Monday, August 16, 2010

Fyrkat in Himmerland

Viking Fortification and Ring Castle

Fyrkat, reconstruction of longhouse
Fyrkat is situated in Jutland in the district of Himmerland west of the town Hobro.

Fyrkat, reconstruction of longhouse

A magnificent stone was found and the king of Denmark and Norway , Harald Gormsen - also known as Harald Bluetooth proudly told the stone mason to write the famous words: "Harald who won all Denmark and Norway and christened the Danes........ " The proud king left us more than the Jelling stone, Denmark's birth certificate, he also left us the Viking ring castles and bridges, spread out in the country. The Jelling stone still stands with the impressive words as they were made a thousand years ago, but the Viking fortifications had to be excavated and researched. Our knowledge have changed by the excavations of the royal fortifications, especially at Trelleborg and Fyrkat and the 5 Viking ships from Roskilde Fjord. The castles and bridges were found by coincidence, and there might be more discoveries like that in the future.

Fyrkat, inside the ring bank, 16 longhouses were placed here

Fyrkat, the house sites are marked with poles

Trelleborg near the town Slagelse at Zealand is one of the socalled ring castles from the Viking period. It is dated to 980 A.C. and probably built by Harald Bluetooth. It is one of four known ring castles unique of the Danish area. They are all built from a strict geometric ground plan with a circular bank and large houses inside the bank. Although the houses probably were built by people who only partly - or not at all - were professionals, they were managed by very skilled building masters. Outside the banks of Trelleborg were found burials of more than 150 Vikings and also some regular mass-graves. Trelleborg was the first excavated Danish ring castle - and the other following castles and houses were given a common name "Trelleborgene" and "Trelleborghusene". Although they are different, the fortifications all have the same general plan and an almost identical arrangement of the castle site. The Danish Viking fortifications are Trelleborg at Zealand, Fyrkat in East Jutland (Himmerland), Aggersborg in North Jutland (Vendsyssel) and Nonnebakken in Odense (Funen).

Trelleborg, reconstruction of longhouse(notice vertical uprights)

Fyrkat, the strong oblique oak uprights

As a building tradition the "Trelleborghus" belongs to the Viking period's common farm house. This common type, the longhouse, was used in northwestern Europe for many years. People and livestock lived under the same roof. Trelleborg was built ab. 981 and Fyrkat almost at the same time and with almost identical houses. The oak for the houses was cut down in the winter 980-81. Outside the ring bank at Fyrkat is a reconstruction of one of the large longhouses in the castle site. 16 houses like this were placed inside the ring bank. The Fyrkat-house is 210 m2 and built in 300 m3 rough oak timber. It is 28,5 m long and the curved walls give 7,4 m at the broadest place and 5 m at the gables. The roof is supported outside by oblique uprights, which made it possible to avoid or use fewer uprights inside the large common room.

Fyrkat, the longhouse inside

Fyrkat, at the entrance young swallows and a Viking pattern

The longhouse is divided inside in 3 rooms with a large room in the middle and 2 gable rooms. In some of the houses at Fyrkat were found traces of broad benches along the wall. It is estimated that 32 persons could sleep comfortably in a hall like this. There are few furniture findings from the Viking period. Only the richest people could i.e. afford a free-standing beds like in the ship burial at Oseberg (Norway). Or a throne. This was a sign of high status. Chairs are rare, but footstools and milking stools are not unusual.

Fyrkat, impressive oak

Hørdum church, North Jutland, runestone,Thors fight with the big snake
(click to enlarge)

In rich peoples' houses the walls might be covered in painted or carved panels or in wall carpets. In the Oseberg-burial was an artificial tapestry depicting some history of that time. An occassional poem from a wedding in the late 900s displays mythological scenes carved in the panels of a large house in Hjardalid at Iceland, where the feast was celebrated. One of the themes was Thor's fight with the Midgårdsorm (mythological snake) - a popular theme in Nordic art.

