Birka had a Unique Viking Shipyard

Birka had a Unique Viking Shipyard

Archaeologists from Stockholm University’s Archaeological Research Laboratory have discovered a unique Viking Age shipyard site in Lake Mälaren at Birka on Björkö. The discovery calls into question previous theories about how the Viking Age’s maritime activities were organized.

Birka was founded around the year 750 and thrived for over 200 years. It was abandoned around the year 975, around the time Sigtuna, a Christian town 35 kilometers to the northeast, was founded. The population of Viking Age Birka was estimated to be between 500 and 1000 people.

“A site like this has never been found before, it is the first of its kind, but the finds convincingly show that it was a shipyard,” says Sven Isaksson, Professor of Archaeological Science at Stockholm University, who led the investigations together with Sven Kalmring, associate professor at Stockholm University and expert on ports and urbanisation in the Viking Age at the Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie in Schleswig.

By investigating various maritime elements in connection with a possible house site in Kugghamn, we are now trying to get an overall view of a very exciting and previously archaeologically completely unexplored environment.

Sven Kalmring

The discovered site was a stone-lined depression in the Viking Age shore zone with a wooden boat slip at the bottom. Large quantities of both unused and used boat rivets, slate whetstones, and woodworking tools were discovered at the site. “The discovery of artifacts from the area shows with great clarity that this is where people have served their ships,” says Sven Isaksson.

Previous investigations have observed several of the remains before, but it is through the latest finds that it has become possible to take a comprehensive view. “Through systematic survey, mapping and drone investigations, we can now show that Birka, in addition to the urban environment, also has a very rich maritime cultural landscape with remains of everything from jetties to boat launches and shipyards,” says Sven Isaksson.

Ships and shipping were common in the Nordic countries during the Viking Age, both for warfare and trade. The city-like trading posts that sprang up in the Nordic countries during the Viking Age are one manifestation of long-distance trade. The best-preserved example in Sweden is Birka on Björkö in Lake Mälaren, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “It’s not just about the first urban environments,” says Sven Kalmring, “but it shows an intensive exchange of trade goods and ideas between people.”

Unique Viking shipyard discovered at Birka

The town ramparts around Birka functioned not only as a defence, but also as a legal, economic and social boundary. Previous investigations of harbour facilities in Birka have mostly been carried out inside the town rampart, in the area known as the Black Earth harbour area, and below the so-called Garrison.

The newly discovered shipyard at [*note]Kugghamn is located, along with a number of other maritime remains, outside Birka’s town rampart, along the northern shore of Björkö. “By investigating various maritime elements in connection with a possible house site in Kugghamn, we are now trying to get an overall view of a very exciting and previously archaeologically completely unexplored environment,” says Sven Kalmring.

The archaeological investigations are continuing in order to secure source material that can add nuance to our understanding of Birka’s maritime cultural landscape. The remains of a boat landing site located outside the town rampart, similar to the shipyard site but unlike the previously investigated harbour remains in the Black Earth, are being investigated.

Another question archaeologists are attempting to answer is who was permitted to dock. “Could anyone land anywhere, or did it make a difference whether they landed inside or outside the town rampart? There’s a lot to think about here. But the investigation does not end there for us; we continue in the lab. We extract more information from the fragmentary source material than would otherwise be possible by using analytical laboratory techniques” Sven Isaksson says

[*note] Kugghamn is a very common name associated with the Cog and Hanseatic period rather than the Viking Age. However, the name can be traced back to an original Kuggholmsudd and does not necessarily point to a harbour location.