Viking Age Shipyard Uncovered at Birka is Like Nothing Ever Found Before

Replica Viking boat at Birka. By Sven Isaksson / Stockholm University’s Archaeological Research Laboratory

Archeologists from Stockholm have located a unique Viking Age shipyard site at Birka. The discovery challenges previous theories about how the maritime activities of the Viking Age were organized.

The site consists of a stone-lined depression along what had been the shore at that time, and a series of wooden slides for launching boats. Finds include large quantities of both unused and used boat rivets, whetstones made from slate, and woodworking tools.

“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 Archeological Science at Stockholm University, and project lead.

“The finds of artifacts from the area shows with great clarity that this is where people have served their ships,” he added. (See the site in the video below.)

Birka has long been a treasure trove of insight into the Viking Age, and the former trading post on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren has been recognized as a World Heritage Site.

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Rich maritime cultural landscape

Previous investigations have observed several of the remains before, but it’s 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 Isaksson, who works at the University’s Archeological Research Laboratory.

Jetty or boat landing remains in pink – Sven Isaksson / University of Stockholm Archeology Research Laboratory

Ships and shipping are characteristic of the Viking Age in the Nordic countries, both for warfare and for trade. One expression of Viking Age long-distance trade is the city-like trading posts that sprang up in the Nordic countries at the time.

“It’s not just about the first urban environments, but shows an intensive exchange of trade goods and ideas between people,” says Sven Kalmring, Isaksson’s partner on the project.

Findings raise new questions

The town ramparts around Birka functioned not only as a defense, but also as a legal, economic and social boundary.

Previous investigations of harbor facilities in Birka have mostly been carried out inside the town rampart, in the area known as the Black Earth harbor area, and below the so-called Garrison. The shipyard, in an area called Kugghamn, is located instead outside of the walls.

In order to secure source material that can add nuance to the knowledge of Birka’s maritime cultural landscape, the archeological investigations are continuing. Among other things, separate excavations are beginning in a similar site—the remains of a boat landing located outside the town rampart.

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Another question the archeologists are trying to answer is who was allowed to dock where.

“Could anyone land anywhere, or did it matter if it was inside or outside the town rampart? There is much to ponder here. But for us, the investigation doesn’t end with the fieldwork, we continue in the lab. By using analytical laboratory techniques, we get more information out of the fragmentary source material than is otherwise possible,” says Isaksson.

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