Birka: Trade Center and Gateway for Viking Age Sweden
Dear Viking Answer Lady:
I'd like to learn more about the Viking trade center at Birka. Can you help?
(signed) Looking for Viking Shopping Opportunities
Birka sits upon the island of Björkö at the entrance of the Mälar Sea (sometimes called Lake Mälar), not far from the site of modern Stockholm. Birka therefore acted as the trade center and gateway for all of Central Sweden. The major east-west trade route passed along the southern Swedish coastline, through Bornholm, Öland, and Gotland, but Birka was the richest trade center of all. Traders came to Birka from Frisia, Anglo-Saxon England, Germany, the Baltic countries, Greeks from Byzantium, and Orientals.
A visitor approaching the island of Björkö sees first a bare rock due south of the site of Birka. On this rock was a fortress and a place of refuge if the town were attacked, surrounded by a rampart of earth and stones 25' to 50' across, oval in plan and with three gates: one facing north, one south, and one facing east towards the town. Outside the northern gate was the garrison that manned the fortress. North-east of the northern gate is the modern "Black Earth" area upon which the historical site was situated. Two types of houses were in use at Birka: wattle-and-daub homes, and timber or log houses caulked with clay. The settlement area occupies only 30 acres -- less than half the area of Hedeby. A defensive rampart surrounds the settlement, averaging 22' to 39' wide and 6 feet high. Gaps occurring in the line of the rampart indicate that there were probably square wooden towers along this fortification for further protection as well.
Birka was well-defended, since it was no doubt a tempting and rich target for raiders. That the town continued in existence and in trade so long as it did must have been not only due to the town's defenses, but also to the difficulties in bringing military might to bear upon it. The approach through the Skärgård and Lake Mälaren must have been hazardous for strangers, and Adam of Bremen later claimed that rocks had been placed deliberately to make the way difficult. The difficulty of passage may be seen in this passage from the Vita Anskarii, one of the earlist and fullest accounts of a Viking raid on a market place, but one which could not have occurred without the guidance and connivance of Anound, a former Swedish king:
About the same time it happened that a certain Swedish king named Anound had been driven from his kingdom, and was an exile among the Danes. Desiring to regain what had once been his kingdom he sought aid of them and promised them that if they would follow him they would be able to secure much treasure. He offered them Birka... because it contained so many rich merchants, and a large amount of goods and money. He promised to lead them to this place where, without loss to their army, they might gain much that they wanted. Enticed by the promised gifts and eager to acquire treasure, to assist him they filled twenty-one ships with men ready for battle and placed them at his disposal, moreover he had eleven of his own ships. These left Denmark and came unexpectedly to the above-mentioned town (quoted in P.H. Sawyer, "The Causes of the Viking Age", pp. 4-5).
Birka boasted three harbors in its heyday, an artifical harbor to the west, and two natural ones on the northern coast: Kugghamn ("Cog-haven", after the Frisian sailing vessel called a "cog") and Korshamn ("cross-haven", probably originally Kornhamn or "corn-haven") in the east. Still further east, near a smaller town named Salvik (lit. "the place of sale and trade") was a shallower harbor for smaller boats with a shallow draft.
One of the rich sources of information about Viking Age Birka comes from the many burial sites on the island. East of the rampart, outside the town, are some 1600 grave mounds, large and small, beneath the shade of pine and birch. There are other cemetaries as well, one small one between the town and the hilltop fort, perhaps used for the warriors guarding the town? Further east across the island are isolated graves, some without mounds but made of timbered chambers -- these have been located only because of subsidence revealing their location centuries later. Since these graves are often extremely rich, one suspects that these graves were deliberately made without mounds to hide their location and hence to foil would-be grave-robbers.
The burials show clear traces of two separate traditions. The first group of burials are related to Swedish Viking Age burials elsewhere, with cremation layers under grave-mounds, or occasionally boat-shaped stone enclosures. The second type of burials have a foreign influence, scholars think, with inhumation in coffins and chamber graves, found on the edges of town. It is thought that these graves were those of foreign merchants and craftsmen and their families, perhaps Christians or Moslems, or may be converts to Christianity from the local area. Certain of these are believed to be Christian interrments, based on the lack of grave-goods and the occasional presence of small crosses. Indeed, the Christian Cross and the Hammer of Þórr are often found in the same grave, as though to secure the favor of both gods. Another type of religious amulet found at Birka were small miniature chairs or thrones with rounded backs, some attached as pendants to necklaces. It could be that they have nothing more than ornamental significance, but many scholars assume a symbolic function in representing thrones or high seats within the pagan context, relating these to the High Seat of Óðinn, or to Hrothgar's gifstol in Beowulf.
