Detektorfund og bebyggelse – Det østlige Limfjordsområde i yngre jernalder og vikingetid


  • Torben Trier Christiansen



detektorfund, bebyggelse, østlige Limfjordsområde, yngre jernalder, vikingetid


Detector finds and settlement – The Eastern Limfjord in Late Iron Age and Viking times

During the past 30 years Danish fields have formed the backdrop for a silent revolution. Since the appearance of the metal detector in the 1970s, detector enthusiasts have succeeded in increasing dramatically the number of finds and known archaeological sites, especially from the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval period. This growth in the archaeological record has, among other things, led to a new understanding of settlement patterns and the general development of society.

Despite scepticism in the beginning, and a few misleading incidents involving illegal use of metal detectors, the liberal Danish legislation concerning the private use of metal detectors must therefore be termed “a success”.

This has indeed also been the case in Northern Jutland, around the Limfjord. Since the very beginning of the detector adventure the Aalborg area has yielded more new finds year on year than most other areas of Denmark, being only surpassed by Bornholm and Southeast Funen. However, despite the results they have amassed, the efforts of Northern Jutland’s detectorists do not seem to have been appreciated, and co-operation with the detectorists has not increased and improved in the manner seen in Southeastern Denmark.

The many detector finds from along the Limfjord have, of course, received some attention from Danish archaeologists. ­Esp­ecially so after excavations were carried out at a couple of the major sites, Sebbersund and Bejsebakken. However, a num­ber of other sites have not yet received the same attention, even though they have yielded, and continue to yield, a substantial number of detector finds. These sites have been overlooked both in the field and in the archaeological literature. This article is an attempt to improve on the latter situation. It offers a presentation of the finds recovered so far and a preliminary analysis of the material.

The material recovered by detector from the region contains a great number of single stray finds. However, several sites clearly orientated towards the coasts of the Limfjord are characterised by much richer find assemblages (fig. 1). These sites are the main subject of this article, with particular focus on Late Iron Age material.

In general, the detector sites seem all to represent settlements, but when trying to analyse the detector finds and sites we are still faced with some fundamental questions. For example, it is obvious today that there is remarkably poor correlation bet­ween the overall distribution of metal obj­ects and the settlement structures on the sites.

Thanks to the detectorists it is now possible to draw a fairly credible picture of the Late Iron Age settlement pattern around the Eastern Limfjord. This picture shows a remarkably dense concentration of rich settlements in a generally densely populated coastal zone. However, when compared to the areas rich in detector finds in the southeastern part of Denmark and Scania, this picture reveals one remarkable difference: the lack of a main centre.

The landscape and the sites
Apart from drainage of low-lying meadows and a few shallow areas along the coast, the landscape alongside the Eastern Limfjord in the Late Iron Age resembled that of the present day. The eastern part of the Limfjord formed a narrow, winding channel, and both the northern and the southern coast consisted of wide foreshores, replaced a little further inland by moraine hills. The hills stood isolated from each other and the mainland by small rivers and low-lying, wet meadows which were flooded by the sea in the Stone Age. Øland and Gjøl actually remained islands until the 19th century when farmers succeeded in draining the shallow waters between the hills and the mainland.

North of the fjord, the lowlands behind the hills continued for several kilometres. South of the fjord, these wet meadows were, after a few hundred metres, typically replaced by a hilly landscape dissected by river valleys.

Further to the west, the fjord at that time apparently offered two different sailing routes in and out: one to the west and a one to the northwest, through the Sløjenkanal.

The latter has completely disappeared today and investigations suggest that the mouth of this channel silted up during the 1st century AD. However, place names, historical records and archaeological finds indicate that the channel still played an import role during the Viking Age. Most likely the ships where simply carried over the sand bank at its mouth.

The rich detector sites dealt with in this article are Øland, Gjøl, Lindholm Høje, Humlebakken, Postgården, Thulebakken, Bejsebakken, Sofiendal/Gammel Hasseris, Nørholm, Mellemholm and Sebbersund. All but one are located on the top of the distinctive moraine hills along the Limfjord, lying typically between 1 and 3 km from the actual coast. In contrast to the other sites, Sebbersund is located on a small pen­insula directly on the coast of the Limfjord, by the entrance to a small lagoon.

