Category Archives: viking

The Viking Age Town of Birka and the Life and Death of its Inhabitants

If you read this blog very often you will know by now that I occationally post papers I write for school. this post is going to be one of those. This paper was written form my intro to Archaeology class, and I happen to think it is pretty good. It is a long one and as always I will be offering it as a pdf which I strongly recommend you download if you actually intend to read much of this paper.

Before you read this paper you should probably know what the assignment was. The assignment was a 7-10 page paper on any site (which has had recent excavation) of my choosing. There was no specific topic which I was required to talk about so I just talked about whatever I wanted (e.g. whatever I could find information on).

Birka, located on the island called Björkö, was a key trading city in Sweden during the Viking period (Anna et al, 2008 p118). Excavation began at Birka in the 19th century and has continued to the present. Two of the major excavations are those conducted by Hjalmar Stolpe in the 19th century and Björn Ambrosiani in the early 1990s (Riksantikvarieämbetet). This city can provide a wealth of information about both the way the inhabitants lived their lives and how they were buried once they died. Birka can tell us how the Viking age people lived, what they ate, and what they believed, as well as how they treated their dead.
According to a study of the isotopes found in graves at Birka the people of Birka were fairly heterogeneous group when it came to their diet (Anna et al, 2008 p.454). However, other isotopes show a clear relation which may indicate that they came from a common geographic region (Anna et al, 2008 p.455). Birka was a very important trade city in Sweden during the Viking age, so it would not be surprising to see a mixtures of people from all classes and regions of Sweden here (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.118). There is some speculation that one of the graves, BJ496, may even be the grave of royalty (Anna et al, 2008 p.455). Where the people who lived at Birka came from may not be certain, but it is certain that they were there for a long time (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). Discoveries made during the 1990-95 excavations have actually pushed back the date of the beginning of the Viking age culture by 50 years or so from 800CE to the mid eighth century (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38–39).

Houses at Birka were built in groups divided by refuse ditches (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). The areas which were used for building houses must have been used for a very long time, as the foundations and floors of many houses overlap (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.28–29). The houses seem to have been made of either daub and wattle or wood planks. Some fired daub and a massive amount of ash in the area of the homes which could only have come from wood were found (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). It is known that the ash must be from wood structures, as it contained calcite, which is formed from wood ash (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.90-97). The topsoil around Birka is often called black earth, because the large amounts of ash were deposited during the occupation of the city, which was plowed into the dirt by later farmers. During the time of occupation the residents of Birka often spread ash from their hearths across their floors to level them out, which also makes them very easy to spot in the archaeological record. The ash in the black earth must have come from an occupation layer which is no longer visible, as it has been ploughed up.(Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.28). The black earth contain many broken artifacts of both modern and ancient origin (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.24).

During the 1990-95 excavations large amounts of dirt were put through sieves and floatation to in order to find small bones and other objects (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.82). Most bones found in the soil samples were fish bones. Of those not found without the need of soil samples the most common were cow, pig, and goat/sheep bones; these bones show clear signs of butchering. A large number of fox bones were also found, which may have been from foxes killed for fur. Bird and small mammals which were used for fur were found in every part of Birka. This may indicate that they were of some kind of importance. In contrast, very few horse bones were found. From this it can be determined that the main sources of meat at Birka were cattle,pigs, goats/sheep, and fish, while other animals were probably used for other purposes (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.84-86). Isotopic analysis shows that a marine diet seems to correspond to individuals of high status (Anna et al, 2008 p.446). Pollen was also found during sieving and flotation. Most pollen found was from weeds, but some was from grain. This indicates that some farming must have occurred around the city. This grain pollen is very interesting because it is mostly from wheat, which was very rare in the south of Sweden during the Middle Ages, but was very common in the eastern central portion of Sweden where Birka is located, even though conditions are no better for its cultivation (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.110-119).

Three major types of religious artifacts have been found at Birka: amulets, fire-steel rings, and miniature weapons (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.72). These are very clearly heathen symbols (it should be noted that heathen is not used as a derogetory term, but is what modern followers of this religion call themselves) which represent the Scandinavian religion which was dominant at the time (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.70). Three religious objects, two ring amulets and a miniature axe, were found under a street within a 3m^2 area, though it is not clear whether these artifacts are related to the street or the houses next to it. Either way, the small area in which these artifacts were found seems to indicate that they were not simply dropped but placed here on purpose. A major significance of these artifacts is that they date to the late period at Birka, which is well after the first arrival of Christian missionaries (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.76). A Thor’s hammer was also found during the 1990 season in the plough soil, which may have come from a street that had been disturbed (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.73). Finds like these help to show the difference between religious grave goods and the religious objects of a city (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.71).

