The myth of Norwegian economic exceptionalism is a significant part of the Norwegian national psyche. How else could such a small and mountainous country come to dominate the global economy other than through sound economic management, expertise, and skill? 

Forgetting the fortuitous natural resources, especially oil and gas, it has in its possession, the recent economic story of Norway has been one of unbridled success and expansion. 

However, part of this economic story can be directly traced back to Kaupang, the first market town established for commerce and cultural exchange during the early medieval period. 

Nestled just inland from the Viksfjorden, near the village of Tjølligvollen, in Vestfold County, Norway, are the archeological remains of what is believed to have been the first center of economic and commercial activity in Norway, Kaupang. 

Established around the turn of the 9th century CE, this market town had only a short life – abandoned by the mid-10th century CE - but it laid the foundations for Viking merchants, traders, and entrepreneurs to engage with other trading towns nearby (like Birka or Hedeby) or further abroad. 

A model of the historical Viking town Kaupang in Vestfold provides a visual representation of this significant archeological site. Photo: © 2005 J. P. Fagerback, used in accordance with the author's licensing terms.

Economic expansion and strategic location 

The trading town of Kaupang was believed to have been founded in the 780s, right at the traditional start of the Viking Age. 

In this decade, the raid on Lindisfarne introduced the inhabitants of the British Isles to the Vikings and their ruthless ferocity. 

However, going hand in hand with these raids were commercial activities, with merchants and traders from Viking societies expanding outward from Scandinavia from this decade onwards. 

This early history of the Vikings should be seen as an ever-increasing outward expansion, both economically and militarily.

In this milieu, Kaupang emerged as the first urban settlement and trading town in what would become, by the end of the era, the medieval kingdom of Norway. 

The name itself is believed to have been derived from the Old Norse term for "marketplace" - kaup meaning "to buy" and angr meaning a fjord or a harbor. 

Though it was established centuries later, this is similar to the literal translation of Copenhagen (Kjøbnhavn, in Danish, meaning something akin to "buy harbor"). 

This safe and strategic location, nestled in the fjord providing a safe and secure harbor, played a crucial role in developing this primary Norwegian center of commerce and culture. 

The strategic location gave it access to maritime and overland trading routes, allowing merchants and traders to easily navigate the Viking homeland and its surrounds, especially the North and Baltic Seas, as well as the interior of Norway. 

Looking at the lands that people from Viking societies dominated over the early medieval period, Kaupang is almost an epicenter, a prime location between the Viking settlements in the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Western and Eastern Europe

A view of the excavation site and Kaupangkilen Bay at the center, where decades of archeological excavations have uncovered Kaupang's sophisticated settlement structured for both living and trading. Photo: © 2005 J. P. Fagerback, used in accordance with the author's licensing terms.

More than a century of excavations 

Excavations have been carried out around the site of what was once Kaupang for almost a century and a half. They helped map out what was once a bustling trade town that had, at its peak, somewhere around 1,000 inhabitants. 

For context, Oslo's population was 3,000 at the turn of the 14th century and only 10,000 five centuries later, making Kaupang a significant settlement for the time. 

The layout unearthed by the archeological work suggests a well-organized and bustling marketplace, including a grid-like pattern with designated areas for commercial as well as residential activities. 

Workshops, merchant houses, and storage facilities attest to Kapuang's economic vibrancy. 

Since 1867, more than 100,000 artifacts have been unearthed, along with the town's foundations. These artifacts speak not only of this town's economic importance but also of its role as a melting pot of cultures and peoples. 

Silver coins from the Islamic world, hundreds of glass beads, gilded jewelry, tools, weapons, and pottery all suggest that Kaupang was a trading node linked into the wider Viking economic networks that linked Scandinavia with Western and Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the wider Islamic world

In return for these precious goods, it is believed that the locals traded in iron, soapstone and – as popular and economically lucrative then as now – the fish that ply Norway's coastal waters. 

It should be noted that the Oseberg ship, one of the best preserved Viking Age vessels, was discovered in a burial mound near the settlement. 

Though now it is remembered as one of the most impressive burial artifacts ever discovered, before its archeological afterlife, the ship no doubt played a crucial role in facilitating trade and transporting goods along the coastlines and rivers near Kapaung. 

Kaupang's eclipse in the wake of Trondheim becoming the new nucleus of power and administration in Norway highlights the broader shifts in trade, governance, and centralization that reshaped the medieval Norwegian landscape. Photo: Trondheim Havn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Decline and demise 

In a somewhat similar situation to Birka and Hedeby, the primary Viking-established trading towns of Sweden and Denmark respectively, Kaupang suffered a demise and fall towards the end of the Viking Age. 

Modern historians have speculated as to why this economic and cultural hub declined from the mid-10th century onwards. 

Several theories suggest various reasons for the decline. 

One is the changing political landscape of Norway, where a move towards more authoritarian and centralized rule necessitated a new power center in Trondheim. 

Another factor is the shifting economic markets; the significance of Eastern markets like the Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire diminished, while others, such as the British Isles and the Frankish realms, gained importance. 

Additionally, trade routes were adjusted, with areas on the western coast of Norway becoming more strategically important for exploiting economic activity. 

Finally, there was simply the competition from other trading hubs, both within Norway and abroad. 

Inhabitants of Tjølligvollen, along with the countless tourists who flock to the area each year, can relish visiting the birthplace of the Norwegian economic story. The story that has propelled the country from the Viking Age to the heady oil riches it enjoys today. 

Kaupang was the first chapter in a story that is still being told today on the Norwegian continental shelf, throughout shops in downtown Oslo and Bergen and between the countless businesses that conduct commerce daily. 

For more information on the economic foundations of people in Viking societies, visit The Conversation here.

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