‘First of its kind’: Viking shipyard found on Swedish island

A Viking Age shipyard has been found at Birka on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm, archaeologists from Stockholm University have announced.

'First of its kind': Viking shipyard found on Swedish island
Archeologists from Stockholm University at work on the site of the Viking boatyard. Photo. Paul Parker/Stockholm University.

“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.”

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Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South?

Residents of Sweden's major cities who have not spent much time in more rural areas of Sweden may not be aware of the 'raggare' subculture, with key elements including American cars, Confederate flags and Swedish rockabilly music.

Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South?

Raggare culture is an extremely Swedish phenomenon, existing mainly outside the larger cities. There are some small pockets of raggare in Norway, where they are known as rånare, and in Finland.

Although there are many young people who would identify themselves as raggare, it is by no means a new subculture, having been around in Sweden since at least the end of the Second World War, inspired by American ‘greasers’.

One of the reasons raggare are found mainly in rural Sweden is that raggare culture centres around owning a car. This can be anything from an old American car from the 1950s or 60s, to a vintage Volvo from roughly the same time period.

Younger raggare (who might not have the funds to buy a swanky classic American car) are more likely to be spotted driving an a-tractor, a small cut-off car with an orange warning triangle on the back which is limited to a top speed of 30km/h.

A Norwegian ‘raggare’, referred to as ‘rånare’ at a meet in Strömstad. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

Many of these a-tractors are hand-built or hand-altered from standard cars, meaning that they are often personalised to the owner, with colours, decorations or decals reflecting the owner’s personality.

Another aspect of raggare culture – both among the classic-car raggare and the a-tractor raggare – is listening to American-style rockabilly music (not always in English – one Swedish example popular with raggare is Eddie Meduza, who wrote the unofficial raggare anthem, appropriately titled Raggare).

This music is most often played through a pumped-up car stereo system, like this example of a teenager suspected of stealing a Hesa Fredrik warning signal and hooked it up to the soundsystem in his a-tractor car.

Prejudice towards this subculture is based partly on the fact that locals often get tired of their drinking, allegedly dangerous driving and loud music, and partly on the fact that historically, raggare had questionable morals, loud mouths and often archaic attitudes towards women.

A raggare car decorated with the Confederate flag. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

Raggare often attend meets together, usually in the summer, where copious amounts of alcohol are drunk while wearing American-inspired clothing such as jeans, leather vests or denim jackets, pomade in their hair, leather boots and often a large number of Confederate flags.

Former Social Democrat minister for public administration, Ida Karkiainen, who is from Haparanda, a small town with a large raggare population, was recently in hot water after pictures surfaced of a Confederate flag in her partner’s band practice room which she dismissed, saying she “had no influence” in the band’s choice of decoration.

One raggare showing his backside next to a Confederate flag. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

The Confederate flag, known in Sweden as a sydstatsflagga or “southern state flag”, was the flag used by the pro-slavery southern American states during the American civil war. It is a symbol commonly used in the USA among right-wing extremists and white supremacists. In Sweden, it is instead generally connected with raggare culture, often used as a nostalgic symbol for the American south – although its racist connotations have been increasingly debated in recent years in Sweden too.