By Maria Metaxenioy / Vestfoldguide | 6 min read
Between Larvik and Sandefjord is Skiringssal-kaupangen, the trading place that is counted as Norway´s first ever city.
Mellom Larvik og Sandefjord finner vi Skiringssal-kaupangen, handelsplassen som i dag regnes som Norges første by. I dag er det ikke mange synlige spor etter byen som er et nøkkelområde for vår kunnskap om vikingtiden. Området som byen Kaupang lå i er i dag en del av idylliske Viksfjorden. I dag er området langs Viksfjord et yndet ferieparadis for de omtrent 1000 hyttene som ligger på hver sin side av fjorden her. Det er lett å forestille seg hvorfor vikingene trivdes så godt her i det naturskjønne området med rikt jordsmonn og kort vei ut til det åpne hav
“There are several burial fields on Kaupang and Lamøya, which together have had about 1000 graves.”
Between 200 and 500 people lived here during the 800s, and the population could have been closer to 900 in the early 900s. Around year 930, the activates in the area stopped quite sudden, and we don´t know why. After a while, forests grew, and during the medieval ages, the area was used for farming and animal keeping.
The Skiringssal-chief probably lived on a farm with a large chief hall at Huseby, a little north of Kaupang. It is believed that Skiringssal was the viking´s name for Huseby. The Viking city must have developed from the protection and control of the chief. Craftsmen and traders lived in Kaupang. Ships came from north and south to unload and load at the dock. Whetstones and soapstone came from the nearby areas, ceramics, glass, amber from Baltikum or Denmark, and pearls from Asia, the Mid-east and the Mediterranean area. No other place has given us such extensive knowledge about the trading ativites during the Viking era as Kaupang. Today, visitors can learn about Kaupang´s history at the Vestfold museum´s exhibition located there.
Kaupang is located almost in
the heart of Viksfjord. Well protected
and in shelter for storm and wind
from the Skagerrak seabut at
the same time only short
sails away from the open sea
Archaeological evidence indicates that the site might have been the first proto-urban settlement of some significance in Norway. The excavations which have been conducted at Kaupang have found evidence for a handicraft and commercial center, with around 1,000 inhabitants. The settlement had diverse craft production and extensive trade with foreign countries. Commodities traded included iron, soapstone and perhaps fish.
In 1867 Nicolay Nicolaysen conducted the first excavations of the area, mapping one of the grave-fields around the settlement and excavating 79 grave mounds. He also uncovered a cremation cemetery, largely dated to the 10th century. Charlotte Blindheim started excavating in 1947 and completed her last publication in 1999, and Dagfinn Skre and his associates undertook a new program of work at Kaupang in 1997
It is not much at first glance that witnesses that Norway's first city is located here in the farmland of Kaupang. Bikjholberget is today the place visitors are led to. Here is a good overview of the terrain, and there is an information board and a plastic map of the burial fields and settlements.
Treasures from the Middle East and India
Based on discoveries made in Kaupang's landscape, we can imagine how objects like spices, textiles, and jewelry from the Middle East were traded in the market place here.
Many also surely exchanged their tools for exotic and unknown treasures. On their travels, the Vikings met traders who came from far away. The traders could offer exciting items like spices, silver, slaves, silk and other fine fabrics. The Vikings traveled all the way to Persia and bought silk fabric. It was probably very expensive for those who could afford to buy, cut the fabric into strips and sew it on their clothes
In the Viking Age there were almost no roads, so it was easiest to travel by boat on rivers and water. The Vikings who traveled east traveled often on the rivers of what is today Russia and Ukraine. On the two largest rivers, called Dnepr and Volga, you could reach the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
From the Black Sea, the Vikings could sail to Miklagard, which is called Istanbul today. From the Caspian Sea it is also a short distance to Baghdad.
Some of the Vikings settled down the large rivers. There they ran out of business, and some got married and got families, and many never left home again.
Illustration photography of jewelry and decorated sword.
Tools and waste from Kaupang. Photo: Kulturhistorisk Museum.
Ohthere of Hålogaland, and his reference to a place in the south of Norway named "Sciringes heal"
Opening lines of Ohthere's Old English account, from Thorpe's edition of 1900: "Ohthere told his lord Ælfrede king that he lived northmost of all Norwegians ... "
Ohthere of Hålogaland
Ohthere of Hålogaland (Norwegian: Ottar fra Hålogaland) was a Viking Age Norwegian seafarer known only from an account of his travels that he gave to King Alfred (r. 871–99) of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in about 890 AD. His account was incorporated into an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, version of a Latin historical book written early in the 5th century by Paulus Orosius, called Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, or Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Old English version of this book is believed to have been written in Wessex in King Alfred's lifetime or soon after his death, and the earliest surviving copy is attributed to the same place and time.
