Viking Age emporia around the Baltic Sea – a cul-de-sac of the European urbanization?

Viking Age emporia around the Baltic Sea – a cul-de-sac of the European urbanization?

By Mateusz Bogucki

Making a Medieval Town: Patterns of Early Medieval Urbanization, edited by Andrzej Buko and Mike McCarthy (Warszawa, 2010)

Introduction: In northern Europe a new type of settlement appeared in the first millennium AD. In coastal areas as well as in the lower reaches of large rivers, settlements were founded in which traditional economic pursuits such as agriculture and hunting played a minor role. These new sites functioned as centres of production, foci for trade, and provided services for merchants and travellers. In the archaeological literature these settlements have been variously termed: “emporia”, “ports-of-trade”,” early forms of pre-urban nuclei”, “proto-towns”, “Seehandelsplatz”, and “vik”. Becauset heir existenc we as one of the phenomena which distinguished prehistoric periods from the Early Medieval-Viking Age in Northern Europe, it is important to clarify the chronological terminology used in the text. In Scandinavian archaeology the Viking Age extends from the 8th to the mid 11th centuries whilst the subsequent period is referred to as the “Early Middle Ages”. In central Europe including Russia, Poland and Germany, the term “Early Middle Ages” extends from the 6th to the mid 13th centuries. In this paper “Early Middle Ages” will be used according to central European archaeological tradition. Other criteria used for the beginnings of the Viking Age in art, production, burial customs are defined elsewhere.

Karl Polanyi suggested that one of the most important characteristics of ports-of-trade or emporia is their location. They were always situated at the cross-roads of trade-routes, frequently in naturally protected places such as estuaries, fords or bays, situations that were essential for reasons of defence. Furthermore, emporia were also positioned on political, cultural, ethnic or geographical borders, areas ńat may also be described as “no-mans-land”. Another important pre-condition for emporia was the protection given by local chieftains who were bribed with luxury goods, especially high-quality weapons. Their support was considered necessary in order to guarantee peace and safe trading conditions.

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