The Scandinavian-influenced graves are of a wide variety of types: rich and filled with grave-goods, others poor; inhumation burials and cremation graves. In the large burial chambers where the dead were not cremated the corpses are usually men, and they were laid there with their weapons, riding gear, food and drink, horse and dog -- and sometimes with a woman as well, a wife or a serf. On the other hand, most of the women's graves from Birka were inhumation burials with simple wooden coffins.
One grave, that of two women, one richly attired and the other laying in a strange, twisted position, has been related by archeaologist Holger Arbman to an account by an Arab writer, Ibn Rustah. He infers that the dead mistress was buried with a live serf who died from suffocation in the burial chamber, recalling Ibn Rustah's account of a similar burial among the Rus:
When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. With him they put his clothes and the gold armlets he wore and, moreover, an abundance of food, drinking bowls, and coins. They also put his favorite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there (quoted in Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings, p. 305)
Trade came northwards from the German and Frankish lands, through the hands of Frisian traders on the Holland coasts. The trade came northwards through the Zuider Zee, through the Frisian Islands, to the mouth of the Eider River on the lower Jutland Peninsula. From here trade crossed the Danish isthmus to reach Hedeby on the Baltic side. Then the traders turned northwards along the Swedish coastline to Birka.
Along the path northwards, traders stopped at a number of bjorkeys, primitive trade centers located at the head of fjords and other waterways. The bjorkeys were trading spots where goods were gathered for shipment down the coasts to more important commercial centers. Gotland was also a trade point, but archaeological remains suggest that Gotland was perhaps the site of trade fairs held at regular intervals rather than being a permanent trade town such as Hedeby or Birka.
Birka was one of the first true urban centers of the North, called portum regni ipsorum qui Birca dicitur by Rimbert in the 9th century. Attempts have been made to calculate Birka's population on the basis of the number of graves. The conclusions vary between 500 and 1,000 inhabitants, but the population was certainly large. The graves also reveal marked social stratification, typical of a large population and important urban center.
Some scholars have speculated that the major trading season at Birka was during the winter, because the finest furs would be available then and because many of those found in Birka burials have crampons for walking in ice and snow affixed to their feet. This ignores the fact that more people die in winter than in summer demographically the world over, and also ignores possible religious belief that describes the land of Hel, where the dead dwell, as a cold and icy realm. Ice skates made of cow bone and ice axes are also common finds at Birka. It seems more likely that the market at Birka operated year-round, dealing in agricultural wares during the late summer and early fall, in furs during the winter, and luxury goods imported from the world over all year round.
Trade items reaching Birka originated at far distant locations. Birka was best-known for its furs, obtained by trade and coercian from the Lapps, Finns, and from Russia. Fine fur cloaks of bear, fox, marten, otter, and beaver have been found in Birkan graves. Birka grave sites reveal Rhineland pottery, glass, metalware, and pallia fresonica (a type of elaborate cloak), as well as textiles from the Middle East and the Orient including Chinese silk, Byzantine embroidery in extremely fine gold thread, passementerie, heavy gold brocades, and plaited cords of the finest quality. Some of the brocades were imported, while others are clearly Scandinavian and of equally fine quality. Birka and Hedeby are the only two Scandinavian locations where high-quality pottery has been found. Some pottery was imported from the Rhineland, some from Finland, but some was produced locally in Birka. Other Scandinavian wares were traded at Birka, including reindeer antler and items made of antler such as hand-carved combs, walrus teeth, amber, and honey from southern Sweden. Coins reaching Birka include gold Frisian solidi and Arabic Samanid silver coins, but interestingly enough it is very rare indeed to find Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian coins minted after 840. Scandinavian-minted coins begin to appear as far back as the ninth century.
Ansgar's biography tells us that Birka was ruled by a council rather than by royal decree. When Ansgar came to Birka, he approached King Olaf, who thought it necessary to cast lots to ascertain the opinion of the gods, and to obtain the opinion of the people at the Thing, "for it is the custom of that country that every public concern depends more on the people's uniform will than on the power of the king." This is not to say that the Swedish king lacked power over Birka. King Olaf declined to simply issue an edict in the matter, because there had recently been a pagan backlash following recent attempts at a Christian mission: Olaf himself is said to have favored Christianity. He first gathered his chieftains and debated with them about Ansgar's mission, then they went into a field and threw lots which revealed that the gods indicated that they should accept Christianity. On the day the Thing assembled the king had the matter proclaimed by a herald. First it aroused opposition, but after a man pointed out the value of the Christian God as a protector on the hazardous journeys to Dorestad, the large Frisian trading town, the Thing agreed to the king's desire.