The extent to which the sites have been subjected to archaeological investigation varies considerably. Extensive excavations have been carried out at Lindholm Høje, Sebbersund, Postgården and Bejsebakken. The latter has been almost totally excavated.

Minor excavations have been carried out at Humlebakken, Thulebakken and Sofiendal/Gammel Hasseris – whereas the history of Øland, Gjøl, Mellemholm and Nørholm is characterised by an almost total lack of archaeological activity, apart from the topsoil surveys performed by the detectorists.

The metal finds – chronological tendencies
Since the only properly registered detector finds from the sites on the Eastern Limfjord are those designated as treasure trove, only these finds are included in this analysis. However, changing criteria for the designation of treasure trove have clearly affected the composition of the find material in question. The increasing number of detector finds has forced the National Museum to tighten up the designation criteria. This has led to the situation where many finds which previously were declared as treasure trove are now returned to local museums and the finders (fig. 4). Consequently, fewer finds from the more recently discovered detector sites have been declared treasure trove, making comparison with the finds from “older” sites very difficult.

Bronze brooches constitute by far the greatest part of the material chosen for this study. Out of 709 finds, 478 are brooches – corresponding to 67.5 %. The earlier detector finds available show little typological variation, whereas variation clearly increases in finds from the later part of Late Iron Age and, especially, the Viking Age, from which there is a wide range of metal artefacts (fig. 5).

In order to compare the chronological composition of the material from the different sites, I have produced a series of diagrams based on the number and dating of the brooches from each site (fig. 6.). With a few exceptions, the diagrams give an impression of marked continuity in the flow of metal objects at the sites and, in most cases, an increasing circulation of metal objects during the Late Iron Age, reaching a peak in the Late Germanic Iron Age. However, this peak is somewhat artificial since it is mainly due to the fact that only brooches have been included in the analysis. Had the entire range of finds been included, this would have shown that circulation of metals continued to grow through­­­out the Viking Age.

Øland, Gjøl and Sebbersund do not fit this picture of continuity. The detector finds from these sites consist, almost exclusively, of objects from the Late Germanic Iron Age and Viking Age. However, Øland and Gjøl belong to the most recently discovered detector sites and the finds from them can hardly be expected to give a fully representative picture of the metal objects present in the soil here.

In contrast, Sebbersund is a well-known “old” site and a similar, but more thorough, analysis of the brooches from the site, including the ones recovered during excavations, has produced the very same result. Activities at Sebbersund seem, therefore, to have been very limited in the Germanic Iron Age, before blossoming in the Viking Age and then ceasing almost completely around AD 1100.

Furthermore, on the topic of continuity, the finds from all the rich detector sites on the Eastern Limfjord also include various amounts of medieval artefacts and, in most cases, early medieval churches or monasteries are located nearby. Activities on these sites carried on well into the medieval period.

The distribution of the finds – size and structure of the sites
Half of the rich detector sites on the Eastern Limfjord have been subjected to excavation and in all cases settlement remains were revealed. Similar excavations in other parts of Denmark have shown the same pattern and it seems safe to assume that the metal items present in the topsoil at the rich detector sites analysed in this article are the result of settlement remains under degradation.

Furthermore, since cremation graves were the dominant burial type during a major part of Late Iron Age in Northern Jutland, one would expect to find a large number of fire-damaged metal objects among the detector finds if these originated from burial sites. This is not the case.

The quality of the information on find site varies greatly from find to find and the recorded geographical information presents little opportunity for inferences to be made concerning the structure of each site. However, the overall distribution of the finds clearly poses an interesting problem. On all of the rich sites, with the exception of Sebbersund, the metal objects lie scattered over huge areas. These are far greater than those which can be expected to conceal traces of prehistoric settlement. The detector site on Nørholm hill is the largest so far, covering approximately 400 acres.

The Bejsebakken case underlines the phenomenon; this settlement has been almost totally excavated. If the extent of the settlement is compared with the distribution of detector finds from the hill it is obvious that there is a concentration of metal objects recovered from the topsoil above the remains of the settlement, but it is equally clear that a considerable number of finds have been detected outside this area (fig. 7).

The large number of metal objects found outside the area with archaeological remains of the settlement probably reflects some sort of adjacent activity area connected to the farmsteads on the top of the hill. However, the area in question covers several acres. In my opinion it seems most likely that the surprisingly wide distribution of the metal objects is due to the use of settlement waste as manure on the fields in the vicinity of the farmsteads.

