Modern archaeology cannot turn a blind eye to its importance in contemporary society. There is a huge and growing appetite for visiting archaeological sites as global tourism grows at an extraordinary pace. So, although my European Research Council project under the Tuscan sun does not envisage a popular archaeological outcome for our main excavations at Vetricella, there is nonetheless a compelling need to think about making something permanent at the site that will attract tourists and serve the local community.
Of course, the name – Tuscany – equates in most minds to tourism. Chianti-shire and San Gimignano, let alone Florence, Pisa, and Siena, play host to millions in the summer months. Unsurprisingly, the tourists tend to be drawn to honey-pots, and smaller places miss out. Western Tuscany – the Maremma – is typical in this sense. Some beaches are packed all summer; hill-towns like Massa Marittima similarly. But the majority of Maremma villages rarely attract more than a handful of the curious who are either avoiding the crowds or taking advantage of cheaper lodgings.
Which brings me back to our dilemma. Our project is uncovering the earliest medieval origins of the metal-extraction industries, their commercial histories, and their importance in underpinning the extraordinary wealth of later medieval and Renaissance Tuscany. The main excavation at Vetricella is a triple-ditched fortress of an unusual, dare I say exceptional, kind, once situated close to a lagoon that opened out onto the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our triple-ditched fortress was briefly one of Europe’s 9th-century marvels. The architect must have arrived with a piece of rope, and from a central compass point charged his work-force with digging deep V-shaped ditches into the soft prehistoric lagoon silts at 44, 88 and 132 Liutprand (early medieval Lombard) feet from a central point. Quite why the precision was necessary remains a mystery. Was the architect copying somewhere he knew: circular fortresses in Flanders or the Rhineland, or even the round city of Baghdad? Any conclusion will be speculation, of course, and we’ll never really know his motives. But one thing is certain: only a 9th-century aerial photographer would have appreciated the symmetry.
Happily, the site is stuffed with finds: storage pottery vessels galore, over a thousand iron tools, animal bones showing a dietary preference for piglets, and a cemetery of many malnourished infants and tall, well-nourished males. The documentary sources help us to shape an intriguing narrative as coastal Tuscany found its feet in the late 1st millennium AD. But truth be told, the ups and downs of the Tuscan kings and their Aldobrandescini counts is hardly a Netflix saga. Italian post-Classical growing pains are not unlike Italian politics, full of infighting and seldom as appealing as a good Tudor saga. So, with little more than concentric ditches in a large ploughed field, an academic narrative that connects Tuscan mines to the making of the Mediterranean, and a good range of unglamorous artefacts, is it really even worth thinking about presenting Vetricella and its story to visitors? Who would invest in such a presentation? Would visitors really come? Would we not do better to piggy-back on an existing museum in nearby Massa Marittima or the nearest village, Scarlino, with its monumental fortress?
Reluctantly facing up to the bare facts and fairly convinced that the destiny of Vetricella is to be unceremoniously back-filled and known only to a small cadre of archaeologists and historians, I pondered alternatives. That’s how I came to visit Harald Bluetooth’s legacy in Denmark.
The Danes have long valued their patrimony and, more to the point, there is a strong tradition of bringing the past to life. The popular archaeology magazine, Skalk, for years out-sold glossy rivals in Britain, France or Italy. Unsurprisingly, re-enactment archaeology is all the rage since a Viking hall was burnt down as an experiment at Lejre decades ago. Archaeology is in the Danish blood.
My pilgrimage to seek ideas for Vetricella began at Trelleborg, a round fortress in western Zealand. This is a canonical site in European archaeology. It was excavated in the later 1930s by Poul Nørlund when a local car society threatened to make it into a race track. Once the dig began, Nørlund was astonished to discover that the circular fortress contained the post-holes of bow-shaped Viking halls arranged in four quadrants. The first explanation for the martial precision of the place was that it was designed by Sven Forkbeard as a jumping-off point for his invasion of England in the late 10th century. This was unashamedly a nationalist interpretation formulated during the dark years of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Nørlund went further, hence my visit: he reconstructed one of the Viking houses, having already placed cement in all the post-holes to provide a sense of the topographical lay-out of Trelleborg. From these simple if daring innovations much has happened.
Once recognised, other fortresses were soon found. Excavations at peer fortresses at Fyrkat and Aggersborg in Jutland followed. Thanks to dendrochronological dating, these subsequent excavations showed that the system of round fortresses was earlier than Nørlund had believed. The new dates showed the architect could not have been Sven Forkbeard, but his father, Harald Bluetooth, with whom he had had a difficult relationship. Harald reigned between c.958-987 and is best known for Denmark’s birth certificate: the inscribed standing stones beside Jellinge church. Rather than the conquest of England, with the new dates, the first interpretation was that the circular fortresses were Harald’s bold efforts in building a Danish state, versions of King Alfred’s early towns, the so-called burhs. Now, as I shall describe below, new ideas are being thrown up and debated.
Irrespective of the history, Trelleborg set a benchmark. The reconstructed Viking hall is a wonder of masterful carpentry. Like their art and metalwork, these Vikings had an extraordinarily rich culture. But Nørlund made one mistake. He reconstructed the great hall with outer posts as if aisles ran along either side. Subsequent studies soon showed these outer posts reinforced the high, bow-shaped walls.
