Birka: The Mysterious Demise of a Majestic Viking Trading Center
The Viking Age in Europe brought a lot of key events and innovations, and greatly shaped the future of things that were to come. But there is a popular misconception that the Vikings were all about raiding and pillaging as they sailed to the West and the East. While they did sail all over and raided, traded, and brought kingdoms to their knees, the Vikings were also proficient in many other regards. Their major ports and settlements around Scandinavia were in many ways the hubs of trade and wealth - and Birka was one of the major settlements. An influential trading emporium, Birka was the place where all the goods from Eastern Europe and the Orient were handled, as well as goods from Scandinavia and Finland. Today, its remains lie just 30 kilometers outside of the Swedish capital of Stockholm. What is the story and the fate of this rich Viking city?
Hill fort in Birka. Part of Birka and Hovgården world heritage site. (Arild Vågen/CC BY-SA 4.0)
What Do We Know About Ancient Birka?
The remains of the ancient town of Birka are located on the small island of Björkö in the Mälaren Lake, roughly 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) outside of the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. The island measures roughly 1.5 by 1.5 kilometers (0.93 x 0.93 miles), and is filled with important archaeological remains. Of course, the remnants of the Birka settlement are the most important amongst these remains, and are situated at the northwestern coast of the island.
Birka is not the only type of these remains in the area. The lake is dotted with islands, and the neighboring Adelsö Island also hosts remains of a key Viking trade center. These remains are an important glimpse into the well-developed trade networks of Viking Age Sweden.
But while Birka was the trade center and one of the most important towns of the era, the settlement on the nearby Adelsö was supposedly the royal residence, from where the kings and chieftains ruled the area.
Viking burial field with church from 1200s in Adelsö on Lake Mälaren, Sweden. (Hans Baath /Adobe Stock)
Historical evidence tells us that the settlement of Birka (known as Birca in Middle Ages) was founded roughly around 750 AD. Its name is most likely connected to the island’s name - Björkö - meaning “Birch Island”. Some scholars propose that it grew from a smaller settlement into a larger trading center.
However, others propose that it was “purpose built” by a king, in order to control trade in the region and expand influence. Nevertheless, it is agreed that Birka is one of the earliest urban settlements in this region and the whole of Scandinavia too. The Lake Mälaren in which it is situated flows out into the Baltic Sea, and thus it is a great strategic position.
The capital of Stockholm itself is located at this spot, indicating an area which was instrumental in regional control. This is why Birka quickly emerged as a crucial stop on the famous trading route of the Vikings. It was one of the major trading centers in Scandinavia, and received goods from all over Europe and the Orient, which the Vikings - chiefly the Varangians - gathered in their expeditions.
As we view the maps, we can see that the position of the lake and of Birka makes them a great stop on the way to the sailing routes through Velikaya River, Lake Ladoga, and on towards the major Slavic-Viking trade centers of Novgorod and Gnezdovo.
Viking Age trade routes in north-west Europe. (Brianann MacAmhlaidh/CC BY-SA 4.0)
As such a crucial regional trading center, Birka would have dealt in many goods - and enjoyed great prosperity as well. Extensive archaeological research managed to provide a good insight into the nature of goods that passed through here. Birka offered mostly quality iron products and furs. The latter was naturally in good supply here - it was imported from northern parts of Scandinavia, from the Sami and the Finns, as well as from Finno-Ugric and Slavic tribes of northwestern regions of today’s Russia.
Finds indicate that these furs were from beavers, foxes, bears, martens, and otters. Moreover, antler goods were also in good demand here. Many important items and utensils were made from reindeer antlers, such as combs, needles, and cutlery. Some more sporadic finds indicate a good presence of walrus teeth, honey, and amber – which was usually acquired from “the land of Amber”, a region on the shores of the Baltic Sea inhabited by the fierce Curonians.
Decorated comb. Birka site museum. (M. Fuller, Birka – Swedish Viking Settlement)
From the Lands of the Orient to the Lands of the Slavs
In exchange for these various goods - which were almost always in demand - the traders of Birka received a variety of foreign imported goods. During this period, many of the exotic items from the Byzantine Empire, the Mediterranean, and the Orient were highly sought after and prized by the wealthy members of society - often as a sign of their high status. The graves that dotted the area around Birka provided a crucial glimpse into the variety of goods exchanged here.
For example, a great variety of coins are discovered: the majority of these are from all over Scandinavia, and Hedeby - another key trading center of the Danish Vikings. But surprisingly there is a huge number of silver dirhams (or drachmas) from the Abbasid Caliphate far in the east, showing the extent of the Viking explorations and their elaborate trade networks. There is also a good deal of Byzantine, English, and Carolingian coins as well.
Left: Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of a Viking Age warrior grave (Bj 581) by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe; published in 1889. (Public Domain) Right: Reconstruction of what that grave may have looked like. (Uppsala University)
In total, around 3,000 graves have been found around Birka, and many of them yielded rich grave goods. Huge amounts of amber were discovered here: this was a sought after commodity and emphasized status. It tells us that Birka was a prosperous center with rich inhabitants.
Textile fragments were also discovered in great quantities at Birka. As we know, textile rarely survives the passage of time and can thoroughly decay. But at Birka the archaeologists managed to find around 4,800 textile fragments. These fragments also show the great emphasis on imported foreign goods: there are plenty of clothes items of Chinese silk, rich, highly decorated brocades with plaited cords and passemanterie; Byzantine cloth with embroidery in gold thread; wool and flax textiles; but coarse materials as well.
