Aggersborg: The Resilient Village
15 December, 2014
This week On the Reading Rest have the new Aggersborg publication
Roesdahl, Else et al. 2014. Else Roesdahl, Søren Michael Sindbæk, Anne Pedersen and David M. Wilson (eds). Aggersborg: The Viking-Age Settlement & Fortress. Jutland Archaeological Society Publications vol 82. Århus. Acronym A-SaF.
All Aggerborg illustrations in this entry are based on A-SaF.
I read the book not primarily because of the famous late 10th c. fortress, rather I want to learn more about the village demolished in the 970s in order to give room for one of Harold Bluetooth’s uniform ring forts. The fortress turned out to be short-lived and the village was reestablished presumably already in the 11th century. It is conceivable, therefore, that historical or post-fortress Aggerborg had its roots in the LIA settlement. The editors and the highly qualified research group behind the book have done a splendid job summarizing the essential facts concerning a material that lay dormant for half a century in the archives of the National Museum in Copenhagen. During recent years, metal detector surveys, limited new excavations and successful geophysical measurements have enhance the original excavation results. In a series of chapters, members of the research group contextualize the investigations in relation especially the fortress, to the Limfjord and to the other Harold Bluetooth fortresses.
If we paste an overview of the excavations at Aggersborg on the first cadastral map of the modern village, it appears that the ‘Aggersborg’, although we do not know its original name, was founded in the LIA and thrived at least from the 8th century CE and onwards. Its east-west layout suggests a social structure reminiscent the EIA – a number of smaller dependent farms in one end and a large dominant one in the other.
In this 8-10th century version, the large farm in the west-end stands out as a manor, unrestricted by boundaries and characterized by large buildings (House A, D and GS) as well as pit houses. By contrast, the smaller farms in the east-end seem regulated and crammed on their plots. The parallels to continental situations with farms and pit houses were exemplified OtRR 14 April, 2014 referring to the Gladbach excavations.
Historical Aggersborg is also characterized by this manor-and-farm structure.
Although the Aggersborg fortress looks like a rigid layout of barracks, the few artefacts contemporary with the fortress show that of the buildings were also the abode of rural households. Only a limited part of the settlement area has been excavated, but the artefact distribution nevertheless reveals the typical east-west pattern, albeit within the confines of the fortress – its courtyards squared off by Haroldian halls in quarters defined by axial streets and the circular rampart. In the west the artefacts are dispersed inside the West Gate and in the east condensed inside the East Gate. Despite the village being haussmannized by Harold’s planners and builders, the spatial division of its settlement seems intact if we focus on the permanent fortress households. Given the short fortress period, it stands to reason that owing to the necessity to look after a fortress presumably most often empty, rural production and maintenance were outsourced to local entrepreneurs, their agro-consultants and household technicians. When, and there are few clues as to exactly when, the village was reestablished this structure was retained in the historical village. The Royal manor was first mentioned in relation to events in 1086, long after the fortress period, and there was hardly a manor without a village. Despite the autocratic planning of the fortress there was in other word a kind of continuity in the social structure of the community. If the fortress had become a long-term royal success with a permanent garrison in the barracks, the traditional social structure would not have been visible as an artefact pattern mirroring densely and sparsely settled areas.
It may well have been traumatic when manor and village were pulled and perhaps burnt down in the 970s CE, but it is hard to imagine that the estate, the community’s economic base: fields, meadows and grassland, would not have been maintained and perhaps expanded when the fortress was built. Moreover, the social continuity suggests that the King controlled Aggersborg before the construction of the fortress in such a way that to his order he could settle the locals in his model architecture. This form of royal power need not exclude the unpopular King’s unfriendly takeover ousting his steward by force. Be this as it may, the basic social structure of the local society was maintained from the LIA and until today because it continued to be economically reasonable.
