Ribe, Denmark – The Place Where The Viking Age Started

Ribe is a small town situated in the southwest of the Jutland peninsula (Danish: Jylland), pertaining to the enlarged Esbjerg Municipality of the Region of South Denmark (Danish: Syddanmark).

According to a recent study undergone by three archaeologists at the University of Aarhus in Denmark and the University of York in England, voyages between Ribe and southern Norway unfolded roughly 70 years before the Viking Age is officially documented to have commenced. Thus, this new research provides key information regarding why, how, and when exactly the Viking Age period started.

View of a street in Ribe, Denmark. Image source: www.commons.wikipedia.org

View of a street in Ribe, Denmark. Image source: www.commons.wikipedia.org

While the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and several other documents dating back to the early Middle Ages posit the beginning of the Viking Age in 793 AD (when a convoy of Norwegian Vikings raided the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, at the time part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria) it has been previously suggested that the voyages of the Norsemen started earlier on and had a peaceful side to them.

Contrary to a popular belief, it was not conquest and raiding that actually triggered the start of the Viking era but rather trade. So it was that Ribe was established as a trading post in the first decade of the 8th century, being as such the oldest urban settlement in Scandinavia and officially attested as town in a mid 9th century charter (although by the 780s it had most likely achieved this status of urban development).

Detailed map depicting the settlements of the Norsemen in Europe and overseas during the Viking Age. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Alongside Kaupang (in Norway), Birka (in Sweden) and Hedeby (also located in Jutland, now in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany), the town of Ribe constituted a major trading post in early medieval Scandinavia.

According to the study of Professor Søren Sindbæk at Aarhus University in Denmark, Norwegian Vikings sailed southward to Ribe as early as 725. The team of researchers unearthed the remains of some deer antlers on the site of Ribe’s old marketplace. They also came to the conclusion that the reindeer remains stemmed from Norway.

‘This is the first time we have proof that seafaring culture, which was the basis for the Viking era, has a history in Ribe. It’s fascinating,’ said Professor Søren Sindbæk for Science Nordic. ‘We can now show that the famous Scandinavian sea voyages, which eventually led to the discovery of Iceland and Greenland, have a history of some commercial travel, not just raids. Previously we were inclined to say that yes, once you can sail across open water, you can also sail to the commercial towns — now we can turn the equation around and say that trading towns may have been an important part of the drive behind developing new technologies,’ Sindbæk added.

The once missing link between the Norsemen and the urbanization in early medieval Scandinavia seemed to have also been discovered, at least in regards to the development of Ribe. The town was a major commercial centre in early medieval Denmark, handling goods from most of Scandinavia back then. The settlement is located not far from the North Sea either and so goods from the west had inevitably been exchanged there during the early Middle Ages.

While Ribe has been generally regarded as the trading centre of southern Jutland during the Viking Age, Professor Sindbæk does not incline favourably to this theory. Regarding the matter, he mentioned the following:

‘There are some, including me, who have suggested that contrary to this view, distant contacts travelled from far away to meet in Ribe. However, we have not previously seen evidence of these links to the rest of Scandinavia, which is strong evidence against this interpretation. If you cannot see the evidence for such links then it is hard to explain what Viking raids from Norway have to do with the rise of towns in Denmark. This study gives us the missing link.’

In conclusion, this study aims to highlight the fact that the raids of the Viking warriors on open water and the development of urban settlements in Scandinavia are in fact connected. Thanks to the archaeological findings from Ribe this has been at last successfully proven.

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