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Besides this, there were many finds of imported glass and metal ware, and pottery from diverse locations - mostly from Rhineland. It is important to note that even with all these rich discoveries, less than 1% of the property has been archaeologically excavated, and only one third of the 3,000 graves have been investigated. This leaves us to speculate about the majestic goods and items that are still buried beneath the ground.
In many regards, Birka became a crucial catalyst for social and economic developments in Scandinavia. Due to the geographic position, the Swedish Vikings tended to mostly sail east and southeast - towards the Baltic coasts, along the rivers into Germany and the lands of the Slavs. In comparison - the Danes and the Norwegians mostly sailed in the opposite direction, towards England and Ireland, the Faroe and Shetland Islands, and to Iceland. One could argue that the Swedish Vikings got the better end of the deal, importing rich and exotic goods from faraway places such as the Abbasid Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, which greatly boosted commerce in the region and placed Birka at a very important position.
A silver ring from a Viking-era grave in Birka, Sweden, which has an inscription that says “To Allah” or “For Allah” in Kufic Arabic. (Birka)
From its emergence in ~750 AD, Birka was a prosperous trading center for roughly 200 years. Research shows that it most likely never numbered more than 700-1000 inhabitants, and that it covered roughly 17 acres. The main harbor of Birka was heavily protected and fortified - it boasted ramparts, stakes, and fortifications, all to protect it from the raids of pirates.
A Center of the Spread of Christianity
In historical sources, the trading port of Birka is mentioned only a handful of times, and a lot of its history remains hazy and enigmatic. That is why today, a lot of its story is pieced together from archaeological excavations.
The Life of Ansgar (Vita Ansgari), written in 875 AD by Archbishop of Bremen, Rimbert, remains an important Medieval work, and mentions Birka as the place where Saint Ansgar conducted missionary work around the year 830. In this work it is stated that Birka was the main site of Catholic missionary activities in Sweden, and it is here that the first Christian congregation in Sweden was founded - by Saint Ansgar in 831.
Ansgar’s Cross in Birka. (Roland Magnusson/Adobe Stock)
Thus it can be seen as a “stepping stone” for the spread of Christianity into the rest of Sweden and Scandinavia. While the mentions and descriptions of Birka in this work are superficial and fragmentary, it still provides key historic information, such as the mention of several Swedish Kings who dwelt there, including Kings Björn II, Olof, and Anund Uppsale.
But it is in the later work, the “Deeds of the Bishops of the Hamburg Church” (Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum), written by the Medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen in the early years of the 1000’s, that Birka is mentioned in thorough detail. However, by the time of the book’s completion it was most likely abandoned or destroyed.
“Birka is the main Geatish town, situated in the middle of Sweden , not far from the temple called Uppsala which the Swedes held in the highest esteem when it comes to the worship of the gods; here forms an inlet of the Baltic or the “Barbaric” Sea a port facing north which welcomes all the wild peoples all around this sea but which is risky for those who are careless or ignorant of such places ... they have therefore blocked this inlet of the troubled sea with hidden masses of rocks along more than 100 stadions (18 km). On this anchorage, being the best sheltered within the maritime region of Sweden, all the ships belonging to Danes, known as Norwegians, as well as to Slavs, Sembrians, and other Scythian peoples use to convene every year for sundry necessary commerce.”
This book was published around 1076, and it first mentions Birka as an extant city. But after the first release, the books was supplemented by added commentaries, known as scholios, in order to revise the provided information. In one of these scholia, published a few years after the original book, Birka is mentioned as destroyed: “During his journey he seized the opportunity to make a detour to Birka, which is now reduced to loneliness so that one can hardly find vestiges of the city…”
Today, the reason for Birka’s abrupt and quick decline and abandonment remains a subject of great speculation and debate amongst historians. Several reasons could have led to its rapid decline and the loss of its importance. An attack of the Danes is the least likely reason, although it remains a possibility. What is more probable is that a multitude of socio-economic changes led to Birka losing its significance.
Around the late 900’s as Birka was being abandoned, the nearby town of Sigtuna was founded as a major Christian settlement. What is more, the water levels in Lake Mälaren were receding around this time, which made it difficult for heavy trade ships and barges to sail and reach Birka, resulting in a decline in commerce. But the politics and conflicts in the early Medieval world could have also contributed to its decline: the disruptive activities of the Slavo-Norse ruler Sviatoslav I of Kiev caused a disturbance for trade and sailing along the Dnieper, Volga, and Don Rivers, directly influencing the economy in Sweden.
Artistic representation of Birka. (BaVi)
A Sudden End of Something Great
In the end, it could be that all these factors weakened the status of Birka and it was simply lost in the competition against other Scandinavian and Baltic trading centers. Very quickly, the town that was the major and busy hub of Viking trade in Sweden was lost to time, with next to no traces of its existence remaining until its discovery in modern times.
Such is the nature of history: generations come and go, rulers change, and the world rumbles on in its own tumultuous way. What was the center of life in the region in one decade, can be nothing but an abandoned heath in the next, its secrets buried beneath the soil.
But thanks to the curious minds of archaeologists and historians, we can today learn a lot about this lost jewel of the Viking world. Piecing its puzzle together can show us important insights into the vast trading networks of the Norsemen.
Piecing Birka’s puzzle together can show us important insights into the vast trading networks of the Norsemen. (Birka)
Top Image: Birka was a major Viking city in Sweden. Why was it abandoned? Source: danielegay / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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