Thursday, 25 July 2013

Denmark Trip 2013

Denmark Trip 2013
Over the years, it is fair to say that visits to Denmark and North Germany have become something of a regular pilgrimage. Crossing the North Sea and stepping off the ferry, one gets a sense of re-tracing the steps of ancestors, be they the brave pioneers who came in the 5th and 6th centuries to settle, or the 'Vikings' who came to the British Isles later in search of plunder, trade or conquest. Most Brits have a little Anglian, Jute or 'Viking' blood, and thus it is fair to say that a good chunk of our history resides in the original homeland of these peoples.
Over the past 15 years, I, with my family, have visited Denmark no less than 10 times, and cannot recommend it more strongly. The Danes, perhaps uniquely, value their Migration-Period and Viking-Age history and are not afraid to be proud of it, nor to invest in it. This refreshing mainstream enthusiasm is evidenced by the number of excellent modern museums, reconstructed 'Iron-Age' and Viking-Age villages, and the abundance of living history festivals which are popular both with locals and with tourists. 

Describing the many fantastic places to visit in Denmark and North Germany, and the great experiences we have had on our travels would take forever. However, we thought it may be of interest to describe what we found this year;  Ribe Viking Festival, the Nydam Ship at Schloss Gottorf, and a reconstructed Iron-Age Village at Hjemsted.

The reason for our visit in Spring of this year was to visit the fantastic Ribe Viking Festival. The May festival has now been going on for some years and includes groups and traders from across Europe, selling everything from pottery to battle-gear. Taking place within the largest reconstructed Viking settlement in Denmark, the festival attracts visitors from across the world. A costumed event of this scale, in such a location, really does give the feel of stepping back in time. This year seemed a little quieter than previously despite glorious weather, but was still a great opportunity to stock up on some supplies, and gather inspiration to bring back to England. 

As our ferry did not sail until Tuesday, we decided to use the time after the Ribe Viking Festival to visit the new Nydam Ship exhibition at the archaeological museum in Gottorp Castle, Schleswig, across the border in North Germany.

Smaller boat from Nydam
Inside of the reassembled Nydam Ship
Representing the closest we have to an example of the kind of vessel the Anglo-Saxon tribes may have used to ferry them to England, the Nydam ship is of huge importance to German, Danish and English history. 

Preserved figurehead from the Nydam ship. A pair would have looked out from the edge of the hull.

The exhibition (revamped since our visit in summer 2012) displayed additional material, including new models of the vessel and associated finds, and despite being annotated entirely in German was well worth seeing. Although smaller than the Sutton Hoo ship, the Nydam boat is still impressively large and its oak timbers are virtually intact.

Dendrochronological dating places its construction to around 310-320 CE. It is of oak clinker-built construction and over 75 feet long, about 13 feet wide. It  was designed to be rowed by 30 men but could have carried many more. 
Model of the ship, as it would have been in the 4th century
Looking at this large and impressive boat, it was easy to see how a fleet of a few dozen or so of these ships could have moved a whole people from southern Jutland to the east coast of Britain, leaving Angeln virtually depopulated.
Gottorf Castle also holds many of the 2nd-4th century finds from Nydam Mose. The present bog was then a sacred lake, where folk sacrificed weapons etc. to the gods in thanks for victory over the enemy. Many of the swords and spears have been ‘ritually killed’; bent and broken so as to render them useless and other items such as shields and armour hacked to pieces. 
'Ritually killed' sword blade from Nydam mose
Swords from Nydam Mose, resembling early Anglo-Saxon styles
Although earlier by a couple of centuries than any comparable English finds, it is clear that these weapons are similar to early Anglo-Saxon finds. One display-case contained rare and still beautiful scabbards and another a large number of sword-beads or ‘Schwertperlen’. What was remarkable was how huge these early examples were compared to the relatively modest ones found in Anglo-Saxon graves, suggesting, by the time of arrival in England, this fashion had already begun to atrophy and decline.

"Schwertberlen" - 4th century Sword-beads much larger than examples found from A.S. England
 Sadly we were, on this visit, unable to locate a cabinet we had poured over on our last visit, which contained a wonderful array of Migration-Period 'great buckles' decorated with animal-style interlace. Indeed, this single small cabinet contained more such items from North Germany than existed in the entire corpus of early Anglo-Saxon finds in England.

On the morning of our return, we visited the Hjemsted Oldtidspark & Museum, located at Skærbæk close to Romo, South Jutland, which is a centre dedicated to the Germanic Iron Age. Here we found an impressive reconstructed village occupying no less than 24 acres, above an extensive underground museum. The reconstructed houses represented Germanic Iron Age dwelling from around 0 CE to 450-500 CE. The earliest (Syltgården) featured one-metre-thick peat walls. 
Hjemsted Oldtidspark
Even more interesting to us was Nordgården, which was a replica of a large farm from around 450 AD.  The building style featured  the oak post-built structures and the ‘wattle and daub’ walls so familiar to Anglo-Saxonists. Floors were either cobbled or dirt rather than planked. A small sky-light chimney-hole was situated immediately over the fire-place but the fire was protected from any rain by a cow-hide canopy. It would have been interesting to see if this arrangement was more efficient than the design at West Stow where smoke has to find its way through the thatch or holes at the gables.
In one of the other reconstructed buildings we found the village smith; a living historian who had just begun a full-time position at the village. He showed us an impressive pile of bog-iron ‘boulders’, which had been found in a local farm. We discussed early medieval bloomery iron production for some time and he showed us a piece of shined bloomery iron he had made and sectioned recently. The silvery high-phosphorus iron was most striking. We hope to visit again next year and see what progress he has made with his smithcraft.  To see a bloomery in action would indeed be something.
Bog-iron ore (right) and bloomery bog-iron (left) smelted in an Iron-Age furnace
The catacomb-network that was the underground museum featured much early pottery, and a large number of replicated graves set under glass beneath the floor. Among the many personal items on display, we were startled to find a pair of typical Anglian wrist-clasps! Considering such items are considered almost foolproof indication of Anglian identity for female graves back in England, this is something quite significant. Perhaps we should not have been so surprised, though, as this is the very area where the English folk originated.
Lastly, we visited the shop, where we stocked up on some very excellent mead - all in all a most successful visit.
Part of the extensive underground museum at Hjemsted Oldtidspark, Denmark
In conclusion, we can recommend all three of these sites to the student of early English history. The Ribe Viking Festival and market must be one the best of such events in Europe. Gottorp Castle is a hidden gem for the ardent Anglo-Saxonist, although it could well make itself more inviting to those whose German is limited to being able to order a round of drinks! The museum at Hjemsted shows what can be achieved in a country which values its early and pre-medieval heritage. It is worth a visit just to see the reconstructed farm; not to mention the nicest boar we have ever seen, complete with curly blonde hair !
View across the lake, looking back at the farmsteads at Hjemsted Oldtidspark, Demnark.

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