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Lesson Four.

A Viking Settlement.

The Viking Settlement at Hedeby

To get an idea of life in a Viking settlement, here is some evidence about the Viking fort at Hedeby in modern Germany. We get our information from what people wrote as well as from archaeological excavations.

Around the year 950, an Arab merchant visited Hedeby. His name was Al Tartushi and he wrote a description of Hedeby. He referred to Hedeby as Slesvig - historians sometimes called this place Hedeby-Sclesvig.

    Slesvig is a very large town at the very far end of the world's ocean. It has freshwater wells within the city. A feast was held in honour of their god when I was there. Any man who sacrifices an animal fastens it up on poles outside the door of his house. The town has little property or treasure. The inhabitants' main food is fish, which is plentiful.

The location of Hedeby. Find this area in your atlas.

About 100 years after Al Tartushi had visited Hedeby it was burned to the ground by King Harold of Norway. A man who was with Harold and who watched Hedeby burn wrote this:

    Hedeby was burned in anger from end to end. It was a manly deed and one from which Swein, King of Hedeby will smart. High rose the flames from the houses when at dawn I stood on the stronghold's arm.

This "stronghold's arm" was probably the wall of the fort or rampart which enclosed the town of Hedeby and its harbour. Remember that Hedeby stood at the head of a narrow fjord in southwest Denmark. It probably depended on passing trade from the Baltic and North Sea. This burning was more or less the end of Hedeby.

The archaeologists could see that Hedeby had been surrounded on three sides by a great semi-circular rampart. The sea protected the fourth side. So King Harold's soldiers must have had a difficult time capturing the settlement.

When archaeologists began excavating the area of Hedeby, they noticed that the top layer of earth in many places consisted of soil mixed with great amounts of charcoal and ash. Can you guess why this was so?

In 1953 divers explored the sea just off Hedeby. They discovered the wreck of a flat-bottomed ship like the ones used by the Vikings when trading close to home. The wreck had been burned and in it was found the remains of a man whose face had been injured. Can you guess how the man and the ship got there?

Archaeologists think that there were probably three gates in the ramparts around the town. A small river ran through Hedeby and into the harbour. This would have supplied the drinking water. The banks of this river were supported wooden piles and rubbish was found on the bed of the river. Why do you think the wooden piles were needed? What did the finding of the rubbish in the river mean?

The houses near the stream all had wells, and each well had a sturdy wooden pipe which brought the water to the surface. Can you remember who first told us about these wells?

Archaeologists could also tell from their finds that the following trades were carried out in Hedeby: iron smelting, weaving, glass making, minting of coins and pottery making. Very few farming implements were found.

In the graveyards, some bodies were found in wooden coffins, in other graves only ashes were found. The graves contained burial objects such as weapons and jewellery.

Historians and archaeologists have used their discoveries to reconstruct this Viking house.
Describe this typical Viking house under the following headings: size, materials used, shape of roof, kind of roof, location of door. Compare this house with the house in which you live.

Animal bones were also found at Hedeby. Most were from pigs, but there were also a good amount from sheep and goats. There was very little evidence of horses or chickens.

The remains of many plants were found, including barley, wheat hazelnuts, walnuts, apples, cherries, plums, blackberries, wild strawberries and hops.

Looking at the Evidence.

  1. Hedeby was a well known trading centre. What evidence can you find in what you have read that trade was very important to this settlement?
  2. Look again at Al Tartushi's description and at the lists of the archaeological finds.
    Tell what the people of Hedeby ate for their meals.
  3. What can you tell about the burial customs and religion of the people of Hedeby?
  4. Were the people of Hedeby farmers? How do you know?
  5. Where do you think the Vikings got the animals which they kept for meat?

For You to Do.

Imagine you are the mother of a family living in Hedeby and that you keep a diary. Write entries in your diary about your life and that of other members of your family.

Lesson One: The Vikings.
Lesson Two: Viking Raids - Looking at the Sagas.
Lesson Three: Viking Longships.
Lesson Five: The Vikings Settle in Ireland.
Lesson Plan Page.
Updated January 2001 by the Viking Network
Irish Co-ordinator Michael Farry.