The History Of Kaupang In Skiringssal – Norway’s First Town

Old Norse for market place is ‘kaupangr’, but nowadays the term is mostly associated with Kaupang (i.e. the trade centre) in Skiringssal, near the town of Larvik, Vestfold county, southern Norway. This article will briefly discuss the history of the kaupang in Skiringssal, bordering the strait of Skagerak.

According to extensive historical and archaeological research, this was an important regional trading centre in early medieval Norway. It was established during the same time as the first Viking raids took place on British soil, namely between 780-800 AD (as excavations on its site confirm).

It is usually considered as Norway’s first ever town. The Norwegian name of the settlement is derived from the Old Norse word ‘kaupangr’, meaning ‘market’, ’emporium’ or ‘trading place’.

This kaupang was strategically situated in southern Norway, in Skiringssal, close by the contemporary town of Larvik, pertaining to the county of Vestfold. Alongside other major Viking era trading centres such as Birka (in Sweden), Hedeby (southern Jutland, now in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany) and Ribe (southern Jutland, Denmark), it handled goods which stemmed from many places, including Denmark, the Frankish Empire, the region of the river Rhine, the region of the Black Sea, and even the region of the Caspian Sea.

Its inhabitants were primarily traders and craftsmen, living in houses smaller than Viking Age farms which were located on the shoreline of the local fjord called Viksfjord.

Artistic depiction of the dockyards at Kaupang, south-eastern Norway, during the Viking Age. Image source: www.theslayerrune.blogspot

Artistic depiction of the dockyards at Kaupang, south-eastern Norway, during the Viking Age. Image source: www.theslayerrune.blogspot

In this respect, this trading outpost, albeit referred to as Norway’s first town, was actually founded by Danes as a border settlement so as to defend themselves from Norwegian Vikings. The settlement is mentioned in the Frankish annals as being under Danish sovereignty as early as the 810s.

Map highlighting Kaupang's geographic location in Scandinavia. Map designed by Sven Rosborn on www.commons.wikipedia.org

Detailed map depicting the major Viking era trading centres in Scandinavia, with Kaupang’s geographic location also highlighted. Map designed by Sven Rosborn on www.commons.wikipedia.org

During the 800s it is believed that it housed between 400 to 600 permanent residents, but for reasons quite unclear, the settlement was abandoned by the 930s. Competing theories have been put forth in order to elucidate the mystery behind its disappearance.

As other important Viking Age commercial centres, new trading networks developed in early medieval Europe and as such, by the beginning of the 11th century, the kaupang in Skiringssal was completely deserted by its population. According to one theory, Norwegian Vikings may have seized control of this emporium when Danes lost authority over it during the late 900s, destroying the place in the process.

Substantial archaeological material was unearthed on the site of the former kaupang during a three-year excavation programme from 2000 to 2003, under the direction of Norwegian archaeologist Dagfinn Skre at the University of Oslo. Three books were subsequently published (the first two in 2007, while the last in 2011), describing results from the excavation at the former site and harbour.

As many as 100,000 findings were successfully excavated from the former site and many of these artefacts were on display at the University of Oslo. Among the relics discovered are silver coins from Dorestad (a former emporium in early medieval Netherlands, nowadays located in the south-east of Utrecht), jewellery comprising ornaments of bronze and gold, as well as a wide range of tools and weapons from the Dark Ages.

Documentation sources and external links:


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