the early viking age in norway

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Acta Archaeologica vol. 71, 2000, pp. 3547 Printed in Denmark All rights reserved

Copyright C 2000



NEW LIGHT ON THE DARK 600s The rich archaeological nds from the Viking Age in Norway are traditionally explained by rapid cultural and social advances following new contacts with Western Europe after 793. An argument for a rather sudden change of the society at that time is the hypothesis that the 600s was a Dark Age of stagnation in South Norway after an economic and political collapse of society in the late sixth century (Gudesen 1980, 124, 136; Helgen 1982, 51; Magnus & Myhre 1986, 398). In North Norway and Trndelag it seems that the economic, social and political situation was stable throughout these centuries. Recent archaeological research in South Norway may indicate that the proposed stagnation of the 600s was not so dramatic as earlier believed. New intensive investigations in marginal agrarian areas like the mountains, the woodlands and along the outer coast show that hunting, the use of summer pastures, iron extraction, shing a.s.o. continued, and at some places even were expanding during the seventh century (Myhre 1993; based on Alsaker 1989; Bjrgo 1986; Bjrgo et al. 1992, 302308; Magnus 1974; 1986; Martens 1988, 8285). Clearly the marginal areas must have been exploited from neighbouring agrarian settlements and population centres, but we have until now not been able to nd these sites. In my opinion one of the reasons is the lack of intensive investigations. The recent investigations at Borre in Vestfold is an example of how intensive studies at a central agrarian area may give us a new understanding of the settle-

ment development during the so-called dark 600s (Myhre 1992a; 1992b). We know Borre as a Viking Age cemetery of large mounds where the rich ship burial from about AD 900 was found in 1853. The new investigations showed that the earliest large mounds were built already about AD 600, and the others during the following centuries until 900. Pollen analyses and landscape studies tell about a continuity of land use and settlement since the Early Iron Age in the neighbouring area (Jerpsen 1993; 1996, 88, 109, 163) (Fig. 1). From about AD 600 the cultivation was intensied, large elds were taken into use, the woodland disappeared and new kinds of herbs and crops were introduced. Instead of a dramatic stagnation during the seventh century, we are now able to demonstrate settlement expansion and a development into an intensively used agrarian landscape. Such a change of the landscape happened at the same time as the rst large mounds were built, probably as burial places for a political elite of chieftains or petty kings. But we have not yet found the houses and the graves of the ordinary people in the Borre area. Further investigations must be carried out, not only at Borre, but in other central agrarian areas in South Norway, if we shall be able to demonstrate clearly a continuity of settlements and land-use through the seventh and eighth centuries. Probably many farms and settlements in South Norway were left during the sixth century, and in some areas the population was reduced in number. This may not have been the result of a general crisis in society, but rather, as found in Denmark, the result


Acta Archaeologica

Fig. 1. The cemetery of large mounds at Borre, Vestfold, which can be dated to c. 600 (Mounds 6 and 7) and to c. 900 (Mound 1 where the rich ship-burial was found in 1853). Map, Myhre 1992a, g. 57.

of a reorganisation of settlements, a new settlement pattern and another way of using the landscape (Hedeager 1992, 224; Nsman 1991, 168; Nsman & Lund 1988, 22750). The hypothesis is that a new economic and social organisation may have led to a centralisation of farms and agrarian settlements, allowing for a better control of the land and the agrarian resources in the hands of the aristocracy and the richest farmers. These major landowners may also have organised a major part of the exploitation of resources in the mountains and along the coast.

AGRARIAN SETTLEMENTS In South Norway few farms and houses from the seventh and eighth centuries have, as indicated, been found and excavated. But strangely enough the situ-

ation is not so much better when we take a look at the archaeological material from the ninth century, the Early Viking Age. The traditional view of a settlement expansion and increase in population during the ninth century has mainly been based on the large number of grave nds, and on the study of the chronology of farm names. However, many of the farm names that traditionally were dated to the Viking Age, like those ending on -stad and -land, now seem to have been in use already during the earlier centuries (Salvesen 1990; Lken & Srheim 1990). The arguments for a strong settlement expansion during the Early Viking Age, built on farm name studies alone, are not convincing any more. Archaeological investigations in West Norway have demonstrated that many farms from the Migration Period were deserted during the sixth and seventh

