Vikingetidens og middelalderens keramik i Århus


  • Hans Jørgen Madsen



viking, medieval, middelalder, keramik, pottery, Århus, Aarhus, development, udvikling


Developments in Viking and Medieval pottery in Århus

In the old town centre of Århus foundation digging has on several occasions unearthed Viking and medieval pottery. Much of this has been published by Helge Søgaard in his hook on the earthenware in the north Jutland museums (1). In the 1960s, however, the material was considerably augmented by the activities of Forhistorisk Museum, three systematic excavations being carried out in the centre of the city in an attempt to ascertain the structure and topography of the early town: at Søndervold (the southern rampart) in 1963-64, in Nygade near Vor Frue Church in 1966 and at the Katedralskole in 1969, cf. fig. 1. These investigations showed that Århus came into existence about 900 and that it was situated in the present cathedral area, surrounded by a semicircular rampart. Not until the 11th and 12th centuries did suburbs appear outside the ramparts.

Although there has of late been greater interest in Viking and medieval problems, the material remains from these periods in Denmark have received only limited attention, and it is thus fortunate that the Århus excavations can give an idea of developments from the 10th to the 14th century, in particular as regards pottery, which is often employed in dating.

Of the three recent excavations in Århus, the Nygade investigation revealed only extremely sporadic building in the 11 th-13th centuries (2), and the material from the Katedralskole excavation has yet to be studied. We have thus to rely on the Århus Søndervold investigation when considering the development of the local pottery in the Viking and medieval periods, and the stratigraphically related material from this excavation is large enough and covers a sufficient period of time to reflect certain general tendencies in local pottery development. The complete Søndervold material has been recently published as a large monograph (3), in which a documented and more detailed study of the pottery is to be found. This material is presented again here not because new observations have been made, but because the main features of development may be clearer in a brief summary than in an excavation report where the overriding requirements of complete and documented presentation can make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. Apart from those to the primary publications, the references below are confined to the relevant Danish works which have been published since the excavation report went into print.

The total thickness of the rubbish and occupation layers at Århus Søndervold was 2½-3 m. Only 10 reconstructable pots were recovered, but 27,100 sherds. This material may be divided into four ware types: Ware I, the prehistoric-like, greyish-brown pottery, baked at low temperatures, was found in 10 reconstructable vessels and 7,100 sherds; Ware II, the medieval, black-grey, hard-baked pottery, was represented by 17,000 sherds; Ware III, the glazed pottery, was represented by 2,800 sherds; and Ware IV, stoneware, comprised 190 sherds.

If excavation and the subsequent treatment take the frequent disturbances of stratigraphy which characterize town layers into account, pottery diagrams similar to pollen diagrams may be drawn up, to show in graphic form the percentage distribution of ware types in the various layers. In the Søndervold excavation, the pottery diagrams for excavation zones III a and IV b in particular, cf. fig. 2, provide a basis for an understanding of the pottery development at the site, since these two zones exhibited a relatively undisturbed stratigraphy covering several periods. Since the same main tendencies were observed in the other excavation zones, three pottery levels could be established for the locality, each characterized by its distribution of ware types. Horizon 1 is characterized by the complete dominance of Ware I, which in principle constitutes 100 % of the material. Horizon 2 is characterized by the emergence and domination of Ware II, with a sporadic presence of glazed ware. Horizon 3 is characterized by the advance of glazed ware, comprising 25 % or more of the total pottery.

The artefact material as a whole indicates that Horizon 1 covers the period from 900 to the beginning of the 13th century, Horizon 2 the beginning of the 13th to the beginning of the 14th century and Horizon 3 part of the 14th century. Within this framework, the following main tendencies in Viking and medieval pottery development may be observed.

10th and 11th centuries

In this period the pottery is entirely dominated by the simple beakers and vessels of Ware type I, with incurved or vertical rims. They are normally round-bottomed, but flat-bottomed vessels also occur regularly.

The round-bottomed "hemispherical vessels", cf. fig. 3, occur in many different sizes and the incurvature of the rim can vary. This type of vessel is also known from several sites outside Århus, in fact it is the commonest type of Viking pot in Denmark. It is clear, however, that its dominance does not extend beyond Jutland, since only a few specimens have been found on the Danish islands and it is only sparsely represented in the rich Swedish material. The earliest dated examples so far derive from Jutland graves from the first half of the 9th century, and the type presumably entered Jutland from the Saxon-Frisian culture area, where it is known from occupation and grave finds of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Another type of Viking pot in the Århus material is the flat-bottomed vessel with incurved or vertical rim, cf. fig. 4. These vessels, which vary considerably in shape, have hitherto only had a weak representation in the material from Jutland, whereas they are very common in Viking finds from the Danish islands and Sweden. Their presence in Århus is perhaps an expression of an eastern contact, which would be natural in a maritime trading centre on the east coast of Jutland. In this connection it may also be mentioned that the Viking pottery from Århus contains a modest amount of Slav pottery, cf. fig. 5, which must have been imported from the southern Baltic coastal regions.

12th century

In the 12th century the pottery traditions from the Viking period continued unbroken, so that the hemispherical vessel, for example, was still a prominent type in Århus; but it is apparent from the material that the period was also one of innovation, for a number of new features foreshadow the change in pottery technique which is manifest at the beginning of the 13th century.

As a generally new feature it may be emphasized that the 12th century pottery has a tendency to be harder baked than the earlier ware, so that sherds often have a rough, sandpaper-like surface. This is one effect of an improved technique which is manifest in other features too.

