12.05.03, Bencard and Madsen, eds., Ribe Excavations 1970-76

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Bailey K. Young

The Medieval Review 12.05.03

Bencard, Mogens and Helge Brinch Madsen. Ribe Excavations 1970-76, volume 6. Ribe Excavations 1970-76. Hjberg, Denmark: Jutland Archiological Society Publications, 2010. Pp. 262. ISBN: 9788788415711.

Reviewed by:
Bailey K. Young
Eastern Illinois University

This is the sixth and final volume reporting results from an archaeology project which might be subtitled "The (Unfinished) Search for the Original Ribe." The particular excavations in question took place between 1970 and 1976, but the project began in 1955 with trial excavations in the medieval town center south of the river. Although these uncovered archaeological deposits five meters thick, the oldest levels proved to date only to the twelfth century. But Ribe is first mentioned in a ninth-century source, the Life of Saint Ansgar, as a town (vicus) where in ca. 860 King Haarik gave the saint land to build a church. References to Ribe as an episcopal seat follow in the tenth century, and later. So where was the original "Viking" Ribe? In 1970, and then from 1972-76, Mogens Bencard, director of the local history museum, led a series of excavations on the north side of the river which turned up a wealth of material which was determined to belong to four stratigraphic phases. Both the nature of the site and the suggested chronology raised eyebrows. One distinctive artefact type was the Berdal brooch, an item that up to that time had turned up in Viking-era graves and was dated to the ninth century. Here at Ribe, however, was a production site with ample evidence of workshops, offering not only the objects but the molds from which they were made, in levels which also yielded an abundance of sceattas, silver pennies then being found at early trading sites, or emporia, all around the North Sea. The coins were pre-Viking, dated to the eighth century. Dendrochronology, just then reaching maturity in northern Europe as a system offering dates of a precision hitherto unattainable, confirmed that the oldest occupation phase dated back as early as 710 A.D. At a time when ambitious and methodologically innovative excavations of such sites in England (Southampton/Hamwic, Ipswich, London), Holland (Dorstead) and elsewhere in Denmark (Lundeborg/Gudme) were bringing to light evidence of a thriving network of manufacture and exchange which Richard Hodges would happily baptise Dark Age Economics, news of the Ribe finds were greeted with excitement. [1] Had we here evidence of Denmark's, nay Scandinavia's, first town?

The evidence has seen the light of publication in a piecemeal fashion over thirty years. Ribe Volume 1 (1981) provided only the medieval documentary sources in Latin with Danish translation (but only the briefest comments) and the coin finds (with a very useful analysis by Kirsten Bendixen that firmly establishes the eighth- century context of the Wodan/Monster and porcupine sceatta types dominant at Ribe). Volumes 2 (1984) and 3 (1991) are specialist studies of various types of materials found and crafts practiced, including archaeozoology, seeds and parasite eggs, metal-casting, textiles and leather. Only in Volume 4 (1990) do we get the account of the excavations themselves and the stratigraphy deduced from them, as well as the dendrochrolonogy. Fast-forward to 2004 (Volume 5) for a miscellany of technical studies: the all-important pottery, debris of iron-working and bronze-casting, notes on glass-making at Ribe (but not the catalogue of the glass objects), bronze, silver and lead artefacts, an eighty-pound iron anchor inexplicably left on a dung- heap, some odd human bones, and the surprise find: a human skull fragment with a runic inscription scratched into it. But one of the important crafts attested at Ribe--comb-making from bone and horn--was not included in the series, no doubt because it was published elsewhere. [2] Finally in 2010 comes the volume under review.

Nor did the archaeology of Ribe stand still during these years. In his Introduction to Volume 6, Mogens Bencard comments on the earlier Ribe volumes in the light of some of more recent research, notably the Post Office excavations conducted in 1990-91 by his successor at the history museum, Stig Jensen. The phasing Jensen proposes for his site (presumably near the 1970-76 trenches but unhelpfully not located on the map on page 6) is said to match Bencard's own phasing pretty well. Though Jensen died in 1998 his colleague Claus Feveile published a detailed report in 2006. [3] The same Feveile has authored one of the chapters in this volume, a study of the 186 basalt fragments from the 1970-76 excavations interpreted as quern stones imported from Mayen in the Eifel region of Germany, doubtless via Dorstead. Feveile argues persuasively that, when you add them to the growing corpus of these materials from other sites in the Ribe area, including farms (2091 fragments, weighing 154 kg), they can be considered the "first true import of everyday goods" (as opposed to prestige items for the elite) into Scandinavia. The hefty chapter by Jan Holme Andersen and Torben Sode entitled "The Glass Bead Material" more than makes up for what was left out of Volume 5. Eighth-century Ribe, they show, was the first site in Scandinavia to develop a glass-bead craft industry, recycling scrap glass (including tesserae from demolished Roman mosaics imported plausibly from Italy) to create a distinctive chequered Ribe type. Just as interesting, Near Eastern glass beads were also imported.

Although Mogens Bencard does not himself attempt an overview of his excavations in this final volume, Svend Nielsen, a scholar external to the research team, concludes it with an ambitious 100-page chapter entitled "Early Ribe: The Socio-Economy of an Urban Site" which argues that the development of Ribe in the eighth century "signals a whole new order in the region" (163). Nielsen broadens the regional perspective, discussing geological and geographical factors, such as the primeval Farris Forest to the east, which influenced the longterm economic development of this protected river port with good access to the North Sea. Both the material culture recovered by the excavations and the underlying socio-economic and political systems it implies point to an urban genesis impelled by new forces coming into the region from the south: Frankish aggression, Christianity, and the dynamics of a surplus-driven economic system. Much of the archaeological evidence, such as the sceattas, the Mayen quern stones, the raw glass for the workshops, and also pottery (some of it, significantly, wheel-turned for the first time in Scandinavia) points to the Frisian trading center of Dorstead. The growing pressure on the still-pagan Frisians north of the Rhine with the establishment of Willibroard's mission in 695, transformed into military conquest by Charles Martel after 719, would explain, in Nielsen's model, the rapid development of a manufacturing and trading site with good sea access at a safe distance north of the aggressor's reach. There must have been agreement with an emerging royal power in southern Denmark-- dendrochronology confirms that the Dannevirke defensive system dates to just this time (737). Recent excavation has identified at Tisso near Ribe an aristocratic residence associated with pit-houses, trade and craft activities; here, Nielsen suggests, the king's agent (wicgerefa or bailiff) could have resided.

The present volume, and even the series which it concludes, offers only an incomplete, if indispensable perspective on the archaeological story of early Ribe. It has been attractively produced, with many excellent illustrations in color as well as black and white. The interested reader would be well advised to complement the Bencard excavations with the research of Feveile and Jensen, including the overview they published in 2000. [4] The problem of the continuity between this trading and manufacturing settlement on the north side of the river, and the medieval town on the south side remains to be solved by new excavation.



1. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics (London, 1982).

2. K. Ambrosiani, Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers in the Light of Finds from Birka and Ribe (Stockholm, 1981).

3. C. Feveile (ed), "Ribe pa nordsiden af aen, 8-12 arhundrede- oversigt og tolkning" in Ribe Studier 1.1 (2006): 13-63; English summary: "Ribe on the North Side of the River, 8th-12th Century," pp. 65-91.

4. C. Feveile and S. Jensen, "Ribe in the Eighth and Ninth Century: A Contribution to the Archaeological Chronology of North Western Europe," in S. S. Hansen and K. Randsborg (ed.) Vikings in the West, Acta Archaeologica 71 (2000): 9-24.

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Bailey K. Young

Eastern Illinois University