Richard Hodges travels to… Denmark’s Viking fortresses

5 mins read
This reconstructed Viking hall at Trelleborg is a masterpiece of carpentry and a relic of attempts in the 1930s to understand how such buildings would have appeared.
A Tuscan challenge

Modern archaeology cannot turn a blind eye to its importance in contemporary society. There is a huge and growing appetite for visiting archaeological sites as global tourism grows at an extraordinary pace. So, although my European Research Council project under the Tuscan sun does not envisage a popular archaeological outcome for our main excavations at Vetricella, there is nonetheless a compelling need to think about making something permanent at the site that will attract tourists and serve the local community.

Of course, the name – Tuscany – equates in most minds to tourism. Chianti-shire and San Gimignano, let alone Florence, Pisa, and Siena, play host to millions in the summer months. Unsurprisingly, the tourists tend to be drawn to honey-pots, and smaller places miss out. Western Tuscany – the Maremma – is typical in this sense. Some beaches are packed all summer; hill-towns like Massa Marittima similarly. But the majority of Maremma villages rarely attract more than a handful of the curious who are either avoiding the crowds or taking advantage of cheaper lodgings.

Under the right conditions, our 9th-century triple-ditched fortress at Vetricella looks impressive from the air. Could this site be presented effectively to visitors?


Reluctantly facing up to the bare facts and fairly convinced that the destiny of Vetricella is to be unceremoniously back-filled and known only to a small cadre of archaeologists and historians, I pondered alternatives. That’s how I came to visit Harald Bluetooth’s legacy in Denmark.


My pilgrimage to seek ideas for Vetricella began at Trelleborg, a round fortress in western Zealand. This is a canonical site in European archaeology. It was excavated in the later 1930s by Poul Nørlund when a local car society threatened to make it into a race track. Once the dig began, Nørlund was astonished to discover that the circular fortress contained the post-holes of bow-shaped Viking halls arranged in four quadrants. The first explanation for the martial precision of the place was that it was designed by Sven Forkbeard as a jumping-off point for his invasion of England in the late 10th century. This was unashamedly a nationalist interpretation formulated during the dark years of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Nørlund went further, hence my visit: he reconstructed one of the Viking houses, having already placed cement in all the post-holes to provide a sense of the topographical lay-out of Trelleborg. From these simple if daring innovations much has happened.

The 1930s excavations at Trelleborg revealed that the interior contained the post-holes of Viking halls. After the digging concluded, these holes were packed with concrete, tracing out the remains of the distinctive structures,

Once recognised, other fortresses were soon found. Excavations at peer fortresses at Fyrkat and Aggersborg in Jutland followed. Thanks to dendrochronological dating, these subsequent excavations showed that the system of round fortresses was earlier than Nørlund had believed. The new dates showed the architect could not have been Sven Forkbeard, but his father, Harald Bluetooth, with whom he had had a difficult relationship. Harald reigned between c.958-987 and is best known for Denmark’s birth certificate: the inscribed standing stones beside Jellinge church. Rather than the conquest of England, with the new dates, the first interpretation was that the circular fortresses were Harald’s bold efforts in building a Danish state, versions of King Alfred’s early towns, the so-called burhs. Now, as I shall describe below, new ideas are being thrown up and debated.

Viking-style activities can be experienced in the reconstructed buildings at Trelleborg. A community can play and cook, while warriors still amble through the settlement.

Irrespective of the history, Trelleborg set a benchmark. The reconstructed Viking hall is a wonder of masterful carpentry. Like their art and metalwork, these Vikings had an extraordinarily rich culture. But Nørlund made one mistake. He reconstructed the great hall with outer posts as if aisles ran along either side. Subsequent studies soon showed these outer posts reinforced the high, bow-shaped walls.

On my first visit in 1977, Trelleborg was a monument surrounded by fields slipping down towards a shore. A decade or so later the National Museum won funds to erect a museum here. Subtly low in form, it does not intrude on the scale of the fortress or the weathered Viking hall. Now, on returning with my Tuscan mission in my mind, I am at first irritated to discover the museum is closed (on Mondays!) but, a young man with a long beard in Viking attire tells me, the site is open. Having completed my pilgrimage I discover that behind the museum is a whole community in reconstructed Viking-period dwellings. Children are playing (with hoops not iPhone games) as mothers earnestly attend to cooking on a reconstructed Trelleborg hearth. A Viking warrior with his long spear and shield is ambling around, nattering to all.


Over dinner later with Søren Sindbæk, Professor of Viking archaeology at Aarhus University – a veteran of excavations at the Viking circular fortress at Aggersborg, I begin by asking him if he has had any vacation. A Tuscan villa with a pool, perhaps? Søren smiles: he and his children spent a week re-enacting Vikings at Lejre in Zealand. I could not conceal my quizzical look. ‘My kids wanted to do it,’ he says defensively. ‘I thought it would be awful but actually it was great fun. No cell-phones, no internet, only a Viking community and Viking activities to pass the days, and the days were filled – restfully.’ This modest intellectual looked like someone who’d had therapy and was much the better for it.

Excavating at Aggersborg, the largest of the fortresses, planted the seed in Søren’s mind that these fortresses were not for planning attacks but refuges for a community menaced by invasion. If so, if Harald Bluetooth was intent on safeguarding his community, Trelleborg on the west coast of Zealand was not sufficient. Another fortress was needed on Zealand’s exposed eastern side. That was how he came to Borgring, close to Køge on the coast, 60km south of Copenhagen. There, with extraordinary inventiveness and Danish determination, working with three colleagues, Søren has pulled off something worthy of Nørlund’s legacy. More to the point, this is a viable template for my Tuscan puzzle at Vetricella.

From the viewing point at Borgring, visitors can enjoy a sweeping view over the park, with the former fortress site picked out with red steel uprights in the middle distance.

Søren was making a television broadcast when I arrived at Borgring. Actually, I drove past the site at first. The confection of containers piled high simply did not fit with my notions of an archaeological site. Still, Google Maps put me right, and after a warm welcome, I passed under a high viewing platform and was presented with a wide gravel path aiming for a distant, low bluff beyond a brook (where I could make out Søren and the film crew). On the bluff was a hint of an earthwork given a postmodern makeover by red steel uprights arranged in a large circle. Advancing down the path in the summer sunshine, large panels illustrated fortifications from the Cold War back to the Viking age. Short texts did their work in giving me context. Bypassing the television team, I arrived below the low bluff. Here, huge panels introduce the archaeologists in serious poses asking reality-TV questions about Borgring. The first of these explain how the fortress was found; then come panels in which the four featured archaeologists – including Søren, of course – debate its meaning and significance. The effect is full-frontal, but actually successful. The archaeologists put questions into your mind as you stride up to the bluff.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 92 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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