The Early Viking Age in Norwaycenturies. If there was a population pressure during the Early Viking Age, we would have expected a resettlement on these deserted farms. In SW Norway several hundred farm houses from the Roman and the Migration Periods have been excavated, as well as about 50 from the High Middle Ages (10501350). The number of excavated houses from the Viking Age can, however, be counted on a few hands (Myhre 1980, 94140). It is surprising that most of the investigated deserted farms from the Migration Period were not resettled until the High Middle Ages, only very few during the Viking Age. Even large deserted farms in central parts of the plain of Jren, like Lyngaland and Hanaland in Time county were not re-settled before AD 1000 (Petersen 1936, 37, 81; Myhre 1980, 125, 236, 348). The general impression is that the Early Iron Age settlements, as well as those from the Viking Age, were concentrated to what has always been considered the best agrarian areas. From these population cores a strong settlement expansion to more marginal areas can be documented during the Roman and Migration Periods, as well as the High Middle Ages, but only on a small scale during the Merovingian and Early Viking Age. At Borre in Vestfold, during the Iron Age and the Viking Age, most farms are found in the valleys and on the ridges where also the majority of barrows are mapped. Not until the High Middle Ages is a strong settlement expansion documented into the neighbouring areas, previously used for arable elds. The Medieval farms often had names ending on -rud (Jerpsen 1993; 1996, 29, 127). The settlement development has been well studied in the Lofoten area in North Norway, especially on the island of Vestvgy. Olav Sverre Johansen has come to the conclusion that the number of farms were kept on the same level from the Migration Period through the Viking and High Middle Ages. This extraordinary result is explained by a stable economy based on husbandry and shing in a special coastal climate throughout the centuries (O.S. Johansen 1982, 63). A conclusion to be drawn from such local studies is that generally speaking, a major settlement expansion to marginal agrarian lands started during the


Late Viking Age or the High Middle Ages. A population pressure during the Merovingian Period and the Early Viking Age can so far not be documented.

VIKING AGE HOUSE STRUCTURES The few excavated Viking Age house structures from South Norway are, generally speaking, rather small. Some are of the same type as the well-known Viking halls found in Scandinavia and on the Atlantic Islands, e.g. at Oma in Time on Jren (Petersen 1933, 66; Myhre 1980, 345) and at Sndre Nygrd in Fberg, East Norway (Komber 1989, 153). At Ytre Moa in Sogn the small structures were rectangular with an entrance at one end, actually a house type not so very different from the Dublin Viking houses (Bakka 1965). The Ytre Moa farmhouses are exceptional among the excavated Viking Age structures; they indicate that the parting up of the Iron Age longhouse into smaller buildings with different functions had started about AD 800 or earlier. Characteristic for most Viking Age house structures is that the byre is no longer a part of the long-house, as normally during the Migration Period. The byre was now usually a separate building (Myhre 1982, 195). In North Norway, however, several later longhouses with a byre have been excavated. They are parted up in smaller rooms, as in the Migration Period. The best example is the great building from the eighth century at Borg in Lofoten, 83 m long (Munch 1991). A 40 m long long-house with a byre, dated to the eighth and ninth centuries has recently been excavated at ker, Hedmark in East Norway (Pil 1994). The corner timbering technique, known e.g. from the Gokstad grave chamber, has been documented in domestic houses from the Late Viking Age at Vesle Hjerkinn, Dovre (Weber 1986, 197). A kind of stave construction in three-aisled buildings seems to be the dominating building technique during both the Merovingian Period and the Early Viking Age. Differentiated building customs during the Viking Age have been documented. There are regional and social differences to be seen. A clear change of house types about AD 700, as has recently been documented in Denmark (Hvass 1993), cannot be demonstrated in Norway as of yet, but it is highly probable


Acta Archaeologica

Fig. 2. Radiocarbon dates from thirty-three house sites in the mountain valleys at Nyset-Steggje in Sogn. These were used as settlement sites. After Bjrgo et al. 1992, g. 213.

that new house types were introduced before AD 800 also in South Norway.

Fig. 3. Radiocarbon dates

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