Viking’s Most Powerful Military City Unearthed in Northern Germany

Viking’s Most Powerful Military City Unearthed in Northern Germany

A battle-scarred, 8th-century town unearthed in northern Germany may be the earliest Viking settlement in the historical record, archaeologists announced recently.

Ongoing unearthings at Füsing (map), near the Danish border, link the site to the “lost” Viking town of Sliasthorp—first recorded in A.D. 804 by royal scribes of the powerful Frankish ruler Charlemagne.

Used as a military base by the earliest Scandinavian rulers, Sliasthorp’s location was unknown until now, said dig leader Andres Dobat, of Aarhus University in Denmark.

Whether it proves to be the historic town or not, the site offers valuable insights into the military organization and town planning in the early Viking period, according to the study team.

Some 30 buildings have been revealed since excavations began in 2010. Aerial photographs and geomagnetic surveys indicate about 200 buildings altogether.

Chief among them is a Viking longhouse measuring more than a hundred feet (30 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide.

The longhouse’s burnt-out remains seemingly bear witness to a violent attack: Arrowheads found inserted in its charred wall posts suggest the communal building was at some point set on fire and shot at, Dobat said.

A caltrop—a type of small, spiked iron weapon that was scattered on the ground for the enemy to step on—was also found at the entrance.

“Possibly [the attackers] even laid out caltrops so people running out of the burning building would run into them,” he said.

Other finds include precious adornments, glass beads, and silver coins.

“Lost” Town Key to Viking Defense

The town is dated to the same period as a nearby fortification was known as the Danevirke, a 19-mile-long (30-kilometer-long) system of defensive earthworks built by the Danes in about A.D. 700.

“It’s clear from the relation of the site to the Danevirke structure that [the freshly discovered town] was of great military importance as well,” Dobat said.

According to the A.D. 804 account, Sliasthorp was used as a base by the Viking king Gøtrik—also called as Godfred or Gudfred—who repaired and reestablished the Danevirke in the early 800’s due to the threat posed by the northward expanding Frankish Empire.

“That is exactly the time that Scandinavia gets on the radar” of the Frankish scribes, Dobat noted.

Though the town itself was not fortified, the site is surrounded by water and wetlands, so access was limited to a narrow land bridge.

Small wood-and-earth dwellings, or pit houses, at the site, may have served as accommodation for Viking fighters, Dobat said.

“At times it might have been a temporary garrison town,” such as when the Danevirke had to be defended, he said.

The town may also have accommodated workers who built the huge Danevirke fortification.

“It was a major construction work, which involved a massive investment of human resources,” Dobat stated.

Viking Power Base

From the town, Viking kings or their chieftains would have controlled trade and access to the area, the study team suggests.

Hedeby, an international port and trading center in the Viking era, lay just 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. While the Füsing site is Scandinavian in character, the buildings down the road in Hedeby are German and Slavonic in style.

“We have the global traders and craftsmen at one place, and the Scandinavian elite a few kilometers away,” Dobat said.

Füsing’s strategic location likely means merchants needed permission from Viking leaders to enter Hedeby.

The Excavations are “giving us a lot of new perspectives on the character and anatomy of these early urban communities,” Dobat added.

Mads Dengsø Jessen, of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, included that the new discoveries are important to understanding the development of Viking-era trade centers like Hedeby.

“Prior to these excavations, we did not really know what the background was to these rich cities,” said Jessen, who is not part of the study team.

The Füsing site shows “there is actually a significant settlement before the ports of trade start to gain significance,” he added. “There is a very deep local foundation for these international ports.”

“Local chieftains would control the area,” he said. “There might have been some sort of taxation or rent that the traders paid to them.”

As for whether the newfound site is Sliasthorp, Jessen urged caution, but conceded it’s “the best candidate we have for now.”