A wide distribution of the detector finds is, incidentally, a very common phenomenon. Along with a similar topographic setting, this feature is shared by almost all the large detector sites on the Eastern Lim­fjord. It therefore seems likely that agriculture played an important role in the economy of these settlements.

Only the settlement at Sebbersund does not conform to this picture. In contrast to the other sites, the detector finds here seem to be concentrated within an extremely limited area. This situation, however, corresponds well with the excavation results from the 1980s which led to the interpretation of the settlement structures as remains of a trading place without traces of any ordinary agrarian settlement.

Crafts and Trade
Obviously, only a very limited number of the activities which took place at the Iron Age settlements can be revealed by the use of metal detectors. However, a few of the metal objects indicate the presence of metal crafts and trade.

Generally, the direct indicators of trade are sparse. Means of payment such as coins and pieces of silver are rare and only Sebbersund has yielded a significant number of balance weights. Furthermore, all of the finds belonging to this category are from the Viking Age. However, a substantial number of foreign metal objects clearly point to the fact that the sites on the Lim­fjord were part of a far-reaching communication network (figs. 8 and 9). Excavations at several of the sites have also recovered various imported goods, and trade must have been a common phenomenon.

The imported finds seem to reflect a contact network which evolved through time. In the Germanic Iron Age, the network seems mainly to have covered the rest of Scandinavia, whereas the British Isles and the northwestern part of Continental Europe, especially the area around the mouth of the Rhine, were clearly also included in the Viking Age. However, not only the direction of the traffic seems to have evolved. When looking at the number and character of the objects found on the sites, it seems obvious that the traffic increased in the course of the Late Iron Age and that trade in bulk goods began and expanded through the Viking age.

Crafts are generally poorly represented in the detector finds. A few items, such as raw materials in the form of small pieces of gold and silver, half-finished brooches, a matrix for the production of bracteates and three identical brooches at one site, indicates the in situ production of jewellery at the sites. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that several types of brooches and some ornamental elements exclusively or mainly occur on the Eastern Limfjord.

As could be expected, a much broader spectrum of crafts has been demonstrated through excavations at some of the sites and, apart from showing the traditional variation of crafts, the excavation results generally seem to demonstrate a marked focus on the production of textiles. At Sebbersund and Bejsebakken the number of pit-houses exceeds several hundreds and the majority of these were clearly used for the production of textiles. This production must definitely have exceeded what could possibly have been needed loc­ally.

Regional settlement pattern and interpretation of the rich sites
At present, it is only possible to draw a fairly credible picture of the Late Iron Age settlement pattern on the Eastern Lim­fjord by including the considerable number of single detector finds from the region. On this basis, the area seems to have been quite densely populated with a series of richer settlements along the coasts of the fjord (fig. 11).

The lack of inland settlements equally rich in metal finds seems to indicate that the coast-near settlements on the fjord served, in some respects, as central places relative to the settlements further inland.

It is obvious that the circulation of metal objects varied considerably from settlement to settlement and from period to per­iod. Despite these variations, none of the detector sites has so far yielded an assemblage which allows us to assign any of the settlements to a position elevated markedly above the others in the settlement system for the region. However, the considerable variation in the number of finds from the different sites clearly points to the fact that some settlements were more successful than others. This seems to have been very much the case on the Nørholm and the Bejsebakken hills, especially in the Late Germanic Iron Age, during which the circulation of metal objects here accelerated markedly relative to the other sites.

The lack of a pronounced main centre in a generally wealthy region stands in remarkable contrast to contemporary settlement patterns known from the southeastern part of Denmark and Scania. These latter areas were apparently characterised by a society of a much more hierarchical nature and by settlement patterns including easily recognisable centres mainly characterised by extreme concentrations of rich gold and silver finds along with the presence of unusual imports.

The development of a highly stratified society seems, therefore, to have proceeded at a somewhat slower pace in the Lim­fjord region. Together with the growing importance of the Limfjord for communication, this led to the characteristic settlement pattern which included a large number of settlements of centre-like character located along the coasts of the eastern part of the fjord in the Late Iron Age.

Torben Trier Christiansen
Aalborg Historiske Museum






Christiansen, T. T. (2008). Detektorfund og bebyggelse – Det østlige Limfjordsområde i yngre jernalder og vikingetid. Kuml, 57(57), 101–143.