A Viking Age Mystery
By Michael Wills
Driving west from Stockholm, I found that I could leap-frog from island to island in the huge Lake Mälaren by using the free car ferries. However, when I came to the island of Adelsö, there was no alternative but to park my car and seek the well-hidden jetty from which a small passenger ferry would take me to my destination – the island of Björkö, the island of birches.
Today, Björkö is about 4 by 1.5 kilometres. In the Viking Age, the island was only half as large. This strange geographical phenomenon is caused by the fact that the land has risen. During the Ice Age, there was a 3-kilometre-thick ice sheet over this region. The weight of the ice depressed the land. As the ice melted, the land, no longer encumbered by the heavy ice, rose, and it is still doing so.
My journey was taking place in late September, well outside the tourist season. The only other passenger on the ferry, an elderly woman, told me that she and a few others lived on Björkö year-round, and that for much of the year, they were totally isolated and that this ferry provided their only transport to the outside world. Things were very different twelve hundred years ago.
Several market towns were established on the northern periphery of Europe in the eighth century. The first was Ribe in Denmark, thereafter Staraya Ladoga in Russia, Hedeby in what was Denmark, (now in Germany and called Haitabu), and the town of Birka on Björkö.
Birka was founded by an unidentified King in the first half of the eighth century. He was a powerful landowner who it is believed, resided in a mansion called Hovgården, (traces of which have been found), on the island of Adelsö, just a hundred yards from where I had parked my car. Powerful landowners had realised the value of commerce, and they commissioned the building and furnishing of ships for trading voyages. They could also equip men to protect their ships, for warfare and plundering raids.
There was a huge demand in southern Europe and later in the Middle East, for northern European hides and furs. In what is today Sweden, the ancestors of the Sami who lived in the high mountain regions far to the north and were known in the Viking Age as “Finns”, migrated seasonally between places of winter and summer residence. They were hunters and trappers, and they traded their goods with the farmers of the Mälaren region. The farmers, in turn, traded these with foreigners who visited the area.
The king of Adelsö sought to formalise this trading, and thus founded Birka, the most important commercial centre north of Denmark. The great attraction of Birka for merchants was that in a time of great insecurity and lawlessness, it was protected and provided a safe environment for them to do business. Outside of the harbour, there are signs that it was defended from attack by rows of poles sticking up vertically from the seabed. A high, 880-metre long rampart was built around the town with a wooden superstructure. There were six gates in the rampart and no doubt these were guarded. There is evidence of the presence of a large garrison of trained warriors. Traces of their barracks have been found.
Urbanisation was something completely new in the Viking world, but the town appears to have grown very quickly. The Houses were built, most of them wattle and daub, but some with horizontal planking, according to a town plan. They were quite small, with combined living quarters and workshop areas, and all had access to jetties where trading ships could berth. It is estimated that at its peak, the population of the town was around 1,500.
The prosperity of Birka grew and attracted a multitude of artisans who could make and trade their wares in safety. There were jewellers, silversmiths, glass bead makers. Comb makers, carpenters, bronze casters and blacksmiths, all making goods which found their way into southern Europe and beyond. Archaeological discoveries, including a hoard of 450 Islamic coins prove that there was a lively trade with the Middle East. During the early Birka period, until the mid-800’s, Arabic goods were imported along routes over the Caspian Sea and through the Caucasus, the kingdom of the Khazars. In the course of the ninth century, trade routes were opened further east to Tashkent and Samarkand. Merchants brought wine, spices, silks and polished beads to exchange for hides and furs. They also brought silver, in the form of coins – dirhams. The coins themselves did not have a face value, their worth was calculated according to weight.
In southern Europe, there was much concern that the inhabitants of this important town were not Christian. In autumn 829, Anskar, a Frankish missionary, landed at Birka and began an attempt to convert the followers of Tor, Odin and the other Norse gods. He was unsuccessful and left the island two years later. It is suggested that a small church was built, but its remains have never been found. Anskar made a second futile attempt in 852, but it would be another two hundred years before the inhabitants of this region were all Christian.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence showing that there were many pre-Christian religious rituals practised by the inhabitants. This is particularly so in the case of death. There are over 3000 graves near the ruins of Birka, 1600 of these in the form of mounds are clearly visible today. Excavation of some of these has revealed a lot about Viking Age beliefs regarding death. Many graves had articles which it was considered the dead would need in their after-life journey, these included axes, cooking utensils, knives, jewellery and combs. The most prominent chamber graves must have been those of wealthy men and women for these contained horses, dogs and bodies wearing richly decorated clothing.
Wandering around the remains of the once thriving commercial centre it is difficult to visualise how things once were. The bustling harbour would have been full of ships, merchants from all over the known world, dressed in the garb of their own countries, would have been selling and bartering in whatever common language they could use. The workshops attached to the houses would have been hives of activity as artisans were busy producing their wares. No doubt there were representatives of the king, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings and the garrison would have been deployed to keep order. It was clearly a very successful and prosperous town.
And then, within a very short period, at the end of the ninth century, Birka was abandoned. Why?
Archaeologists insist that there are no signs that the town was plundered or burnt, for there would otherwise be a layer of ash in the soil. Was there an epidemic? Did travellers from abroad bring some illness which decimated the population? Is it possible that the king ordered an evacuation of the town in favour of his new capital at nearby Sigtuna? Whatever the cause, by the beginning of the eleventh century the only humans left in Birka were those in the graves, the remains of whom, as they are excavated, are helping to piece together the story of the town and perhaps one day may reveal what really happened.
As the little ferry motored slowly back to Adelsö, I looked over the stern and watched as the high hill which was the garrison’s lookout post, disappeared into the mist. I knew that there were stories to be written about this mysterious place and I am pleased that researching for them took me back there four times.
Every July, Viking Age re-enactors from all over Northern Europe gather at Birka to commemorate the heritage of the town.
Michael E Wills was born on the Isle of Wight and educated at the Priory Boys School and Carisbrooke Grammar. He trained as a teacher at St Peter’s College, Saltley, Birmingham, before working at a secondary school in Kent for two years.
After re-training to become a teacher of English as a Foreign Language he worked in Sweden for thirteen years. During this period, he wrote several English language teaching books. His teaching career has included time working in rural Sweden, a sojourn that first sparked his now enduring interest in Scandinavian history and culture – an interest that after many years of research, both academic and in the field, led him to write Finn’s Fate and the sequel novel, Three Kings – One Throne. His interest in teaching children led him to start writing stories for young readers and in 2015 he published the first two of a quartet of novels for 8 -13 year-olds in a series called “Children of the Chieftain”.
Today, Michael works part-time as Ombudsman for English UK, the national association of English language providers. Though a lot of his spare time is spent with grandchildren, he also has a wide range of interests including researching for future books, writing, playing the guitar, carpentry and electronics. He spends at least two months a year sailing his boat which is currently in Scandinavia.
You can find out more and stay up-to-date by visiting his website.
Children of the Chieftain : Betrayed
When the town of Birka is raided by the most fearsome of Vikings, the Jomsviking, many of the people are captured. A pair of orphans are forced to take action and lead their friends in a desperate attempt to rescue the captives. But not all of their allies are as loyal as they should be. The brave children are betrayed and find themselves in grave danger of captivity, and risk of being sold into slavery.