Birka was a key trading city, so trade would have affected the life of every person in the city (Riksantikvarieämbetet). Around 930 coins were found during excavations at Birka, with most of them having Dslamic origins. A few were of Roman origin. Roman coins have been found in large quantities in other parts of Sweden and may have been used for currency. If this is so, it would be likely that the foreign coins at Birka were also used as money (Anna et al, 2008 p.79). A less common trade item found at Brika is jewelry imported from the continent which is decorated with filigree and granulation, a type of decoration that consists of patterns formed from shaped wire (Wladyslaw, 1985 P15, 30). Two shells were even found that could have only come from the tropics (Anna et al, 2008 p.124).
Information about the life of the inhabitants is not the only information to be found at Birka. No fewer than 2300 graves have been on Björkö. More graves probably existed in the past, but many have been destroyed by agriculture (Gräslund, 1980 p.4) The largest of the cemeteries on the island is Hemlanden. The cemetery north of Borg, a fort outside of the city, is the next most important cemetery on the island..(gräslund, 1980 p.5). The cemeteries once contained many groups of graves, which over time grew into the large cemeteries which are present on Björkö today (gräslund, 1980 p.86). Both cremation graves and inhumation graves are found around Birka, with both being divisible into further categories. Cremation graves are devisable into cremation deposits and urns without a cremation deposit (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Inhumation graves are further divisible into Coffin’s graves, graves with coffins, and chamber graves (gräslund, 1980 p.7).

A map of cemeteries on Björkö (gräslund, 1980 p.4).

Cremation at Birka should probably be associated with heathen as the Ynglingasaga says

Thus, he [Odin] bade that they burn all the dead… They should bear the ashes out on the sea or bury them in the earth; for a renouned man they should build a howe as a mark of remembrance, and for all men in whom there was some manliness they should raise standing stones.

This quote shows why it is not possible to determine exactly how many cremation graves occurred at Birka. It can not be determined if ashes were borne out to sea at all or how often they might have been if it did indeed happen (gräslund, 1980 p.63). If this practice was common, the cremation may have been far more common than inhumation. A majority of the cremation burials at Birka are covered by mounds so it would seem that they often employed burial practices which were meant to emphasize the dead (gräslund, 1980 p.64). It is clear that not all burials had mounds built over them. Some were flat and must have been marked in some other way, as there is no overlap between these graves in most cases (gräslund, 1980 p.63). If this practice was common it seems possible that the practice of a more honorific burial at sea may have also been fairly common. It should also be noted that the graves at Birka correspond to other contemporary graves in central Sweden and probably represent native people and not foreigners (gräslund, 1980 p.86)

About one half of all burials at Birka are cremation burials. Most of those burials are cremation deposits (gräslund, 1980 p.50). Cremation deposits are characterized by the remains of a cremation pyre with an urn buried in the middle. Many of these deposits are circular or oval shaped and are at ground level with a mound, with an average height of 89cm, built over them. (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Of all cremation burials about two-thirds have an urn. The most common kinds of grave goods associated with urns are rings, which were normally placed on top of the urn, and Thor’s hammers, which is yet another indicator that these graves should be associated with heathens. Other items sometimes found at cremation deposits are eggshells, unburnt poultry bones, bread, and other kinds of food. It is possible that eating may have taken place during the cremation process, though it is also possible that these are grave goods (gräslund, 1980 p.53-54). Iron rivets are also a common feature of cremation deposits. Some archaeologist have suggested that these rivets are from boats which were burnt along with the deceased, but it is not clear if that is the case (gräslund, 1980 p.55).
Cremation deposits represent 86.5% of the burials at Birka (gräslund, 1980 p.58). The rest are cremation burials in which the body was not burnt on a pyre at the location of burial (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Many of these graves may simply represent individuals who died during the winter and were cremated and until spring when the ground thawed enough for them to be buried (gräslund, 1980 p.61). Burials without cremation deposits are just holes dug into the ground with the ashes placed inside. This is no different from burials with cremation deposits, except for the lack of the cremation deposits (e.g. no pile of ash from a pyre) (gräslund, 1980 p.58).

Some of the grave goods that are found in cremation burials have already been mentioned, but there are many more beyond the few mentioned. Items such as Thor’s hammers, rings, combs, pottery, and western European glass and pottery are common grave goods which are found in cremation burials at Birka, regardless of type. (gräslund, 1980 p.77). Other burial goods which are common to all burials at Birka are beads, fire-stearls, rivets, nails, wet stones, combs, knives and keys (gräslund, 1980 p.54). Beads were found very commonly during the excavation of houses at Birka during the 1990’s (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.52). The prevalence of beads at Birka in both living and burial space suggests that beads may have held some kind of cultural or religous significance to the inhabitants of the city, but it can not be determined what that significance might be. It is possible that they were just used for their appearance.

