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Viking shipyard discovered at Birka

Archaeologists in Sweden have located a unique Viking Age shipyard site at Birka, an important Norse town. The discovery challenges previous theories about how the maritime activities of the Viking Age were organised.

“A site like this has never been found before, it is the first of its kind, but the finds convincingly show that it was a shipyard”, says Sven Isaksson, Professor of Archaeological Science at Stockholm University, who led the investigations together with Sven Kalmring, associate professor at Stockholm University and expert on ports and urbanisation in the Viking Age at the Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie in Schleswig.

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The site found consisted of a stone-lined depression in the Viking Age shore zone with a wooden boat slip at the bottom. The finds at the site consist of large quantities of both unused and used boat rivets, whetstones made from slate and woodworking tools. “The finds of artefacts from the area shows with great clarity that this is where people have served their ships”, adds Isaksson.

Digital 3D model of stone packing in one of the investigated trenches. On top of the stone packing was a layer of sand and originally there was also a wooden boat slip at the bottom. Traces of this can be seen in the form of post-holes and a stone frame at the bottom. View to the south. Photogrammetry, modelling and image produced by Fredrik Lundström. Image courtesy Fredrik Lundström / Stockholm University

Previous investigations have observed several of the remains before, but it is through the latest finds that it has become possible to take a comprehensive view. “Through systematic survey, mapping and drone investigations,” Isaksson notes, “we can now show that Birka, in addition to the urban environment, also has a very rich maritime cultural landscape with remains of everything from jetties to boat launches and shipyards.”

Ships and shipping are characteristic of the Viking Age in the Nordic countries, both for warfare and for trade. One expression of Viking Age long-distance trade is the city-like trading posts that sprang up in the Nordic countries at the time. In Sweden, the best-preserved example is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Birka on Björkö Island in Lake Mälaren. “It’s not just about the first urban environments, but shows an intensive exchange of trade goods and ideas between people”, says Sven Kalmring.

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The town ramparts around Birka functioned not only as a defence, but also as a legal, economic and social boundary. Previous investigations of harbour facilities in Birka have mostly been carried out inside the town rampart, in the area known as the Black Earth harbour area, and below the so-called Garrison. The newly discovered shipyard is located, along with a number of other maritime remains, outside Birka’s town rampart, along the northern shore of Björkö.

Kalmring explains that “By investigating various maritime elements in connection with a possible house site in Kugghamn, we are now trying to get an overall view of a very exciting and previously archaeologically completely unexplored environment.”

In order to secure source material that can add nuance to our knowledge of Birka’s maritime cultural landscape, the archaeological investigations are continuing. Among other things, the remains of a boat landing site located outside the town rampart are being investigated, similar to the shipyard site and unlike the previously investigated harbour remains in the Black Earth. Another question the archaeologists are trying to answer is who was allowed to dock here.

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“Could anyone land anywhere, or did it matter if it was inside or outside the town rampart?” ask Isaksson. “There is much to ponder here. But for us, the investigation doesn’t end with the fieldwork, we continue in the lab. By using analytical laboratory techniques, we get more information out of the fragmentary source material than is otherwise possible.”

Digital terrain model based on a drone survey and levelled with a GNSS receiver produced by Mathias Friberg. The map is produced by Sven Isaksson. The colour scale blue – turquoise – bluegreen marks what has been water and beach zone (ca 5,0 – 5,75 m ö h) during the Viking Age. It is clear that the bridge remains (numbers 1-5) in the modelled area are spatially connected to this beach zone. Imager credit – Model: Mathias Friberg Map: Sven Isaksson

The article, “En vikingatida varvsplats vid Kugghamn, Birka,” by Sven Isaksson, Markus Fjellström, Sven Kalmring and Lena Holmquist, is published in Rapporter från Arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet. Click here to read it.

Top Image: The site found consisted of a stone-lined depression in the Viking Age shore zone with a wooden boat slip at the bottom. The finds at the site consist of large quantities of both unused and used boat rivets, whetstones made from slate and woodworking tools. Photo by Paul Parker/Stockholm University

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