“A site like this has never been found before,” Sven Isaksson, Professor of Archaeological Science at Stockholm University, said in a press release. “It’s the first of its kind, but the finds convincingly show that it was a shipyard.”
Birka, also referred to as Vikingastaden (The Viking City) in Swedish, is often considered to be Sweden’s first city, one of the most important trading centres in the Viking period. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an example of the city-like trading posts that sprang up in the Nordic countries during the Viking Age.
“It’s not just about the first urban environments, but shows an intensive exchange of trade goods and ideas between people”, added Sven Kalmring, associate professor and expert on ports and urbanisation in the Viking Age at the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, who led the investigations together with Isaksson. The group’s findings have been published by Stockholm University as a research report.
Remains of ships have been discovered in previous excavations in the area, but the latest finds have confirmed the existence of a Viking shipyard at Birka for the first time.
“Through systematic inventory, mapping and drone surveys, 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,” Isaksson said.
Archaeologists discovered a stone-lined depression in the Viking Age area of the shoreline, with a wooden boat slip at the bottom. In addition to this, they discovered a large amount of boat rivets, slate whetstones and tools for woodworking.
“The finds of artefacts from the area shows with great clarity that this is where people have served their ships”, Isaksson said.
The town ramparts around Birka functioned not only as a defence, but also as a legal, economic and social boundary. Previous investigations of harbour facilities in Birka have mostly been carried out inside the town rampart, in the area known as the Black Earth harbour area, and below the so-called Garrison. The newly discovered shipyard at Kugghamn is located, along with a number of other maritime remains, outside Birka’s town rampart, along the northern shore of Björkö.
“By investigating various maritime elements in connection with a possible house site in Kugghamn, we are now trying to get an overall view of a very exciting and previously archaeologically completely unexplored environment,” Kalmring said.
Archaeologists are still investigating other sites in Birka, including the remains of a boat landing site outside the town ramparts. They are also trying to answer the question of whether there were rules on who was allowed to dock in different areas of the city.
“Could anyone land anywhere, or did it matter if it was inside or outside the town rampart?” Isaksson said.
“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.”