Worms and deep Viking levels

Why drive 3 hours from Copenhagen to see a hole in a side-street of medieval Ribe in western Denmark? Passion or sheer folly, my reasoning is simple: the Northern Emporium project led by Søren Sindbæk from Aarhus University is an exceptional glimpse of early Viking levels the like of which are unlikely to be seen again for a generation.

Excavations began in Ribe in the 1970s. Mogens Bencard located the emporium founded by the Danish king, Ongendus, not below the medieval and modern town – where Ansgar’s cathedral was constructed, but on the opposite side of the little river here. New excavations by Stig Jensen and Claus Feveile during the 1990s and early 2000s provided rich detail about the early history of this improbable place. Notably, Ribe evolved from a beach market to a town with properties within the span of the 8th century, and issued silver coins – so-called Wodan Monster sceattas – in the earlier 8th century. Historians long used to describing the Danes as primitive pagans have come to realize the defects of their Christian, monastic texts as the complex character of urban Viking living has been dated with forensic precision by dendrochronology. Ribe at first blush confounds history while at the same time showing the promise of archaeology to re-read the familiar texts with the material evidence to hand. Hence, my visit.

8th-c buildings cut into the sand

Søren has already published good outline accounts of the new project (see, for example, Current World Archaeology 90 (August/September) 2018). What is astonishing to see is the depth of the stratigraphy. First there are post-built structures inserted into the beach sand. Then come carpentered buildings, evidently permanent by the 720s or so. Then a hiatus – the celebrated mid-8th-century North Sea economic recession perhaps – then an astonishing palimpsest of house levels, hearth upon hearth, rising higher and higher between roughly 780 and 880. Jammed into these layers are wonderful treasures: imported glass and ceramics from the Carolingians, Abbasid beads and combs made here from reindeer bone.

Combs made of reindeer bone after washing

As Søren proudly says, this is high definition archaeology: five or six excavators, all professionals, using modern scanning surveying equipment, furnish records and mountains of finds for a small army of specialists in the project’s stores. This is state-of-the art and thrilling in every way.

So, why the deep palimpsest of levels as opposed to amorphous black earth found in many similar places? “No worms,” Søren responds; “this had been heathland. Without the worms the layers are preserved.” The absence of worms has offered up extraordinary Viking treasures which will lead us to re-think urban histories, diplomatic relations and commercial connections throughout north-west Europe. Most of all we’ll have to come to terms with the start-up mentality of Ongendus and his fellow Vikings.

Soren shows off the worm-less Viking stratigraphy

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