Ports and Trade in Norway During the Transition to Historical Time

A conceptual framework

The subject of ports and trade in Norway at the transition to historical time will of course center on the coastal marketplace. In the following, attention will be paid to the social background behind the rise and development of such maritime-oriented sites. […]

This period shows relatively rapid and essential changes in demographic, social and political structures. New conditions developed for production, the exploitation of natural resources and the exchange of goods. […]

Increase in production and circulation of goods during the late Iron Age

[…] One important condition that seems to be evident from research on outfields and high mountain plateaus in the south of Norway is that both old and new resources (such as bog iron, soapstone and stone used for whetstones) were more intensely exploited than previously. The building of extensive systems of animal traps indicates that reindeer and moose were hunted more intensively in the same period. Excavation of a croft dating from the late Iron Age to the early medieval period — on Hjerkinn (Dover) — shows that this hunting was done not only for meat and fur, as large quantities of antler waste lay around the site, indicating that an organized collection and preparation of reindeer antler took place there.

Early medieval deposits in Lund, Skåne, produced evidence that small amounts of reindeer antler had been used in local comb production. Reindeer horn is also found sporadically in Hedeby.[…] Further systematic research will tell us more about the potential extent of trade in antler from the northern Scandinavian mountains.


Increasingly larger geographical areas seem to have been drawn into the exchange and distribution systems. For example, Siri Myrvoll has given an account of an extensive export of whetstones from quarries in Eidsborg, Telemark, to Denmark, the Baltic countries and England in the 10th century. Irmelin Martens has similarity demonstrated extensive extraction of iron in the upper Telemark. The iron was probably distributed to large areas of southern Norway. (Martens, 1987:69ff). Heid Gjøstein Resi has shown that Norwegian soapstone vessels reached Hedeby in large numbers during the Viking period. The production of baking plates and millstones also increased during the transition to historic time.

The consequences

The intensified exploitation and distribution of resources from the end of the 8th century in Norway must have supported the establishment of centrally placed transit and staple ports in the same period. […] It is difficult to imagine the initiative behind the expansion of this and other staple and transit ports coming from anywhere else than from those who profited by it; that is, the political elite.

The exchange objects included the products of heavy and voluminous raw materials, which had to be carried over relatively long distances (cf. Ottar's account). This fact must have brought about the need for a more efficient transport and communications technology. It is therefore not surprising that one finds an increase in the cargo-capacity of seagoing vessels during the 9th and 10th centuries […]

Ports in the Iron Age — a brief survey

We now have relatively detailed knowledge of the development of ship technology from the late Iron Age to the Middle Ages. However, we don't know that much about market places and ports at the end of the Iron Age in Norway. Our knowledge is more or less limited to the archaeological evidence from a single site — Tjølling, near Viks Fjord in Vestfold, better known as Ottar's famous Skiringssal or Kaupang.

A small part of this site and its burial ground was excavated by Ch. Blindheim in 1950-60. Her conclusion in 1972 was: "....the amount and type of goods, both imported and local […] and tells of a society whose basis of subsistence must have been trade and handicrafts" [... ] The area was a "chiefdom" […] Kaupang thus played an important role in establishing the political and economic power of the kings of Vestfold.


But if one looks at the distribution of all (registered) localities with names indicating trade, there is a clear tendency for them to be concentrated in the central areas, in the proposed chiefdom territories. These circumstances clearly indicate a connection between politically organized units and central localities connected with trade and barter [...]

Tjølling Kaupang — a Danish transit port?

[..] The distribution of kaupang names shows that they are linked to the chieftain seats within the area ruled by the Ynglingeætt in the 9th century; namely, Vestfold, Viken and a large part of Opplandene […]

In regard to communication, the Tjølling-kaupang is close to Jylland, which must have played a part in the place's function as a regional trade centre, as described by Ottar. […]


Martens, I, 1987: Iron Extraction, Settlement and Trade in the Viking and Early Middle Ages in South Norway. Universitetets Oldsaksamlings Skrifter. Ny rekke, nr. 9: Proceedings of the Tenth Viking Congress. Oslo

Source: Axel Christophersen, "Ports and trade in Norway during the transition to historical time" in Aspects of Maritime Scandinavia AD 200- 1200: Proceedings of the Nordic Seminar on Maritime Aspects of Archaeology, Roskidle, 13th-15th March, 1989, Ole Crumlin-Pedersen (Århus, Denmark: Kannike Tryk, 1991), 159-170.

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