The west European spherical vessel with round bottom and excurrent rim was already present in Århus in the Viking period, but only to a very limited extent. In the 12th century this representation was considerably increased, often in technically well-formed vessels with more complicated and regularly shaped rims, cf. fig. 6. These are very similar to north German vessels from the 12th century, and certain impulses can thus have reached Århus from north Germany in this period. There is evidence for north German influence in the case of Roskilde, since Saxo mentions that "Saxons", among them artisans, were living in the town about 1130.

In the 12th century another foreign impulse was apparent in the pottery; but it came from another and much weaker direction. This is the late Slav pottery, cf. fig. 7. Preliminary reports from new excavations on Lolland and in Odense show that pots exhibiting Slav influence were dominant there in the 11th and 12th centuries (4). Earlier observations support this and it thus seems that eastern Denmark was influenced by the Slav pottery tradition throughout the early Middle Ages. Århus, however, clearly retained a Jutish character, the Slav element comprising only 1-2 % of the pottery of the time and vanishing in the middle of the 13th century. The Slav pottery played no marked role in further development in either eastern or western Denmark.

13th and 14th centuries

Some time in the early 13th century a major change occurred in the medieval pottery. The old low-fired pottery fell out of use and the hard-baked, usually black-grey pottery known from Western Europe became rapidly predominant in Århus. It is found in a much greater variety of shapes than the pottery of former periods and there can be no doubt that this well-formed ware was mass-produced by professional artisans; much of it must have been thrown on a wheel.

Excurrent rims now became very common, and from the mid-13th century the shoulder was often decorated with a belt of circumferential grooves, a clear expression of wheel technique, cf. fig. 8 left. These pots may be either round- or flat-bottomed; but entire vessels of this type have not been found in the Søndervold material. From the mid-13th century, a few pots occurred with feet of varying height and the jug made its appearance.

It will be apparent from the above that the black-grey medieval pottery in Århus is generally related to the corresponding north German pottery, and some of it may be imported. It is, however, remarkable that the Århus material contains many vessels with incurved rim, cf. fig. 9, a type which to my knowledge does not occur to any marked extent in Western Europe. Since it first and foremost belongs to the black-grey pottery's earliest period, it is tempting to assume that the type is directly derived from the familiar domestic forms from the Viking and early medieval periods, merely produced by an improved technique. This could suggest that Danish production of the black-grey medieval pottery was already established at the beginning of the 13th century. Another feature suggesting home production is the finger-impressed decoration frequently found on the rims and sometimes on the shoulders of dishes and bowls, cf. fig. 8 right. While a similar ornamentation of medieval pottery is known from England, Holland and northern Germany, it has nothing like the dominance there that is has in Århus; and it is also remarkable that the type has not yet appeared to any extent in the east Danish material. The form can thus reflect a production in Jutland during the Middle Ages of black-grey pottery, and in 1972 a find was made in the Illerup valley near Skanderborg south of Århus which for the first time directly suggests the existence of a medieval potter's workshop; it is noteworthy that the dishes and bowls ornamented in the manner described are very conspicuous in this Skanderborg find (5).

In the 13th century too, the wheel-thrown glazed pottery made its appearance in Århus, almost entirely in the form of jugs. The matrix is normally reddish but may also be light greyish in colour, and on account of the colourless or slightly greenish lead glaze the pottery has usually a reddish brown or light olive-green colour. It may be decorated in different ways, cf. fig. 10. Flower and raspberry­like ornaments decorate the jugs in both the 13th and the 14th centuries, whereas rouletted ornament seems in Århus to be confined to the 13th century. Scale ornament seems to have been especially popular in the period up to and around 1300; but with respect to the glazed pottery, the Søndervold find is so limited and covers such a short period of time that it is hardly possible to make chronological observations of general validity.

Apart from a few examples of English and French import, the glazed medieval pottery in Århus is so uniform that it must be regarded as being largely of Danish manufacture. Workshop finds from Farum Lillevang in north Zealand and from Skanderborg also suggest that numerous potteries producing glazed ware were to be found in Denmark in the Middle Ages, and Mogens Bencard has been able to establish certain characteristic features for various local Danish groups (5). The distinct increase in glazed pottery in Århus in the 14th century possibly reflects a more extensive Danish production in that century.

Finally, it should be remarked that early forms of stoneware of German manufacture began to appear in Århus in the 13th century, and a few sherds of a technically more advanced type date to the 14th century. Quantitatively, however, this early import of stoneware makes hardly any impression on the pottery of the city.

To summarize: The Århus pottery maintained a local character over the centuries. The Viking period pottery was mainly of Jutish type although an insular Danish and weak Slav influence could also be detected. In the 12th century, the pottery traditions of the Viking period were maintained; but new impulses of north German and Slav character made themselves felt. Some time in the early 13th century a radical change in pottery manufacture occurred and the pottery became distinctly West European in character. To begin with, the black-grey ware was entirely dominant and the presence of certain special local forms suggests that this pottery was produced in Danmark at the beginning of the 13th century. The glazed pottery was sparse in the 13th century, but in the 14th century it won increasing acceptance. The material and the present state of knowledge do not allow us to decide how much of this production was local, but the greater part of it must be considered to be at least of Danish origin. The German stoneware production hardly managed to show itself in Århus before the Søndervold layers end some time in the 14th century.

H.J. Madsen





Madsen, H. J. (1972). Vikingetidens og middelalderens keramik i Århus. Kuml, 22(22), 123–138.