On my first visit in 1977, Trelleborg was a monument surrounded by fields slipping down towards a shore. A decade or so later the National Museum won funds to erect a museum here. Subtly low in form, it does not intrude on the scale of the fortress or the weathered Viking hall. Now, on returning with my Tuscan mission in my mind, I am at first irritated to discover the museum is closed (on Mondays!) but, a young man with a long beard in Viking attire tells me, the site is open. Having completed my pilgrimage I discover that behind the museum is a whole community in reconstructed Viking-period dwellings. Children are playing (with hoops not iPhone games) as mothers earnestly attend to cooking on a reconstructed Trelleborg hearth. A Viking warrior with his long spear and shield is ambling around, nattering to all.
Trelleborg today serves different audiences. What Nørlund would make of it, we can only speculate. What matters, though, is that it lives in the minds of modern Danes. It is a gentle and bucolic place where the militarism of the 10th century has been eclipsed by the fascination for the civilised cultural life-ways of the age.
Over dinner later with Søren Sindbæk, Professor of Viking archaeology at Aarhus University – a veteran of excavations at the Viking circular fortress at Aggersborg, I begin by asking him if he has had any vacation. A Tuscan villa with a pool, perhaps? Søren smiles: he and his children spent a week re-enacting Vikings at Lejre in Zealand. I could not conceal my quizzical look. ‘My kids wanted to do it,’ he says defensively. ‘I thought it would be awful but actually it was great fun. No cell-phones, no internet, only a Viking community and Viking activities to pass the days, and the days were filled – restfully.’ This modest intellectual looked like someone who’d had therapy and was much the better for it.
Excavating at Aggersborg, the largest of the fortresses, planted the seed in Søren’s mind that these fortresses were not for planning attacks but refuges for a community menaced by invasion. If so, if Harald Bluetooth was intent on safeguarding his community, Trelleborg on the west coast of Zealand was not sufficient. Another fortress was needed on Zealand’s exposed eastern side. That was how he came to Borgring, close to Køge on the coast, 60km south of Copenhagen. There, with extraordinary inventiveness and Danish determination, working with three colleagues, Søren has pulled off something worthy of Nørlund’s legacy. More to the point, this is a viable template for my Tuscan puzzle at Vetricella.
Søren was making a television broadcast when I arrived at Borgring. Actually, I drove past the site at first. The confection of containers piled high simply did not fit with my notions of an archaeological site. Still, Google Maps put me right, and after a warm welcome, I passed under a high viewing platform and was presented with a wide gravel path aiming for a distant, low bluff beyond a brook (where I could make out Søren and the film crew). On the bluff was a hint of an earthwork given a postmodern makeover by red steel uprights arranged in a large circle. Advancing down the path in the summer sunshine, large panels illustrated fortifications from the Cold War back to the Viking age. Short texts did their work in giving me context. Bypassing the television team, I arrived below the low bluff. Here, huge panels introduce the archaeologists in serious poses asking reality-TV questions about Borgring. The first of these explain how the fortress was found; then come panels in which the four featured archaeologists – including Søren, of course – debate its meaning and significance. The effect is full-frontal, but actually successful. The archaeologists put questions into your mind as you stride up to the bluff. Open excavations show that the rampart was low, without a ditch (unlike Trelleborg, for example). Here, though, buildings were absent. Intriguingly, after a short occupation the fortified entrances were burnt down. Apart from a smith’s toolkit, on display in the little exhibition at the entrance, finds were few.
Søren and his collaborators have published ample reports about this intriguing fifth fortress. In plan it resembles the beginnings of Trelleborg, but it never housed any militia. Instead, if Søren is right – and his peers debate with him about his ideas on the huge panels – this was a refuge for the families left behind by their menfolk as they took up defensive positions to confront the militarism of the German emperor, Otto II, who reigned from 973 to 983. Once the menace subsided, Borgring lost its purpose.
I am here on a Tuscan mission. I needed to understand how this new park came about. Being part of a group of five fortresses helps. So, too, does the intention to seek Unesco World Heritage status for these Viking strongholds. This said, the outlay on the entrance, its exhibition, the viewing platform, the trails, and the site presentation (aside from the excavations) is impressive. About a million euros has been invested in making this exemplary research project into a place for visitors. The reality-television theme provides a puzzle to lure you around the trail in an informed state of mind. Quite as important is the sense of place, contrived by a skilful landscape architect. The path passing through vast cultivated fields, the neatly channelled brook with its tufts of foxgloves, and above all the exaggerated steel uprights shaped in your mind to form the timber-lacing in the lost fortress rampart work as well as the big ramparts and house plans at Trelleborg.
And who made all this possible? The containers at the entrance are the clue. The A P Møller Foundation, a charitable arm of Maersk, the global Danish shipping firm, provided the support in honour of their Viking forebears. Visitors so far seem pleased. Whether the park will last remains to be seen, but one idea, based on the visitor experience so far, is that re-enactment days and festivals attract thousands.
Could this also be done in Tuscany? Would the Danish postmodern concept cleverly hitched to modern scholarship work in the Mediterranean? I wonder. There is so much competition for visitors in Italy.
Bringing the Vikings into the 21st century, beyond nationalism, beyond their legacy of piracy in popular media, is hugely important. Europe today needs narratives that make its community appreciate how diverse and strategic its founding fathers were. Dwelling upon violence belongs to another age; dwelling upon how families protected themselves and enjoyed life in the Viking age deftly explains how these people had such majestic architecture, and extraordinary metalwork, as well as vaunting ambitions to be peerless explorers. This said, would I ever attend a re-enactment, I ask myself as I head back to Italy, having sent iPhone photographs of this spell-binding experiment to my Tuscan friends?
Read more by Søren Sindbæk at http://sciencenordic.com/danish-viking-fortresses-were-designed-fend-other-vikings.
For site information see www.visitkoege.com/ln-int/koege/borgring-viking-castle-koege.