Combs are some of the most interesting burial goods at Birka. They are the second most common grave good from the Viking Age and are found in both male and female graves (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.12). Most of the combs found at Birka were well made and repaired when they broke instead of being thrown out. Also, a historical account of an Arab called Iban claims that Vikings used their combs everyday (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.13). All of his information indicates that combs probably held a great importance. At Birka 325 combs were found in 269 graves (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.89) This is extremely useful to archaeologists as comb styles tend to only last one generation so they are a good indicator of time, as well as a good indicator of the importance of combs (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.15).

Other than cremation graves three different kinds of inhumation graves can be found at Birka. One of those kinds is inhumation graves without coffins. Out of the known 425 non-chamber-grave inhumation graves at Birka, 185 of them are known to not have coffins (gräslund, 1980 p.26). However, it is often impossible to determine if a grave actually had no coffin or if the coffin decayed to the point that it could not be found. It is, in fact, very common for coffins at Birka to have rotted away and left nothing but the nails which held them together. Some coffins have been found which were built without nails by looking at stains in the dirt. If the coffin is built without nails and rots completely and also does not stain the matrix, then it will be impossible to determine that it was ever there. It is known that graves without coffins did exist, because graves have been found with bodies in positions that could not be achieved if they were in a coffin, such as being crammed between rocks (gräslund, 1980 p.12).

The pits in which bodies without coffins were placed in are rectangular and normally have outward sloping walls. It is interesting to note that these graves did not seem to indicate the status of the buried person at all. Some coffinless burials have no grave goods and some have many grave goods (gräslund, 1980 p.13). The deceased was probably wrapped in a burial shroud of linen, wool, or birch bark, or covered with a covering of some kind; one grave, BJ 597, even shows evidence of a feather bead. Evidence for the wrapping of the dead can be found on the Bayeux Tapestry in England. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a man being lowered into a grave who is wrapped in a birch bark, and as it was made only 100 years after the abandonment of Birka it is likely that similar practices would have gone on there. It is possible that coffins were not used because the dead were buried so soon after dying, usually two to three days after, that they were not needed (gräslund, 1980 p.14-15).

Another kind of inhumation burial that can be found at Birka is a grave with a coffin. Two hundred and eighteen of the known 425 inhumation graves, other than chamber-graves, at Birka are known to be graves with coffins (gräslund, 1980 p.26). The average depth of pits with coffin burials is 0.1m-2.0m (gräslund, 1980 p.16). Most of the pits with coffin graves have small depressions under the coffin. It has been hypothesized that these depressions were somehow important to the process of lowering the coffin into place. One possibility is that these depressions faicilitated the removal of the ropes used for lowering the coffins into place. It is also possible that the depression may have helped to stabilize the coffin which may have had boards in a cross shape attached to the bottom, probably making it easier to remove the ropes once the coffins had been buried. Cross-shaped pieces were found on coffins in Jutland as well as on the continent; however, the cross pieces on the continental coffins were probably used as handles for carrying the coffins, while the ones at Birka could not have been used for this, as they do not extend beyond the side of the coffin they are attached to (gräslund, 1980 p.20-21).

All remains of coffins that have been positively identified as coffins during digs at Birka are made of oak. This does not mean that oak was the only kind of wood used or even that it was the most common kind used. All that this means is that oak was the only wood which could survive the soil. The fact that so few remains of coffins are found would seem to actually indicate that oak was a fairly rare building material. Most coffins from Birka are simple rectangular boxes between 0.35m and 0.8m wide and 1.55m-2.4m long for adults. As most coffins do not survive at all this size is determined from nails found in the ground. The coffins were for the most part built with the side boards butted to the top, bottom, and end boards and nails driven horizontally through the side boards into the other boards. Though nails seem to be the most common means of building coffins, many were found which had few nails at all. It is likely that other means were used to construct some coffins which did not require nails, i.e. mortise and tenon joints or wooden pegs (gräslund, 1980 p.15-17). One coffin was found that was even held together with rivets; this was common in Denmark, but not Scandinavia (gräslund, 1980 p.24). Though most coffins from Birka are rectangular, 29\% are trapezoidal. They are constructed in the same manner except that the foot and head widths differ by 5-10cm. Some archaeologists have suggested that these coffins represent the coffins of Christians as some church graveyards on the continent have trapezoidal coffins such as these (gräslund, 1980 p.19-20).

A diagram of common coffin designs found at Birka (gräslund, 1980 p.16).

