While some other sites are famed as symbols of the Viking's military might or daring feats of exploration, Hedeby is best known as an influential place of commerce that helped link the cultures of Northern Europe and beyond.

Today, the lands of Hedeby belong to the state of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. From the eighth to the 11th century, however, Hedeby was a crucial center of Norse trade and a vital arm of Danish power

Its story, however, has its fair share of conflict, as we shall see.

Perfectly placed

The first mention of the existence of Hedeby (known as Heiðabýr in Old Norse and Haithabu in German) comes in the Royal Frankish Annals of Einhard, recorded in 804.

Four years later, the Danish monarch King Gudfred sacked nearby Reric, a rival Slav trade center, and forcibly moved its merchants to Hedeby. From this point on, the Norse settlement quickly became a significant presence in the region.

It only takes a cursory glance at the map to understand why. 

As Matthias Toplak, Head of the Hedeby Viking Museum, explains, the location was everything. "The central factor for Hedeby's success is its position at the narrowest point of the Jutland Peninsula and the intersection of two major transport routes.

"The first was the 'Oxen Trail,' which had been in use since the Bronze Age and was the most important land route from north to south," Matthias points out. 

"The other route, even more significant, was from west to east. Coming from the North Sea, ships were able to travel far into the land using the rivers Eider and Treene. Then, from Hollingstedt in the west, you had to travel around 20 kilometers by land to reach Hedeby and after the Schlei, a narrow inlet of the Baltic Sea."

Today, the site is home to the Hedeby Viking Museum, which includes reconstructed Viking houses based on archaeological discoveries. Photo: Hedeby Viking Museum

A bridge between cultures

Hedeby's location made it the perfect meeting point and conduit for both goods and people. 

"Hedeby became the central hub for any form of exchange and trade between Scandinavia and the Christian West," explains Matthias.

"Not only were goods handled, but there was also an intensive exchange between different population groups, including Danes, Saxons, Frisians, Slavs, and Franks. The settlement was, therefore, an early medieval melting pot of cultures."

Illuminating discoveries

Though Hedeby later fell into disrepair – see below – and its remains were lost from sight due to rising water levels, the settlement was eventually rediscovered in 1900.

For the next 15 years, archeologists set to work on exploring the site, with a series of other projects following in the years to come.

Over time, the excavations began to show a clear picture of a significant settlement: this was no remote trading outpost with just a few scattered huts and some temporary merchants and tradespeople.

We can instead imagine a large, bustling town-like location, intimidating to outsiders, yet undoubtedly a warm and welcoming home to many.

"The largest part of the approximately 25-hectare area of Hedeby was densely covered with buildings," says Matthias. 

"Due to the excellent preservation of finds in the wet soil, it has provided us with some unique insights into the building structure of a Viking Age settlement and the construction of houses in this era."

A veritable metropolis

At Hedeby's most powerful point, people arriving by ship would have been greeted by high wooden palisades (the beginning of the Danevirke, an extended network of fortifications that stretched for more than 30 km) made from driven planks, with a narrow gateway in the center. 

If admitted, they would disembark at one of the wooden platforms or jetties. Presumably, a Hedeby local would have inspected their wares and credentials before the visitors moved forward into the town itself.

Strolling through Hedeby, they would have seen row upon row of small, tightly clustered houses separated by wooden tracks and narrow waterways. 

In addition to weapons and ironware, the goods would have included a wide range of furs, textiles, pottery, and slaves. Evidence also exists of many artisans and craftsmen who lived on-site and would have produced valuable goods for trade.

Barter, mints, and distant lands

The Norse primarily relied on a complex trade and barter system. 

One memorable runic inscription at Hedeby details the exchange of how Oddulfr traded Eyríkr an otter skin for a sword. 

At the same time, coin usage became more common as time went on, ranging from a "bullion economy," where goods were exchanged for precious metals whose value was determined by their weight – to more sophisticated coins with specific values. 

Indeed, it is even thought that Hedeby was home to the earliest-ever Scandinavian mint, with evidence of coins produced at the settlement as early as 825.

The archeological finds at Hedeby have also provided a clearer insight into the sheer scale of Viking trading routes. 

"There are many imported objects that come from distant regions," Matthias informs us, "From raw materials that originated in the Arctic regions to luxury goods from both the Arab world and Central Asia."

A conflict too far

Given that Hedeby was a major source of funds for the Danish rulers, it is perhaps no surprise that it was unable to escape the attention of warring factions. 

The Ottonian dynasty occupied the settlement during the tenth century before being regained by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in 983, together with his son Sven Forkbeard.

"According to written sources, the trading center of Hedeby, presumably already in decline, was destroyed for the first time in 1050. This occurred in the aftermath of a war between the Danish king Sven Estridsson and the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada," says Matthias.

In 1066, West Slavic tribes destroyed it for a second time. 

Hedeby was unable to survive these later blows and was soon succeeded by the nearby settlement of Schleswig. Schleswig would later serve as a medieval residence for Danish kings before the area passed into the hands of Prussia in 1864.

Through a selection of artifacts and exhibits, the museum provides a window into the Hedeby of old. Photo: Hedeby Viking Museum

A beacon of history

Today, Hedeby is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it is no longer a location for archeological digs, with research limited to scientific evaluations of the many finds of the 20th century. 

The Hedeby Viking Museum (also known as the Viking Museum Haithabu) and the adjacent group of recreated houses, however, are a superb testament to former glories.

The museum presents selected finds from the Hedeby site alongside a permanent exhibition that covers a wide range of topics, including crafts, trade, ships, and burial customs

The reconstructed Viking houses in the middle of the original site can be visited from Easter to the end of October. The open-air section, with a distinctive semi-circular wall, is freely accessible all year round.

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