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Northern Emporium – the Archaeology of Network Urbanism in Viking Age Ribe

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 12/09/2016

Ribe seen from above. The Viking Age town was to the North of the river. Credit: Museum of South West Jutland.

At its birth at the beginning of the 700s CE, Ribe was a special place in Scandinavia: a meeting-place for a new form of social networks, connecting complex, specialised communities across large distances by land and maritime transport. The archaeology of Ribe is unparalleled as a source for the early history of urban networks and commercial exchange in Northern Europe at the threshold to the Viking Age. The Northern Emporium project is a five-year programme of archaeological excavations and multidisciplinary scientific research aiming to undertake the first large-scale area-excavation in the centre of the earliest Ribe. The project aims to explore the dynamics, drivers, process, and agents in the early urbanisation in Scandinavia, as a key source for the development and impact of globalising resource networks and urban trade. Providing High-Definition anchor-points to inform grand narratives on pivotal societal dynamics in the present and in the future, it contributes social capital and empowerment, as an essential Scientific Social Responsibility of the historical disciplines. Complementing the Danish National Research Foundation’s newly established Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, it aims to found a world-leading archaeological research of urban societies and networks.

“Fifteen years ago I realized how the archaeology buried in Ribe held the key to important questions concerning the global dynamics behind trade and interaction at the dawn of the Viking Age. Now for the first time I can stage the complex excavations needed to state those questions.” – Søren Michael Sindbæk

The earliest Danish town, Ribe, is one of the most important archaeological sources for European history between the Migration period and medieval times. As one of a small group of emporia, which emerged from the 600’s CE around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, Ribe was a hub for maritime networks, through which the exchange of goods and cultural interactions connected the world in new ways from Northern Norway to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Ribe gathered and catalysed a world in change at the threshold of the maritime expansion of the Viking Age.

“The emporia are among the greatest archaeological discoveries pertaining to early medieval Europe.” (Richard Hodges 2006).

The excavation and research project involves the application of range of scientific techniques to characterise aspects of the finds in High-Definition context:
• Soil micro morphology: Characterising the formation of deposits and building remains.
• Functional archaeo-botany: characterising activities and use of space.
• Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry: characterising elemental soil chemistry as a means of identifying activities and processes.
• Dendrochronology and Bayesian modelling AMS radiocarbon dating: providing high-precision dating.
• Tephro chronology: attempts to identify volcanic ash from dated eruptions for high-precision dating.

Whereas the remains from other North-Sea emporia have been largely destroyed, the archaeology of early Ribe is, in places, exceptionally well-preserved in thick cultural layers, with a large number of artefacts, traces of crafts and other remains.[1] In present-day Denmark, Ribe is indisputably the most abundant archaeological source for the hundred years leading up to the Viking Age. Its intact and detailed stratigraphy also makes Ribe a significant reference point for archaeological chronology and knowledge about material culture in Northern Europe in the period c. 700-850 CE.[2]

Despite this potential, the remains have mostly been subject to small-scale or inadequately funded excavations. The Northern Emporium project, supported by the Carlsberg Foundation with a Semper Ardens Research Grant, is about to change this situation through a five-year program of large-scale archaeological excavations and multidisciplinary research.

Urbanism and the Past of Commercial Resource Networks

At its birth at the beginning of the 700s, Ribe was a special place in Scandinavia: In a settlement of high density at a suitable river port, many workshops maintained a sophisticated production, using a diversity of techniques and materials: Mediterranean glass, brass from mines in Germany, Arctic reindeer antler, etc. (Ashby, Coutu & Sindbæk 2015). For the first time ever in Scandinavia, trade was conducted using coins. As the first city in present-day Denmark, Ribe received the attention to be mentioned in a written source; and it was a place where new cultural traits were adopted, among which was the first Christian church in the country.

“A communications approach to ‘city-ness’ is offered as a way of understanding early cities as qualitatively new social worlds enabling world-changing processes.” (Taylor 2012, 415)

This was a place, which was associated with a new form of social networks: an urban network focusing on complex, specialised settlements, connected across large distances by land and maritime transport (Sindbæk 2015). By focussing on a “communications approach to ‘city-ness’”,[3] Ribe can be a key to understand this “network urbanism” as an archaeological and historical phenomenon (Sindbæk 2007).