Most bodies in coffins at Birka were found lying on their back with their heads pointing West or North. However, some bodies were crouched, lying on their sides, and others were pointing east. Pointing the head west was a Christian tradition while pointing the head north was a heathen tradition. Pointing the head east was fairly rare and may have had some kind of significance. It is possible that Christians believed that pointing the deceased toward the east would make it impossible for them to rest in peace (gräslund, 1980 p.26).

The last kind of inhumation burial that can be found at Birka is the chamber-grave burial. One hundred and ninteen chamber graves have been found at Birka, all of them in Hemlanden and North of Borg (gräslund, 1980 p.27). It is interesting to note that though this type of burial is fairly common at Birka, it is extremely rare in other parts of Sweden during this time period (gräslund, 1980 p.34). Chamber graves only differ from coffins in that they were built on location, are larger than coffins, and are are often constructed differently (gräslund, 1980 p.7). The major difference in the construction of a chamber-grave is that the walls of the chamber graves were often attached to posts in the corners of the chamber and not to each other (gräslund, 1980 p.31). The length of chamber-grave vary between 1.8m and 3.25m, while the width is often between 0.9m and 1.15 meters (gräslund, 1980 p.7,30). It is interesting to note that length of chamber-graves with weapons generally seems to be dependent on the length of the largest spear in the graves. Forty-two different grave were found which had spear points stuck into the wall of the chamber, indicating that it must have taken up the entire length (gräslund, 1980 p.30-31).

The bodies in chamber graves were generally arranged in the same way as the bodies in coffins, facing west, except that they sat instead of lying prone (gräslund, 1980 p.37,39). Some of the grave goods which accompany the bodies include sets of weapons, horse equipment, glass, game pieces, weights, scales, belt-mount, small crosses, coins, wetstones, purses, needles, beads, scissors, brooches, keys, and horses (gräslund, 1980 p.77). Twenty chambers had platforms built onto the foot of chambers for the body of a horse (gräslund, 1980 p.39-40). A man who was buried with more than one horse was probably a member of the royal guard, so in this way horses may have been a status symbols (Riksantikvarie\”ambetet).

Birka was a very important city in viking age Sweden. The years of excavations at Birka have revealed much about the lives of the people who lived there. The people of Birka were mostly homogenous and thus were probably native of the area. They lived in groups of houses that were divided by refuse ditches and probably eat mostly fish, beef, and wheat. Most of the people from Birka were also heathens. The excavations at Birka do not only reveal information about the life of the inhabitants but also about their deaths. Both cremation and Inhumation were common at Birka. Cremation was probably more common than inhumation, but it is hard to say this for sure, as ashes may have been buried at sea. inhumation burials can be broken down into three different categories as well: coffinless burial, burials with coffins, and chamber graves. Chamber graves are very similar to coffins but differ in that they are built in the burial pit and not lowered in already built like coffins. Birka provides a wealth of knowledge about the people who lived their and new discoveries will probably continue to come from this site for quite some time.

A map of northen björkö form Birka Vikingastaden, Vol. 1, 1991.

gräslund, Anne-Sofie (1980). Birka IV: The Burial Customs a study of graves on björkö. Stockholm,Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Ambrosiani, Björn, & Clarke H. (Ed.). (1995). Birka Studies: Excavations in the Black Earth 1990. Stockholm, Sweden: The Birka Project Riksantikvarieämbetet och States Historiska Musser.

Linderholm, Anna, & Jonson, C.H., & Svensk, O., & Lidén, K. “Diet and status in Birka: stable isotopes and grave goods compared,” Antiquity 82, no. 316 (2008): 446-461.

Ambrosiani, Kristina (1981). Viking age combs, comb making and comb makers in the light of finds from Birka and Ribe. Stockholm, Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Duczko, Wladyslaw (1985). The filigree and granulation work of the viking period: an analysis of the material from Björkö. Stockholm, Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Riksantikvarieämbetet. Birka — The Viking town. Retrieved November 14, 2008, form the Riksantikvarieämbetet (The Swedish National Heritage Board) website:\_to\_visit/birka/birka\_the\_viking\_town.html

a note on the sources: All of these sources are pretty rare and can probably only be found in a few libraries in the country (which are willing to inter library loan them to you anyway) so if you get your hands on any of these it is probably the same one I used (assuming you are in the U.S.A.). If you would like to know for sure the Random viking left his mark (rv) on page 42 of every book except Viking age combs, comb making and comb makers in the light of finds from Birka and Ribe, which I believe came from Georgia state (I’m hopping to get this one back so I can read more of it so maybe I will mark it then). If you disapprove of this behavior feel free to be a party pooper and erase the mark.


Posted by on December 22, 2008 in Archaeology, school, viking


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