New archaeological investigations of Norway's Viking town
What was Kaupang?
The trading place in Sciringes heal (Skiringssal), present-day Tjølling, is mentioned in the story King Alfred of Anglia had written down (Orosius, Historarum adversum paganos) when the tradesman Othere from Northern Norway visited the king's court at end of the 9th century. The site is called án port, a port with a settlement, where goods were loaded and unloaded and there was trade and artisan activity.
The exact geographical location of the Sciringes heal trading place was a point of discussion among historians and archaeologists for a long time, but today there remains no doubt that it was situated on the farm Kaupang in Tjølling, Larvik municipality, Vestfold county. The Viking town is the only of its kind in Norway, and Sweden (Birka) and Denmark (Ribe) also have only one each. The large quantities of finds - both common objects and rare ones, the thick cultural layers with extensive remains of houses, foot paths, jetties and a large range of occupations, as well as the many testimonies of contacts with the entire North European area, doubtlessly make Kaupang the most interesting place of work in Norwegian Viking Age research.
The finds from Kaupang
There have been several earlier archaeological surveys and excavations at Kaupang. In 1867 Antiquarian Nicolay Nicolaysen mapped one of the grave-fields around the former town, and he excavated 79 grave mounds. Shortly after the turn of the century Professor Gustafson continued the excavations of the cemeteries. Later, local people made new and at times rich finds during agricultural work. In 1950 Charlotte Blindheim started her archaeological investigations, which were continued until 1967. The first part of these investigations aimed at mapping the cemeteries in the area. Subsequently, in the period 1956-1967, an excavation was done in the Black Earth area, where the settlement had been situated. The area is called the Black Earth area because charcoal, ashes and other domestic waste from the Viking town has coloured the soil black.
During these excavations were found two jetties, what was believed to be six house-sites, Frankish pottery sherds, beads, coins, objects made of iron, lead, bronze, silver and gold, fragments of weaving equipment, spindle whorls, finished products (e.g. cooking pots and moulds), semi-finished products and waste from soapstone (steatite) and a considerable amount of glass sherds and glass rods.
The investigations yielded more than 10.000 finds. Many of these illuminate the town's trading and cultural contacts with foreign countries. Finds of pennanular brooches and bronze fittings point towards Birka in the Mälar Valley in Sweden, Arabic coins towards Russia and the Orient, glass and pottery finds towards the Rhine area, coins, jewellery and sets of scales towards the Frankish realm, Ireland and England. Finds were also made of Norwegian export articles, e.g. soapstone vessels and iron.
New investigations 1997-2006
In 1997 1. Amanuensis, now Professor, Dagfinn Skre took over the leadership of the Kaupang Excavation Project after Charlotte Blindheim. He made plans for new surveys and excavations at Kaupang. The main aim for the new Kaupang Excavation Project is to gain new insights into the Viking Age trading place/town at Kaupang, about its significance and connections with the local area, the hinterland and with the cultural community it was a part of around Skagerrak, the North Sea and the Baltic.
Parts of the new investigations started as early as in 1998. In 1998 and 1999 we surveyed the area by walking systematically over the Kaupang fields to look for artefacts and traces of human activity. The results from this survey surpassed the most optimistic expectations. During these field walks we found more than 1.300 Viking Age artefacts on the surface of the fields. Among the most exciting was the discovery of a plowed-up glass bead maker's workshop with approximately 150 glass beads and production waste.
The main investigation was a large excavation in another part of the Black Earth area than the one Blindheim had previously excavated. The excavation lasted for 3 years, from 2000 till 2002. New digital equipment made it possible to conduct the in-field documentation of excavation in a highly effective way. The results were simultaneously made accessible to the general public. The excavations were also open to the public in 2001 and 2002, and some of the artefacts were put on display shortly after their recovery from the soil.
The new knowledge about Kaupang will also give a better foundation to secure the preservation of the cultural layers in the Black Earth area, the grave-fields in the area and the cultural landscape, and contribute to the establishing of lasting arrangements for heritage management on the site.
Dagfinn Skre, project leader of the Kaupang Excavation Project