The Limfjord in the Viking Age: Centralization and Catastrophe

The Limfjord cuts across northern Denmark, offering a short and well-sheltered route from the North Sea to the Baltic. As maritime traffic picked up in the late 600s, ships began to ply the Limfjord more often. Traders coming from the commercial centers of the Frisian coast were taking their enterprise north, and by 705, they established a seasonal trading camp at Ribe in western Denmark. It gave them a final base before braving the North Sea into the Baltic. They carried beads with them wherever they went, and a few of their beads ended up in the young Limfjord settlement of Bejsebakken, indicating that they were using this route for their traffic by about 750.

Beads of orange, red, blue, and green glass from the Iron Age, from the cemetery at Lindholm Høje.
An elite circle of society made their home along the Limfjord as early as the 400s, rising to prominence just as Roman governance ebbed in the West. These beads were likely made in the Byzantine Empire and headed north into the Limfjord between 540 and 660 AD. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

In the mid-700s, the seasonal camps of southern Scandinavia had just started to transition into a more permanent network of trading towns. Ribe might have led the way, perhaps around 750. Åhus, Ribe’s sister site in southern Sweden, made a similar transition before 790. And the Limfjord was likewise affected, with a new settlement picking up at Sebbersund at about the same time.

wasp-bead-from-sebbersund-760-790
A “wasp” bead from Sebbersund, ca. 760–790. One of the earliest artifacts from Sebbersund, which would later develop into a major trading port for traffic taking the Limfjord between the east and west coasts of Jutland. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

What these three sites show us—Ribe, Sebbersund, Åhus—is that on the very cusp of viking raids on England, Ireland, and France, a stable network of settlements had just recently been formed in Scandinavia. These settlements offered a reliable route for shipping goods out of the North Sea and into the Baltic, and the Limfjord was the linchpin that held this network together.

But the sites of the Limfjord share a common problem with many sites from the Viking Age. Although we have a large number of artifacts that can tell us about the early and late periods of these places, there’s not much to fill in our knowledge of the middle decades of their existence.

A model of the Lindholm Høje cemetery and an adjacent settlement, as they may have looked during the early Viking Age, ca. 800.
A model of the Lindholm Høje cemetery and its adjacent settlement, as they may have looked during the early Viking Age, ca. 800. Lindholm Høje sits atop a hill overlooking the Limfjord, and in windy weather it sounds just like the sea. Many of the graves have stones around them, laid out in the shapes of ships—a strong indicator of just how important sea travel was for the early Viking Age residents of the Limfjord. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

The early phase ended sometime in the mid-800s, as the flow of glass beads into Sebbersund ground to a halt. A single coin minted by Louis the Pious between 822 and 840 was lost at the fledgling settlement of Aggersborg, indicating that the Limfjord was briefly but abortively linked into the coin economies of Western Europe. And the pagan cemetery at Lindholm Høje was first restructured and then subsequently abandoned after almost 500 years of continuous use. Local communities were reinventing who they were by redefining the ways they lived and died.

Blue and yellow drawn beads of early Islamic glass.
Tiny drawn beads are some of the last datable artifacts from the early phase of settlement at Sebbersund. These beads probably date to 800–850 and were made in the Eastern Mediterranean—probably in the early caliphate’s glass factories in Egypt or Syria. Similar beads have been found at places like Ribe and Hedeby, which also developed into important trading towns during the Viking Age. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

When archaeologists regain clarity in the mid-900s, the Limfjord region looked completely different. Sand dunes had covered the pagan burials at Lindholm Høje, and the residents of Sebbersund had begun to bury their dead alongside one of Scandinaiva’s earliest churches. The town of Aggersborg was burned to the ground, and on top of its ashes, the Danish king Harald Bluetooth had built a huge Trelleborg-style fortress.

Viking Age combs from Sebbersund, Jutland, Denmark.
My research focuses on east-west routes during the early Viking Age, but the Limfjord was also an important north-south route. It seems that during this period, the Limfjord also had a channel leading north to Norway. Antlers taken from reindeer and caribou from northern Norway—perhaps traded from the nomadic Saami tribes—were crafted into fine combs at places like Sebbersund on the Limfjord. People proudly carried these items as badges of their good hygiene and their ability to acquire exotic goods. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)

Aggersborg dominated the maritime crossroads between England, Norway, and the Danish archipelago. Its walls stood 240 meters apart, enclosing 48 longhouses, each 32 meters in length. It was a remarkable sign of Danish royal power for anyone traveling through the Limfjord. Harald Bluetooth’s great-grandson Harthacnut installed a royal mint nearby at Aalborg. And one of his successors used the fort as a gathering point for his fleet—part of a failed attempt to invade England in 1085.

