powers”. (p. 246). In short: base camps of the Vikings.
The Northmen at this time fell on Friesland with their usual surprise attack. Coming upon their people unprepared and on an island called Walcheren, they slaughtered many of them and plundered even more. They stayed un the island for a while, levying as much tribute as they wanted. Then they fell on Dorestad with the same fury and exacted tribute in the same way. When the Emperor [Louis the Pious] heard about these attacks, he postponed his planned journey to the fort of Nijmegen, close by Dorestad. When the Northmen heard of his arrival there, they withdrew immediately. Now the emperor summoned a general assembly and held an inquiry in public with those magnates to whom he had delegated the task of guarding the coast…Now too… he gave orders that a fleet should be made ready to go more speedily in pursuit in whatever direction might be required ( Annales St. Bertin , AD 837. (Quoted from: The Annals of St. Bertin, p. 36. Translated and annotated by Janet L. Nelson. Manchester Medieval Sources Series, Manchester University Press 1991.)
She further writes that this idea was fostered by the obvious similarities in construction with the 10th century Viking Ring Fortresses in Denmark from the reign of Harold Bluetooth (dated Ad 970 – 80). (t is in fact widely accepted that the ringwallburgen did serve as prototypes for the later Danish edifices.)
In her final discussion she sums up the archaeological evidence:
It is now obvious that the “ringwallburgen” on the border between Flanders and Friesland did not form one coherent group. However it is also acknowledged that the construction of the ring fortresses coincided with a period when the Viking attacks moved further inland and became less “hit and run” in their character. Now it was all about conquering and settling. Further she makes a confident case by analysing the many disparate finds of artefacts in the fortresses: metalwork made from foreign ore, fragments of Norwegian soap-stone, pottery etc., which she compare to the finds in Danelagen from approximately the same time. The early ring fortresses may indeed have been erected as base camps in the 9th century by groups of Vikings.
However, Letty Ten Harkel is careful to conclude with a request for further comparative research. In her words, she understands the Scheldt Landscape as a landscape of negotiation where different competing factions were “engaged in fortification building in order to lay claim to land, people and resources”.
In this landscape the ring fortresses might have had shifting functions and not least been occupied by shifting factions of regional and imperial powers. What sets them apart from the Viking ring fortresses in Denmark from the late 10th century is also that these were quickly abandoned. In Friesland and Flandern the ring fortresses were turned into small towns, which to some extent still witness to the earlier layout and design features.
Highly recommended research!