Birka was situated at the border of three different herreds, "hundreds" or administrative districts, so it would have to have some degree of self-rule, or else face conflicts between the laws of the neighboring herreds, Södermanland law, Vastmanland law, or Uppland law. Birka is situated on the old royal estate-land, and was reachable only by passing through royal-owned waterways, and hence was under the direct protection of the Swedish king at Old Uppsala. Rimbert also tells us in Vita Anskarii that Birka had its own praefectus, a representative for the king who attended the thing-meetings. The laws in Birka would have been maintained and upheld by the Birka Thing, under the leadership of a prefect/lawspeaker/goði. These laws were termed the Bjarkeyjar rettr, the Law of Björkö, and is the oldest urban law codified in Scandinavia. According to Rimbert the laws further distinguished between the negotiatores (the foreign tradesmen) and the populi (the permanent inhabitants).
An important source of information about Birka in the early 800's comes from Rimbert's Vita Anskari (the Life of Ansgar) the account of the Benedictine brother Ansgar's mission to pagan Sweden. Ansgar visited Birka twice, once in 829, and again in 850 or 852. Another useful account is King Alfred the Great's account in Old English, garnered from the trader Wulfstan, describing the Baltic trade route and specifically telling of Hedeby. Adam of Bremen, though writing 200 years later and from second-hand accounts, has much to say about Birka, and specifically about the Swedish people and their culture.
Ansgar's first visit to Birka was nearly his end, as he reached the trading town only after having been attacked by pirates or Vikings enroute. King Björn gave Ansgar a warm reception, and permitted to him to build a church. During the two years that Ansgar was resident in Birka, the Swedish church was incorporated into the Roman ecclesiastical system, and Ansgar was eventually made bishop of Hamburg, with the rights of jurisdiction over the Birka community. The "rights" this conferred, however, were nothing but mere formalities; the Birka 'church' was weak and no serious impact was made on the surrounding pagan culture. Ansgar revisited Birka in the middle of the century, but still had little impact on pagan Birka and Sweden.
The archaeological records suggest that Birka's decline began before 1000. Birka did not end, as did Hedeby, in a blaze of fire, leaving a distinctive layer of ash to mark the town's end to the archaeologist's eye. The ending of Birka is rather quieter -- there are virtually no finds from later than the end of the tenth century:
There are no examples from Birka of the coins of the English King Æthelred II, common elsewhere in Sweden, in which the last substantial amounts of Danegeld were paid; and indeed no coins minted after the middle of the century have been found in the graves. The latest datable find is a hoard of silver, discovered in the 'Black Earth', in which no coin is later than 963 or 967. It has been assumed, though there is no certainty, that Birka was destroyed by the Danish forces which set out to conquer Sweden at the end of the tenth century but were defeated by King Eric the Victorious at the great battle of Fyrisvold described on the rune-stones. Whether this was so or not, Birka drops out of history about 975; its function as the centre of the Baltic trade was taken over by Gotland, and the more local trade of Lake Mälar was divided among several other places on the lake: principally Sigtuna, halfway between Birka and Uppsala (Brøndsted, The Vikings, p. 163).
Sigtuna, a little to the north of Birka on the way to Uppsala, presumably succeeded Birka, and there may have been a period of overlap during which both towns served as trade-centers. Sigtuna was certainly closely connected with the king and coins were minted there around AD 1000. The cause of Birka's fall is not known with any certainty. Other theories suggest that it may have been that the land level rose, thus blocking access to the sea at Södertälje, or that the area's economy changed as opportunities for obtaining Arab silver in the East declined.
King Alrik, son of King Eirik of Uppsala, rules over Vastergotland in
Hedeby begins to be mentioned as a great portus or center of
King Godfred of Denmark is murdered while trying to conquer Charlemagne's
Frisian coastal holdings.
Hemming, Godfred's nephew, becomes ruler in Denmark but lives only a
year. Hemming managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Charlemagne before he
King Horik Godfredsson takes over the rule of Denmark, including Hedeby.
Harald Haraldson, called Klak also claims the title of King of Denmark.
Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious, begins a campaign into Danish
Harald Klak adopts Christianity to gain the support of Charlemagne.
In the words of the Vita Hludovici, he and 400 of his followers were
"drenched in the wave of holy baptism." Harald is accompanied by the Benedictine
missionary, Ansgar as he returns to Denmark with the emperor's blessing.