Belonging to the 8th – 11th century, the pit houses are an added settlement component, and they seem to cluster around the settlement’s main houses except the pre-fortress hall (Building D). There are two kinds of pit houses: the excavated ones and the ones detected by the geophysical survey. Both categories are described and discussed by Søren Sindbæk. The geophysical surveys were undertaken in order to compensate for the limited excavation areas and aimed at getting an overview of the whole settlement. The measurements were interpreted in a plan and pit houses were relatively easy to see not least while they are large enough not to fall between measuring points. The plan maps probable and possible pit houses and I have chosen to add ‘the probable’ to the excavated ones. ‘The possible’ ones are indeed possible, but I see them more as indications as to where future excavations should perhaps take place. Their distribution differs from that of the probable houses inasmuch as the easternmost part of southernmost cluster, which is made up of several ‘probable’ and two excavated houses, may well have been the western end of a row stretching east-west.
In the west-end of the settlement the pit houses have a north-south distribution probably linked to fewer and larger east-west orientated houses west of the manor building. The western pit houses dates to the whole of the Carolingian Iron Age. Some are earlier than, some contemporary with, and some later than the fortress.
The eastern part of the settlement is organized in rows of three-aisled houses seemingly surrounded by pit houses. If we check the way the pit houses overlap, the direction in which they move is southwards except in one or perhaps two cases. This indicated that the position of a pit houses is determined by a building situated north of the primary house. If we take this trait as significant of the settlement at large, then there may be a development from the north to the south in three rows. The northern one with few pit houses and two southern ones with many.
The constellation main house/pit house represents a production site linked to and protected by farms, situated on the shores of the Limfjord at a suitable landing site. Production was depended on a manor-and-farm based rural economy to provide for its workers. Few crafts except textile production can be traced in the floor layers of the pit houses. Farm hands, and fishermen perhaps engaged in herring fishery, may nevertheless have been an important workforce settled in the pit houses – permanently and seasonally. The excavations plans therefore seems to show us a socially stratified society with manor, farms and cabins. In this structure the dominant landowner, the dependent farmers and the free or unfree workforce, subsisted and produced goods that could be exported to urban communities.
Aggersborg was never a town, but opposite the village, the town of Løgstør became a fact in the early 16th century probably after the King had given up his estate at Aggersborg (1). It may be argued that the southern shore of the Limfjord was the more optimal if we wished to found a town, but in that case one may wonder why such a town didn’t exist until the 16th century. Given the way the private Aggersborg manor (Aggersborggård) tried to prevent the town from profiting from the local fishing waters, which were important to the town’s economy, it is conceivable that the interests of a manor, its farms and pit house production settlement tended to prevent the foundation of towns or at least the success of actual towns. All Haroldian fortresses on the other hand are town-situated and most of them in the vicinity of a rather insignificant modern towns except for Odense and the not impossible fortress in Helsingborg (2). This indicates that Harold in addition to his political ambitions viewed his strategic measures in the light of the communicative and demographic parameters of a densely settled place – in this case a garrison with access to water. In order to create his network of fortresses Harold seems nevertheless to need access to land, which in some cases meant that the Place he chose had historical roots. This is typical not least of the fortresses in Scania, but also of Trelleborg on Zealand and Aggersborg in Jutland. We knows little about the environment of Fyrkat and Nonnebakken, but the new site, Borgring, next to Køge, is situated only 500m from the village Lille Salby and the manor Lellingegård. This place-name situation indicates that Borgring was founded on the land of an existing manor (a sal) (3). Since a number of towns were also founded or recreated in the days of Harold Bluetooth we can defend the hypothesis that Harold, engaged in his nation-building, wanted to establish an urbanized as well as a fortified nation held together in a coastal network of urban and military nodes. Towns are characterized by their harbour situation, garrisons most often situated a little more inland no more than a few kilometres form a temporary landing site. Ribe is the exception among the towns since it is situated by a river slightly inland, i.e. like a fortress. Aggersborg is the fortress exception situated directly by the water, albeit without a harbour
In southern Denmark, in Hedeby, at Ravningenge, in Jelling and indirectly, be means of the rune stone DR 55 at Sønder Vissing, Harold didn’t forget inland manifestations.
(1) Painting by R.H. Kruse, Rasmus Henrik Kruse, 7.8.1796-30.5.1877, maler, antikvar. Født i Navtrup, Salling, begravet på Fur
(2) A number of facts about the early history of Løgstør, in Danish, can be found at http://www.logstor.lokalarkiver.dk/loegstoers_aeldre_historie.htm Løgstørs ældre historie