Viking Birka: Viking Gateway to Business and Viking Graveyard

modern reconstruction of viking birka town viking hectic town

Viking Birka is not a new name for those who care about the Viking culture and Viking artifacts. However, hardly do we know that the Viking Birka once was the Viking gateway to business. Not only did the Vikings come to do business but people from other places like Anglo Saxon, Germany, the Baltic countries, etc. Birka rest upon the island of Bjorko that is not far away from modern Stockholm we know today.

What makes this place a hot archaeological spot is that there are many Viking graves still on the island.  The archaeologists estimate that there are more than 5000 graves are still there. They will not dig everything up although the archaeologists and Viking enthusiasts desire to see the Viking artifacts. This is a way for the modern archaeologists to pay respect toward the deceased.

The burials there separate two different traiditions. The first group belonged to the Swedish Viking burials . And the other group belonged to the foreign influence. The Viking burials would show layers of cremation under the mound or they would appear with boat-shaped stones. This made the archaeologists come to a conclusion that the foreign graves belonged either to the foreign traders or to the Vikings who converted themselves to Christianity. These foreign graves would appear with small crosses, coffins, etc.

BJ581 Birka is a Viking burial grave belonging to a Viking shieldmaiden
BJ581 in Birka is the most famous Viking burial. The archaeologists unearthed a number of Viking weapons inside the grave. And more than 100 years later, they discovered that the skeletons inside the grave was female. This opens a question whether the Viking women joined combat or not. Was the Viking shieldmaiden historical

Viking Birka graves

The Norse graves would also have many kinds of burials. Some were full of grave-goods like weapons, shield, animal bones, some were poor, and some were cremation graves.

One grave, that of two women, one richly attired and the other laying in a strange, twisted position, has been related by archeaologist Holger Arbman to an account by an Arab writer, Ibn Rustah. He infers that the dead mistress rest with a live serf who died from suffocation in the burial chamber, recalling Ibn Rustah’s account of a similar burial among the Rus:

When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. With him they put his clothes and the gold armlets he wore and, moreover, an abundance of food, drinking bowls, and coins. They also put his favorite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there

Some scholars have speculated that the major trading season at Birka was during the winter. Because the finest furs would be available then and because many of those found in Birka burials have crampons for walking in ice and snow affixed to their feet. This ignores the fact that more people die in winter than in summer demographically the world over. And also ignores possible religious belief that describes the land of Hel, where the dead dwell, as a cold and icy realm. Ice skates made of cow bone and ice axes are also common finds at Birka. It seems more likely that the market at Birka operated year-round, dealing in agricultural wares during the late summer and early fall, in furs during the winter, and luxury goods imported from the world over all year round.

Birak and Trades

Trade items reaching Birka originated at far distant locations. Birka was best-known for its furs, obtained by trade and coercian from the Lapps, Finns, and from Russia. Fine fur cloaks of bear, fox, marten, otter, and beaver appeared in Birkan graves. Birka grave sites reveal Rhineland pottery, glass, metalware, and pallia fresonica (a type of elaborate cloak), as well as textiles from the Middle East and the Orient including Chinese silk, Byzantine embroidery in extremely fine gold thread, passementerie, heavy gold brocades, and plaited cords of the finest quality.

Viking Birka Town is among the most important Viking trading towns
Viking Birka town is now a famous name for the archaeologists have found many artifacts in this site

Some of the brocades were imported, while others are clearly Scandinavian and of equally fine quality. Birka and Hedeby are the only two Scandinavian locations where high-quality pottery has been found. Some pottery came from the Rhineland, some from Finland, but some from local Birka. Other Scandinavian wares were traded at Birka, including reindeer antler and items made of antler such as hand-carved combs, walrus teeth, amber, and honey from southern Sweden. Coins reaching Birka include gold Frisian solidi and Arabic Samanid silver coins, but interestingly enough it is very rare indeed to find Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian coins minted after 840. Scandinavian-minted coins begin to appear as far back as the ninth century.

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