In his account, Ohthere said that his home was in "Halgoland", or Hålogaland, where he lived "north-most of all Norwegians … [since] no-one [lived] to the north of him". Ohthere spoke of his travels north to the White Sea, and south to Denmark, describing both journeys in some detail. He also spoke of Sweoland (central Sweden), the Sami people (Finnas), and of two peoples called the Cwenas, living in Cwena land to the north of the Swedes, and the Beormas, whom he found living by the White Sea. Ohthere reported that the Beormas spoke a language related to that of the Sami.
Ohthere's story is the earliest known written source for the term "Denmark" (dena mearc), and perhaps also for "Norway" (norðweg). Ohthere's home may have been in the vicinity of Tromsø, in southern Troms county, northern Norway.
View from the graveyard on Bikjholberget beyond Kaupangkilen. The green ground on the right forms part of the settlement area.
Photographed by: J. P. Fagerback
Journey south to Hedeby and to the British Isles
Ohthere's account of a journey to the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby begins with a reference to a place in the south of Norway named "Sciringes heal", to which he said one could not sail from his home in Hålogaland in less than a month if he camped at night and always had a fair wind. Ohthere then described sailing to Sciringes heal, keeping near the Norwegian coast on the port side and having first "Iraland" to starboard, then the islands between "Iraland" and Britain, and finally Britain itself until arriving at Sciringes heal.
The principal interpretations of "Iraland" in the Old English Orosius are that it might mean either Ireland or Iceland. While it is possible that the original text of Ohthere's account read "Isaland", for "Iceland", and that the "s" was at some point replaced by "r", geographically the circumstances described are better suited for Iceland than for Ireland. Alternatively, given that "Iraland" occurs in the same form, with an "r", twice on the same manuscript page, and given that Ohthere was a seafarer, it may be that he was describing sea-routes to Ireland and Britain rather than actual directions, with no thought for Iceland.Britain, or England, is regarded as self-evident, represented in Ohthere's account through the phrase "this land" (þis land): Ohthere is reported as giving his account in person to King Alfred of Wessex.
Sciringes heal has been held to represent Skiringssal (Old Norse: Skíringssalr) in almost all relevant historical writing since the early 19th century, mainly by reason of the superficial similarity of the names, to the extent that some modern translations of Ohthere's account feature the name "Skiringssal" in place of "Sciringes heal". Skiringssal is a historical location, mentioned in Scandinavian sagas, which has been identified with some certainty as an area comparable to the parish of Tjølling, a little over 3 miles (5 km) east of Larvik, with important Viking Age archaeological sites at Huseby, just south of Tjølling, and at Kaupang, near the shoreline south-west of Tjølling, in the south-eastern county of Vestfold in modern Norway.
An alternative view is that an identification of Sciringes heal with Skiringssal is impossible to reconcile with the detail of Ohthere's account, and is unlikely for historical and linguistic reasons. According to this interpretation, a location for Sciringes heal west of Lindesnes, the southernmost extremity of Norway, is to be preferred, perhaps at Lunde on the Lista peninsula. Whether Sciringes heal was identical with Skiringssal, or was located in Tjølling parish or west of Lindesnes, it is described in Ohthere's account in the Old English Orosius as a "port" (an port). Ohthere's account uses the same word for the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby (þæm porte), suggesting that Sciringes heal may have been similar in nature, though the Old English word "port" can signify nothing more than a haven.
Ottar from Hålogaland's journey along the Norwegian coast in the 880s. Ottar was also visiting Skiringssal and Hedeby before he came to Alfred of England in London where he told about the journey. Map of: Finn Bjorklid
When Ohthere sailed on from Sciringes heal, he reported having first had Denmark to port and a wide sea to starboard for three days, after which for two days he had islands belonging to Denmark on his port side and Jutland (Gotland and Sillende) and many islands to starboard, before arriving at Hedeby, which lay at the head of the Schlei inlet in what was then south-eastern Denmark. It is in Ohthere's description of this part of the journey that the earliest copy of the Old English Orosius gives the first known mention of the term "Denmark", in the form "dena mearc"
However, his first reference to Denmark being on his port side presumably makes reference to areas of the 9th-century Danish kingdom that lay on the Scandinavian peninsula.[Fn 17]
The reason for Ohthere's visit to King Alfred of Wessex is not recorded. There is also no mention in the Old English Orosius of how recent the journeys were when Ohthere described them to the king, where the meeting took place, or the route by which Ohthere arrived in southern England.
The map shows the largest trading venues in Scandinavia during the Viking era. The map was designed by Sven Rosborn on www.commons.wikipedia.org
Source: Wikipedia, Kulturhistorisk Museum, Vestfold Fylkeskommune, Larvik Museum
Vikingtidsbyen Kaupang, artikkel hos Norgeshistorie.no
Kaupangen i Skiringssal – vikingenes handelssenter
Om Kaupang på nettsidene til Vestfold fylkeskommune
Kaupangen i Skiringssal på Riksantikvarens nettsted kulturminnesok.no