Icons of Danish Heritage (pt.2) – Trelleborg

This is the continuation of https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/icons-of-danish-heritage-pt-1-kronborg-castle/ . As you may remember, October 2015 was the time when I went off to Denmark and consumed history and culture with every meal of the day – quite literally. So, today we are off to pretty much the other side of Zealand. We leave lovely Copenhagen, to take an hour train journey, followed by a 20 minutes bus ride that will leave us in the middle of nowhere – for real – to go down some country roads for half an hour, up until the moment we reach the incredible site that is Trelleborg.

Entrance to the historical center
Entrance to the historical center

Now, if you remember the point of this update is to highlight this site as an icon of Danish heritage and history, but more importantly, a site of power. Trelleborg, like Kronborg, was in its day a Viking Age fortress. There are only 3 others in all of Denmark, and Trelleborg is, by far and large, the best preserved of the lot. There are no contemporary written sources that mention these fortresses, so the most accurate way to date them, is by archaeological methods, as well as by using dendrochronological dating of the wooded remains found on site. The results suggest that these date back to the 10th century, which is crucial for the recognition of Trelleborg as a sign of power. Why you ask? Well, this is the time when Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark was trying to establish his authority over his lands. Potentially, one could argue that these ring-shaped bastions were used by the king as means to keep the locals under control, therefore avoiding struggles with neighbouring magnates, or rather sending a very clear message: here be a Norse lord of might. Certainly, the message was not received with arms wide open…We all know that his own son Sweyn Forkbeard decided he did not like his father’s attitude much and led a rebellion to overthrown him. Sweyn thus succeeded and Harald was killed in battle. now, I realise that this may leave the story in a fairly gloom tone and it may seem defeatist, but I think it does nothing but reinforce the point. Trelleborg was a commendable effort for a great king to show, that even in an area full of quarrels and tension, one could establish some order, even though temporary. More importantly – and this is something your should be able to admire in the pictures – this site left a very visible mark in the landscape. Harald’s legacy was to stay put as if carved in stone.

There are maps dating from the 17th century and later periods in Danish history, where the fortress is clearly delineated. The excavations and investigations on site begun in 1934, lead by Poul Nørlund. The work carried for 9 years, where the completed the full rehabilitation of both the inner and outer circle. They left cement markers as well for the original standing place of the buildings and wooden structures that would have been visible a thousand years earlier. Then, in 1942 the proceeded with the recreation of the long house that still stands today and that is currently used by the re-enactors that populate the historical center.

The reconstructed long house from 1942
The reconstructed long house from 1942

This construction is highly regarded amongst academics in the field as the first accurately and scientifically built structure from the distant past. I cannot emphasise enough how the work in Trelleborg is not only conservation, but preservation and perpetuation of living history, within its original context – and still in the middle of nowhere. I would like to point out that the house was restored in the 1980s, and has been considered to be now not as accurate as originally thought, but for a first effort, I think we will let that one go.

So what does currently happen in Trelleborg? Essentially they have turned it into a reenactment park. Therefore you have the interpretation center, where the hold a small but very informative and well presented exhibition of the fortress, the archaeological excavation, its finds and the its context.

Displays of the exhibition contestualising Viking Age every day life - as an example are the garments
Displays of the exhibition conceptualising Viking Age every day life – as an example are the garments

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They also have one of the most amazing finds of all Denmark – the only preserved Viking shield from Denmark. This completely round wooden shield was found during the excavations of 2008. The results suggest that it was made in Norway during the 900s. I was amazed of how remarkably similar this was to Alex’s shield – wooden plate made out of different layered planks of pine wood and dimensions of the artefact (85 cm of diameter). Interestingly enough, the oxide they found on the surface of the shield suggest it would have been painted white and red, and evidence of a boss in the middle of the planks, suggest this would have been used in battle and not for ceremonial or decorative purposes.

The shield preserved and exhibited at the Trelleborg interpretation center
The shield preserved and exhibited at the Trelleborg interpretation center

Outside in the grounds of the site, you find the reconstructed buildings where a Viking community lives, and where they let you explore different aspects of everyday Norse life. There I bought some Viking coins and went to try to be a Viking.

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Here is where I found out I would have been an awful archer and I ate some porridge inside the long house in the way it would have been traditional for the locals at the time of Harald Bluetooth. I also had the chance to see the recreation of a shield wall – after my archery failure, I decided to just document the wall rather than to participate.


In addition, I saw the villagers crafting Nålebinding to keep themselves warm, as well as different embroideries to decorate their garments.

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Finally, I took a long moment to walk through the fortress. It was pretty magical.

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The cement posts visible from every angle really help bringing things alive in your head. The two roads that give the ring the shape of a cross are recreated from the original wooden paths that would have helped moving goods, people, cattle and men at arms. Just so you get an idea of the dimensions of the place, the inner circle has a diameter of 136 meters, with an inner rampart that is 17 meters wide by 5 meters high.

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The fortress would have held 16 houses in this ring. Access to the inner fortress is provided by a timber bridge stopping you from falling into the 4 meter deep ditch that encircles the moat. This was the most essential defense mechanism the fortress depended on. Then in the outer circle we would have found 15 extra houses, with more space between them.

Recreation of the fortress from the interpretation center
Recreation of the fortress from the interpretation center

We also find here the funerary site, where the archaeologists unearthed 135 graves, containing a total of 157 individuals. In total, the estimates advise that a total of 500-800 warriors could have been garrisoned in the settlement in bellicose times. If we think that Kronborg could have provided for 1000 soldiers standing siege for 6 weeks, some 500 years later, I think that can be considered as remarkable.

Recreation fo the fortress defense
Recreation of the fortress defense
How the garrison would have worked
How the garrison would have worked

Now, what is even better is that, if you go during the summer, and not in the middle of the low season like I did, you can enjoy Trelleborg at is best due to the Viking festival. Re-enactors of all over Europe come for the festival, where the amount of people and activities to take part in triplicate. Moreover, you can even camp in the grounds of the site, and feel just a little bit closer to 10th century Viking Age Denmark.

Yet, I must now depart. But we will have more of Denmark soon, for Denmark was not powerful only because of its fortresses…If you want to find out more of the history of this country, and explore more of it with me, then keep your eyes open for my upcoming post on the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and the Domkirke!

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