Harald Klak driven out of Denmark for good, given a fief in Frisia
by the Franks.
The first Christian missionary arrives in Sweden, the Benedictine
brother, Ansgar, accompanied by a helper, Witmar. They are attacked by vikings,
lost their holy books, and finally arrive in Birka on foot and penniless. Birka
is mentioned as an urbus or great city in the Vita Anskari
(The Life of Ansgar). King Horik of Denmark, although himself a
pagan, was instrumental in arranging Ansgar's mission as a diplomatic maneuver
to ensure trade with his Christian neighbors. King Bjorn is the ruler of Sweden
at this time, living in Old Uppsala, and makes Ansgar welcome if only to avoid
antagonizing Louis the Pious.
King Bjorn allows Ansgar to build a church in Birka, where he was the
minister. Ansgar converts Hergeir, the prefect of Birka. Hergeir donates the
land for the church and becomes a staunch Christian.
Ansgar was made bishop of Hamburg, with ecclesiastical jurisdiction
over Birka. Pope Gregory IV names him, jointly with Ebo of Rheims, papal legate
to all the Northern Peoples, including the Swedes, Danes, and Slavs. Little or
no impact was made on the pagan belief in Birka at this time.
- late 800's
Gautbert is appointed as missionary to Birka. His mission is moderately
successful for a while, until suddenly the pagans become angry and kill Gautbert's
companion Nithard and expel Gautbert from Birka.
Louis the Pious dies, marking the beginning of political, economic and
social upheaval in the Frankish Empire.
The Frankish Empire is divided among Louis's three sons, the east going
to Louis the German, the West to Charles the Bald, and the center to Lothar.
The Danes sack Hamburg with a fleet of 600 ships.
Ansgar appointed Archbishop of Hamburg and Bremen
Ansgar's second visit to Birka. The fierce Swedish king Olaf rules in
Sweden during his second visit. The converted prefect, Hergeir, dies. Ansgar
leaves the missionary Erimbert in Birka when he leaves. King Horik of Denmark
gives Ansgar permission to build a church at Hedeby.
Ansgar sends a new mission to Birka. He sends the hermit Ardgar to meet
with Hergeir, the converted Christian prefect of Birka.
Scandinavian coins are produced in imitation of Charlemagne's Dorestad
coinage. The coins have the following inscription:
Front Back CARO DOR LUS STAT
King Horik of Denmark is killed with all his family, except his youngest
son, also named Horik. Horik the Younger is under pressure to close the church in
Hedeby, which he does.
Political and economic considerations lead Horik the Younger to order
the Hedeby church reopened. In a scandalous move, the church is allowed a bell
and further allowed to ring the bell, which had hitherto been scandalous to the
pagans living there.
The Viking Rurik gains a stronghold at the neck of the Jutland
peninsula, in effect becoming a "robber baron" able to exact "taxes" on all trade
moving from Frisia towards Hedeby and Birka. This Rurik is probably a brother of
Denmark has two kings, the brothers Sigfred and Halfdan.
Rimbert writes the Vita Anskari
Two Danish kings, Sigfred and Godfred, are killed.
A mission to Birka is dispatched from Hamburg under Archbishop Unni.
Again, Christianity fails to make any impact and pagan belief prevails.
Gorm the Old is King of Denmark
Birkan trade with Russia drops off sharply. No Samanid silver
minted later than 960 is found anywhere in the Baltic.
- ca. 950
The Arab merchant Al-Tartushi gives his account of a visit to
Lake Mälar's water level begins to drop, making the waterway that
communicates with Birka more and more shallow.
Gotland has grown up from a seasonal trade fair to a thriving center of
trade, and begins to capture trade formerly belonging to Birka due to its better
location on the Baltic trade route.
Birka suddenly ceases to exist. No reason has been discovered for its
abrubt demise, though the changes from 950 on probably all contributed. The trade
which formerly went through Birka moves to Sigtuna, somewhat nearer to the capital
Reign of the Swedish King Olaf Skotkonung. During his reign, Olaf
minted native Swedish coinage based on Anglo-Saxon coins.
Reign of the Swedish King Onund Jacob. King Onund also minted his own
coins, again based on Anglo-Saxon examples.
Hedeby perishes in a conflict between King Harald Hardrada and King
Swein Estridsson of Denmark. The town was raided by Harald and burned to the
Adam of Bremen describes the geography and peoples of Scandinavia, the
town of Birka, and the temple at Old Uppsala in his Gesta Hammaburgensis
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