Vejle Ådal (river valley), the Ravning bridge

The most advanced fortifications in the Viking period was at Trelleborg, Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Nonnebakken. The bridge in Ravning is contemporary to these castles and at almost the same time were several smaller bridges built all over the country. The contemporary time between the castles and some of the bridges indicates they were the part of an overall plan. Already from the 700s people in England were obliged to take part in fortification and bridge-building and in military service. The Danish Viking fortifications were built during the German occupation of Sønderjylland and probably meant to be a response to the German threat. The castles and bridges were seemingly designed to enable a quick mobilization of warriors and provisions. A system like this was used by the Romans already in the 300s-400s and exactly the same in the 800s by the Franks and the English.

Fyrkat , area downside the ring bank with the western corner of a newly re-established lake

Fyrkat, the restaurant and angelica, a typical plant for a viking site like this.

replica in Sterling silver of Viking jewelry
Two bracelets found at Fyrkat, put down by an upright. Small rings were attached to the bracelets , they were used for payment. The pendant is the famous Dragon-Brosche found at Zealand. (The jewelry is my own, but I have borrowed the bracelet-photo from Skalk Magazine. Replicas of various Viking jewelry are sold from i.e. Museum shops or special jewellers. )

A woman's grave at Fyrkat:
There were many similar graves at Fyrkat. This woman was buried in a wooden body of carriage. She had been given a rich equipment, cloth, pearls, silver jewelry, knives, a whetstone, a spinning stone in burnt clay, a pair of scissors for fabrics and several boxes, among this a sewing box with sewing materials. Her dress was unusual, she had rings on her toes and much fine jewelry, i.e. a Gotland buckle and a pendant, which possibly origins from the northern Russia. These exotic findings indicate that she or someone close to her had travelled wide and far. Nothing suggests that the burial place is younger than the castle, and the woman was probably buried at least 15 years after king Harald's official transition to Christianity. The heathen burial customs had not changed at Fyrkat, and this grave contained several things with magical or supernatural importance. The pendant might symbolize a pagan god- and some of her magical things were seeds of henbane, a piece of jawbone from a pig and a pellet.

Jelling, the Jelling stone, Denmark's birth certificate

Harald's conversion meant abolition of the heathen cult celebrations, but the church had to compromise to hold on to the newly converted. It was especially difficult at Iceland, where the Icelanders accepted to take Christianity as an official belief, if they were allowed to follow their ancient customs like eating horse meat, to blote (sacrifice) to the ancient gods in their home and to expose babies. Many Danes probably also worshipped the ancient gods and sacrificed to them in the traditional way long after Harald's conversion. Towards the late 900s it seems that the Danes stopped eating horse meat. New habits developed slowly and it took a long time, before Christianity achieved any power on peoples' minds. The heathen burial customs were not abandoned until the final of the 900s. The transition period is clearly seen in the findings from the burial places at Fyrkat, which was built at least 15 years after Harald's conversion.

Harald's organization was never put to the test, and both fortifications and bridges were not repaired. They fell quickly into decay. The fortifications were used for various reasons for some time, probably as a residence for a local king or official - but they gradually fell into ruins. The bridges needed constant repair, and they were replaced by stone edged fords. Harald died between 985-987 and his son Svend was now king. Harald had become very unpopular caused by the ambitious and expensive ring castles and bridges. The whole plan was an economic burden to the Danish people, and Svend did not spend money to repair the fortifications or the bridges. The Germans were now occupied in feuds with their Slavic neighbours - and Svend 1. Haraldsen had other ambitious plans.

Politikens Danmarkshistorie bd. 3, "Da Danmark blev Danmark", 700-1050,Peter Sawyer, 1988.

photo Fyrkat July 2010: grethe bachmann & stig bachmann nielsen, Naturplan Foto
photo Trelleborg, Hørdum church 2003/2007: grethe bachmann


Wanda..... said...

Your Viking Fortification and Ring Castle Post was a great read, Grethe. The long house has a roof that reminds me of a viking ship, the inside of which is very impressive. American Indians had similar longhouse designs using poles and annimal skins. I loved our world history class and reading of Leaf Erikson and the Vikings in grade school.

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! You're right it looks like a Viking ship. I think "the architects" - or as they called the building masters back then were clever and skilled - they both built a practical house but also a pretty one. I have just seen pictures of the Native American longhouses, and it's very interesting to see. I remember a Japanese longhouse, and if you Google them there is also a likeness. It's fantastic don't you think?