The archaeological remains of early Ribe focus on the north bank of the Ribe River. Remains from buildings and specialised activities are preserved in layers of up to 2m on both sides of a market street, laid out according to a plot system shortly after the beginning of the settlement.

Questions concerning the impact of globalising resource networks, and about the dynamics and incentives that drives the growth of commercial exchange abound in the contemporary world. Scientific and societal debates routinely make assumptions concerning the history of these phaenomena – whether they are assumed to be central or marginal to past societies, and whether or not the European historical trajectory is seen as relative passive or progressive in this regard. Ribe is a unique site where detailed archaeological research can provide anchor-points for such discussions. A case in point as to how historical disciplines deliver Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR), the determination to inform grand narratives creates trust as social capital. Research on Ribe can push arguments on essential societal dynamics in the present world and in the future beyond mere assumptions and claims.

UrbNet: The Network Archaeology of Cities in High Definition

The project complements the Danish National Research Foundation’s newly established Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet). At UrbNet, archaeology and history are linked closely with the natural sciences in order to develop new approaches to the enormous knowledge preserved in cities’ cultural layers. The vision of the centre is to create a clearer and more comprehensive culture-historical picture by means of more precise investigation methods, often at elemental and molecular level – a High-Definition archaeology.

In spite of the acknowledged significance of Ribe, no excavation has been conducted so far, which matches the archaeological potential of the place. At the first discovery in the beginning of the 1970s, Ribe was investigated through large-scale excavations but using course-grained methods.[4] Later excavations between 1985 and 2000 demonstrated the possibilities of the detailed stratigraphy, but were forced to proceed as small-scale rescue excavations with limited budgets and under severe time pressure.[5]

“What is urban about early urban networks is not confined to one site or region, but rather is dispersed in resource and production networks that might involve both extended sea journeys and the exploration of marginal terrestrial landscapes. Some of the activities that gave Ribe its distinctively urban character occurred in the bustling marketplace; others took place on a Norwegian mountainside.” (Ashby, Coutu and Sindbæk 2015).

The Northern Emporium project excavations, conducted in close collaboration with the Museum of Southwest Jutland, aim to push the frontiers in fieldwork practice. They apply High-Definition archaeological methods throughout the excavation process, combining consistent stratigraphic excavations with dynamic integration of scientific methods, in particular geochemical elemental analyses and micromorphology. The documentation implements and develops dynamic digital documentation methods, combined with on-site processing of big data.

By means of support from the Carlsberg Foundation, it will be possible to realise the potential of UrbNet on unique Danish archaeological material. Drawing on the critical mass of the centre as well as its archaeological and scientific expertise, the project has the potential to pave the way for methodological breakthroughs and to develop a new, interdisciplinary approach to archaeological excavation of cites.

References

[1] Croix, S. 2015. Permanency in Early Medieval Emporia: Reassessing Ribe. European Journal of Archaeology 18: 3. 497-523.

[2] Feveile, C. 2012. Ribe: Emporia and Town in 8th–9th Century. In: S. Gelichi & R. Hodges (ed.) From One Sea to Another. Trading Places in the European and Mediterranean Early Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols. 111–22.

[3] Taylor, P.J. 2012. “Extraordinary Cities: Early ‘City-ness’ and the Origins of Agriculture and States”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36, 415–447, p. 415.

[4] Bencard, M. & Jørgensen, L. Bender 1990. Excavation and Stratigraphy. In: M. Bencard, L. Bender Jørgensen & H. Brinch Madsen eds. Ribe Excavations 1970–1976, Vol. 4. Esbjerg: Sydjysk Universitetsforlag, pp. 15–163.

[5] Feveile (ed.) 2006. Det Ældste Ribe. Udgravninger på nordsiden af Ribe Å 1984–2000. Ribe Studier bind 1-2. Højbjerg: Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab.