Central Places in the Viking Age

In the past two weeks, I’ve had the rare opportunity to look at necklace beads from both Uppåkra and Sorte Muld—two high-status sites from the Scandinavian Iron Age—back to back. Both sites drew great wealth from their positions at the crossroads of southern Baltic Sea routes, and both seem to have been flourishing centers for pagan cults throughout the early Middle Ages. Archaeologists call sites like these “central places” because they seem to have functioned as enduring focal points for the communities that lived around them. More recently, both sites have been the locations of major archaeological excavations (Sorte Muld 1985–87, 2001; Uppåkra: 1997–present). This work has dramatically increased what we know about Scandinavia between the Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Norse Sea Kings.

One of my favorite beads from Sorte Muld. It’s similar to beads that have been found in southern Germany near Stuttgart and dated to the 500s—at a time when Sorte Muld was flourishing. I like it in part because the bead maker needed to twist the red-and-yellow glass in two different directions to make this design, just like a weaver might alternate S- and Z-wound threads. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

But with the advent of the Viking Age, our knowledge about both sites comes to an end. It’s not because these sites were abandoned. On the contrary, both have produced indicators that at least some measure of prosperity continued into the Viking period. The problem is that modern plowing has churned up the top 30 cm of soil, which corresponds roughly with the amount of soil accumulated in southern Scandinavia since the Viking Age. So although the topsoil at both sites contains numerous artifacts potentially dating to the Viking Age or later, archaeologists can’t connect these tossed and tumbled artifacts with a particular place from which they came.

This spectacular bead from Uppåkra measures only 12.0×16.5 mm, and yet it contains over 1300 pieces of glass! This mosaic technique was used for many hundreds of years with many of the same basic designs. I’ve seen similar elements in Viking Age beads, but the very small scale of this glasswork seems more Roman to me. Since this bead was found in the plowed-up surface dirt, we don’t have many clues for a precise date unless we can find other, better-dated beads to compare with it. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

The loose nature of these finds, however, is an advantage of another kind. Artifacts found in graves or buildings can tell us a lot about the lives of individuals and families. But the scattered finds from a settlement force us to think more about the community as a whole. And although my own interests lie in the Viking Age, these beads are mixed in with beads that must have come from earlier periods. I had the great opportunity to fill in some gaps of my own knowledge about these earlier beads, first by examining some of the Uppåkra beads together with Karin Lundqvist, a Swedish archaeologist who works on the earlier Iron Age, and later by looking at some of the unique finds from Sorte Muld with Torben Sode, a Danish authority on glass. This has allowed me to think more clearly about how the Viking Age fits into the longer histories of Scandinavian societies.

A blue segmented bead from Uppåkra. Scandinavians imported these Middle Eastern beads in large numbers during the early Viking Age (750-850), although they were much more common at the crafts and trading town of Åhus than at the nearby central places of Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

So what has my study shown us about these places? Well, first and foremost, it’s confirmed that their use and probably occupation continued into the Viking Age. And by comparing these collections to other collections of Viking Age beads, we can get a sense of what kind of communities Uppåkra and Sorte Muld became. For example, I recently studied a large number of blue segmented beads that came from the craftworking town of Åhus, and we know that these came from an area that was inhabited around 790–850. Both Uppåkra and Sorte Muld had similar beads, indicating that they were similarly occupied during these first generations of the Viking Age.

This dark brown bead from Sorte Muld turns a pretty purple-pink when held up to the light. I saw several similar beads from Åhus but none from Uppåkra. This suggests that in the early 800s it was much easier for a merchant traveling from Åhus to sail 100 km (64 mi) by sea to Sorte Muld than to cross 75 km (47 mi) overland to Uppåkra. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

But they had these beads in much smaller numbers, suggesting that their connections to these new trading towns were in fact very limited. Instead, they had a large number of wound beads, which show up in all sorts and sizes. This variety is much more comparable to the beads I recently examined from Lousgård, a wealthy cemetery on Bornholm. So while the people living at Uppåkra and Sorte Muld may have had few direct interactions with the town sites of the new Viking Age economy, they nevertheless seem to have maintained their wealth and prestige.

A final note of thanks is due to the museum staff, researchers, and scholars who shared their time and resources with me in both Lund and Rønne. Their generous support has helped turn the objects of the past into valuable treasures for me, and I hope for others as well. Mange tak! Tack så mycket!