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The outlines of the “first of its kind” Viking shipyard found at Birka, Sweden, revealing just how industrious and trade savvy the Vikings were at their peak development point. (Stockholm University)

SCIENCE & TECH: Unique Viking Shipyard Found Showing A “Maritime Cultural Landscape”

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An archaeological investigation of maritime remains connected to the Viking Age town of Birka in Sweden carried out since August 2020 has revealed a “first of its kind” Viking shipyard. Birka, also known as the Viking City, was occupied in the 9th and 10th centuries. The Viking shipyard and settlement of Birka is located on Björkö Island in Lake Mälaren, a short distance west of Stockholm. Developed as Sweden’s first ever city, Birka and its shipyard would become one of the most important trading centers in the Viking period, reports The Local .

Birka’s Viking Shipyard: An Unprecedented Maritime Find!

Birka emerged as a major trading hub around 750 AD for Viking merchants and tradesmen from Scandinavia, and traders from Europe and even further afield. The Birka Viking shipyard find helps counter earlier theories about the maritime activities of the Viking Age.

The group’s archaeological findings have been published by Stockholm University in a publicly accessible report . The investigations were carried out by the Archaeological Research Laboratory (AFL), Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University.

This is an especially important find from a historical point of view as the Vikings were heavy maritime traders and travelers, with their geographical expanse stretching from Greenland all the way to Central Asia .

The Birka Viking shipyard is a “first of its kind” and stands as a powerful example of the city-like trading posts that emerged in Nordic countries during the Viking Age (793-1066 AD). The archaeologists’ findings point to an extensive maritime cultural landscape on the northern part of Björkö Island. The “maritime construction is a unique find with few parallels,” the researchers said in their report.

The outlines of the “first of its kind” Viking shipyard found at Birka, Sweden, revealing just how industrious and trade savvy the Vikings were at their peak development point. ( Stockholm University )

“A site like this has never been found before,” Sven Isaksson, Professor of Archaeological Science at Stockholm University, said in a press release . “It’s the first of its kind, but the finds convincingly show that it was a shipyard.”

“Through systematic inventory, mapping and drone surveys , 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,” Isaksson added.

The four trenches excavated in August 2020 and August 2021, revealed some very interesting artifacts at the Birka Viking shipyard. One find was a dug-out hollow that had stones at the sides and at the bottom. The bottom of the hollow revealed a stone frame and small postholes facing the waterfront, which, according to the researchers, are the remains of a boat slipway .

The archaeological excavations also led to the discovery of numerous boat repair artifacts including carpentry tools and slate whetstones. Isaksson adds that these finds show with “great clarity” that this is a site where Vikings “served their ships.”

Birka: A Viking Town of Many Firsts

Birka overall has a rather interesting history and numerous historical firsts including the distinction of being the first urban settlement in Scandinavia. Birka was also the first location in Sweden, in 831 AD, that hosted a Christian congregation. Birka was also a garrison, as evidenced by the town ramparts. This allowed it to function as a legal, economic, and social boundary, along with being a strong line of defense. The space within the ramparts was known as the “Black Earth’s Port Area.” Birka is also strongly connected with walrus hunting, amber, and honey.

The original meaning of the word Birka probably relates to an old Latin word meaning “market place.” In fact, Birka was a powerful trading center where furs, iron goods, and craft products were offered in exchange for various commodities and things from Europe and Western Asia.

While previous excavations have been within the walls of the town ramparts, the newly discovered Viking shipyard is located beyond the ramparts at Kugghamn. The archaeological team is interested in understanding Viking ideas about fortifications and security and to that end they are looking for evidence of specific docking rules, and how ship docking related to the rampart barrier.

Reconstructed Viking boats in Birka, Sweden, which earns considerable tourism revenue from its prestigious Viking history. (Holger.Ellgaard / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reconstructed Viking boats in Birka, Sweden, which earns considerable tourism revenue from its prestigious Viking history. (Holger.Ellgaard / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Carrying the Investigations Forward

“It’s not just about the first urban environments but shows an intensive exchange of trade goods and ideas between people,” said Sven Kalmring, associate professor and expert on ports and urbanization in the Viking Age at the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, who led the investigations together with Isaksson.

Now, many of the follow-up investigations are being carried out in laboratories. We are likely to learn much more about the exciting history of this Viking maritime hub in the coming months.

The other mystery that may exceed the scope of this research is the decline of Birka. Somewhere by 960 or 975, Birka was abandoned entirely. At the same time, a Christian town called Sigtuna was established 35 kilometers (22 miles) to the northeast. That could be one probable reason for the decline and sudden abandonment of Birka, but more research is required to piece together the entire puzzle.

Top image: Viking ships like these were built, serviced, loaded, and unloaded at Viking shipyards across Scandinavia, and the recent Birka Viking shipyard discovery is a “first of its kind” in the world of Viking ports. Source: Dimart_Graphics / Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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