Ship stone setting from the Iron Age and Viking Age cemetery at Lindholm Høje, northern Jutland, Denmark.
A ship setting from Lindholm Høje. The weather in northern Jutland often mixes fog and wind, giving the impression of the spray of the sea. Many graves at Lindholm Høje have these ship-shaped stone settings, and it’s easy to imagine the dead were thought to sail off into the afterlife, much like the mythical Baldr, son of Odin. Sand dunes covered these graves during the 900s, until they were uncovered by archaeologists a thousand years later. They make an unearthly site to visit today. (Lindholm Høje, Nørresundby, DK.)

The Limfjord had evolved from a wayside for Frisian traders into the locus of Danish royal power and imperial ambitions. But sometime shortly before 1200, the shifting sands of the Jutland coast closed its access to the North Sea. This was no minor crisis. The Limfjord, once a proud commercial highway and the mustering place for armies, had turned suddenly into a brackish backwater. The suddenness of this change offers a grim reminder that even small environmental changes can rend a political and economic fabric that had been centuries in the making.

Glass beads from a cremation burial at Lindholm Høje, Denmark.
Lindholm Høje has 549 identified graves, spanning from the fifth to tenth centuries. It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in Scandinavia. Many of the dead were cremated together with their grave goods, so it’s difficult to identify a large number of the artifacts. Nevertheless, the number of blue beads in this group, and the complex mosaic patterns still visible on the big lumps of melted glass, allow us to assign this particular grave to the early 700s. (Lindholm Høje Museet, Nørresundby, DK.)
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3 thoughts on “The Limfjord in the Viking Age: Centralization and Catastrophe

  1. Susan Pickering

    Hi Matthew, If the Limfjord provided a route from the North Sea to the Baltic, what was the point of the network at Hedeby where goods had to be unloaded and transferred by land and on to the river Treene?

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  2. It’s hard to tell but easy to speculate. Hedeby seems to have flourished from its early years, after the Danish king Godfred reportedly established the town in 808. All the beads I saw from Sebbersund in the Limfjord were styles that were common before 808 (although some continued in use later through the Viking Age). On the other side of the Viking Age, Hedeby declined and was reportedly destroyed in 1066 (although I’m a bit skeptical about the source, and the neighboring town of Schleswig was already starting to grow). This was the period when the Limfjord again enjoyed attention from the likes of Harald Bluetooth (r. 958-986) and Harthacnut (r. 1035-1042). So it seems to me that when the Danish kings turned their attention to Hedeby in the early 800s, the Limfjord faltered, but when they turned their attention to the Limfjord in the late 900s, it was Hedeby that began to falter.

    How these things were linked is an open question. Some scholars emphasize the role of kings in laying out Viking-Age trading towns, and there’s good reason to believe that elites were involved in establishing first Ribe and later Hedeby. But I personally doubt that kings had enough influence to enact anything like what we would consider an economic policy, such as determining which routes merchants traveled. I suspect instead that royal economics worked more like a protection racket, where kings offered merchants a safe place to stay and a few safe routes in or out—for a fee. Merchants could pay the fee and benefit from trading with other like-minded merchants, or they could risk not paying the fee and try their luck with pirates. The routes used for trade thus depended on both kings who would guarantee the safety of merchants and merchants who decided to trust a particular king or to try their chances elsewhere.

    In the case of crossing Denmark, the Limfjord would provide an easy way through without having to carry anything over land or risk the pirates and storms of the Skagerrak north of Jutland. But a strong king might make crossing the base of Jutland both a faster and a safer route, and as the community of Hedeby came together, merchants could specialize in either North Sea or Baltic trade, presumably increasing their efficiency and profits. Of course, once the security of Hedeby came under threat, the Limfjord might again present an appealing alternative. That, at least, is how things seem to me.

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  3. Susan Pickering

    Thank you. Your ideas make a lot of sense to me. A royal protection racket would explain the base at Sliesthorp, and the only gate in the Danevirke fortification. A secure North Sea/Baltic trading route into the Carolingian Empire would have made Hedeby attractive (and a prize for Carolingian emperors).
    Also your comment about a strong king being able to guarantee merchant safety. Horik I comes to mind.
    I suspect Danish raiding fleets mustered in Limfjord and that a key reason for its ascendancy in the late 900s was royal Danish interest the invasion of England.
    Best of luck with your PhD

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