Viking Crime Scenes – the Docklands

5 September, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have an article from a Swedish journal:

Sven Kalmring. Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: Crime in Hedeby and Birka. Fornvännen 2010:4, pp 281-290.

Attuna District Court AttundaTingsrattStockholm.htm

Attuna Tingsrätt—the Attuna District Court – is modern cube with aluminium, steel and  glass façades, opaque and impenetrable, a modern material metaphor signalling that justice is something taken care of by civil servants behind maximal security out of sight – not a public matter. This may be wrong or right, or just an unfair interpretation, but at least during
the Carolingian Iron Age, cia  (750-1025 ce) crime, justice, sanction and gaining legal force were an open social concern in any community, probably not taken care of as well in the Attuna District Court.  Nor were the names of the accused kept secret till they were convicted.

The 14th word in Sven Kalmring’s (SK:s) article and the first in the second sentence is Archaeo-Criminology. In some way this concept, a neologism as it happens, is the theme of the article. Notwithstanding, it is absent from both abstract and summary, but evidently linked to the caption of the section following the introduction: Worth Punishing: Normative-social Criteria of Injustice – which soon leads us, not to a theoretical discussion, but to the Hedeby Harbour and some contexts that may be indicative of different crimes such as theft, counterfeit and homicide, i.e. crimes that stand out as most probable even in prehistory because they are all too human. The last category, arms smuggling, would have been interesting if arms smuggling could in any way be proved, which it cannot. Nor can homicide. To be fair, SK, who is very well read and takes source criticism seriously, doesn’t argue that homicide or smuggling can in fact be attested.

The reason why it is difficult to prove smuggling and homicide rests with the fact that crimes classified as ‘smuggling’ and ‘homicide’ are denotations of very specific concepts difficult to define inasmuch as they are indicative also  of very common-place cultural patterns of behaviour, i.e. distributing goods and killing people, which may or may not be a crime. The demand for significance in the material context is in other words high if we venture to document such very specific crimes. Not even intentionally killed bog people are clear-cut cases. Actually, it took the context of the Bocksten man so make homicide likely(1). Proof is difficult because we often take death caused while offering or fighting or punishing the unfree or base to be extenuating circumstances if someone is charged with murder.

It would seem from the emphatic text: on trabu nurminr o kniri asbiarnaR, which may nevertheless be an allegation, that the murderers cleared out and could not be prosecuted.

This is not to say that CIA Scandinavians did not commit murder since we must at least suspect early 11th century Northmen to have killed Gerbjorn (2). Nor is it to say that going home from abroad, Scandinavians refrained from bringing whatever they could and fancied, be it purchased objects, gifts, contraband, stolen goods or any item that would fit the notion of external acquisition, even if acquiring and bringing it with them would mean breaking one or two laws and paragraphs.

Thieves, counterfeiters and Viking bandidos are to be expected as soon as goods are put in locked chests and coin circulations a fact. Innumerable coins bear witness of Scandinavian fear of counterfeit coins. SK:s example, the cast lead coins from the harbour is an interesting one, but cheating with metal – passing pewter for silver or gilded copper for gold, is nothing new to a harbour district such that of Hedeby .

The Hedeby chest long after and before it was broken into HedebyChest.htm

The last part of the article tries to establish a parallel between Hedeby (and its criminal harbour scene) and Birka (and its perhaps, if excavations continues, criminal harbour scene). It is a very legitimate wish to compare Hedeby and Birka in any way possible. It is nevertheless doubtful whether the methodology sketched in the article, taking a criminology for granted and pointing to the earliest Scandinavian towns and their harbours as prolific criminal environments, is actually worthwhile.

Both the robbed wooden chest, loaded with a heavy stone which prevented it from causing suspicion bobbing up and down in the harbour basin, and the series of identical counterfeit coins that were thrown into the water, presumably because they were about to incriminate their owner, are wonderful curiosities. They exemplify the concept ‘dispose of evidence’, which in its turn indicates the importance of evidence and indeed exhibits. There’s a detective story to Hedeby crimes. Lack of incriminating evidence, of course, is a prerequisite of those who want to swear to the innocence of a man – criminal or not – on a medieval thing.

Or as the cross ‘conversation’ goes behind the Attuna District Court glass façade:

—Did you throw your counterfeit coins into
the harbour basin?

—Don’t remember nada, sorry – pissed!


(2) On the Uplandic runestone U 258 (Straight end style, c. 1000 CE) it says: Gunnarr and Sassurr, they had this stone raised in memory of Geirbjôrn, their father, Vittkarl/Hvítkarr of Svalunes’s son. Norwegians killed him on Ásbjôrn’s cargo-ship (my emphasis). Check at Samnordisk runtextdatabas:


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