Harbours

from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages

Trade and Production in the 8th century AD - The 2016 Excavations in Witsum

Impression of the excavation in Witsum. In the foreground a partly excavated pit house. On the horizon, the Early Medieval settlement site of Goting and the Goting cliff are visible. Picture: B. Majchczack, NIhK.
Sherds of a blue glass vessel from Witsum. Picture: B. Majchczack.

The Early Medieval settlement of Witsum, on the island of Föhr in North Frisia, was during seven weeks in August and September 2016 object of research on harbours along the German North Sea coast. The excavation was composed of five trenches in different areas of the settlement. Based on the data from geomagnetic prospection, the excavation was aimed at four pit houses, one long house and one well. Additionally, one trench uncovered parts of an area that had been interpreted as a central road running through the settlement.

The excavations surpassed the expectations with well preserved and conclusive archaeological features and prolific find material. The area of the central road revealed small ditch-like features which could be identified as cart-tracks. Ditches on both sides of the road served as boundaries for the enclosed yards of the settlement. One of these ditches was even equipped with a palisade.

The pit houses yielded valuable evidence for the craft production that was practised in the Witsum settlement. Each of the pit houses contained traces of a warp-weighted loom as well as loom weights. It is evident that the production of textiles formed a major part of the production activities. Furthermore, the carving of raw amber into beads left many pieces of waste in the pit houses.

The long distance trade relations of the settlement were especially well displayed by many sherds of artistic glass vessels, which reached the island of Föhr via the North Sea trade. The same is true for a large number of colourful glass beads. They show a trade connection towards the emporium of Ribe, which began to flourish in the early 8th century AD on the North Sea coast of southern Denmark. A small bead of gold indicates a certain level of prosperity of the local population.

The latest excavations in the Witsum settlement draw a better picture of how the settlement on the southern coast of Föhr developed and thrived in the 8th century AD and onwards. Through the river Godel and the North Sea, the Witsum settlement served as a harbour and profited from the participation in the long distance trade routes along the North Sea coasts.

Excavations and prospections in the area of Cuxhaven: Spring 2016

Holte-Spangen: The defensive ditch is seen in the profile.

Following the excavations of 2015 at the Early Medieval settlement close to the Galgenberg-fort, the fieldwork was continued in spring of 2016. In a two-week campaign together with students of the University of Leipzig, a settlement at the village of Holte-Spangen was investigated with a focus to establish a dating of the site. The settlement, previously prospected with geomagnetometry, is located at a creek which was connected to the North Sea during the Early Middle Ages. Field surveys of the surroundings yielded finds dating to the Roman Iron Age and Migration Period as well as to the Early Middle Ages. The excavations however dated the settlement into the Roman Iron Age and Migration Period. A very special archaeological feature was a ditch with a depth of 2 metres which surrounded the settlement entirely and was renewed at least one time. 

A second excavation was conducted a short distance south of the large Early Medieval settlement at the Galgenberg. The geomagnetic measurements revealed distinctive anomalies, so a further extension to the south of the settlement seemed possible. One of these anomalies proved to be a well of the Late Medieval Period, therefore the extent of the older settlement is narrowed to the previously known area.

An Early Medieval longhouse. Excavations in Witsum/Föhr

In the foreground, parts of the longhouse are already uncovered. Picture: Bente Majchczack, NIhK.

Following the investigations in Nieblum, a one-week excavation on the Early Medieval settlement in Witsum focused on the search of longhouses. The Witsum site features a settlement layout with enclosed yards, a central road and numerous pit houses. These elements can be interpreted from the geomagnetic measurements of the settlement site. However, the archaeological and geophysical prospections conducted so far did not reveal any traces of longhouses, which are an essential part of any Early Mediaval settlement.

The first search trench already contained an angled ditch and several post holes. After enlarging of the trench, a complete longhouse of the 9th-10th century AD was uncovered. The house with a length of 19 m is the first entirely excavated Early Medieval longhouse on the island of Föhr so far. The house demonstrates the varied types of archaeological features on the Witsum site and the great potential for further excavations which will follow in summer this year.

Excavations on a pit house settlement in Nieblum, island of Föhr

Parts of the ditches which surround the settlement are being excavated. Picture: Bente Majchczack, NIhK.

Close to the village of Nieblum, on the island of Föhr in North Frisia, aerial and geophysical prospections revealed a large archaeological site in form of a village with numerous pit houses and an enclosure system of multiple ditches. This settlement structure is unique on the North Frisian Islands. Field surveys indicated a dating of the settlement into the Migration Period and the Early Medieval Period.

A two-week test excavation in March and April 2016 provided clarification. As a first step, two pit houses were excavated and dated into the 9th century AD, placing the pit house settement into the Viking Age. Together with settlement sites at Witsum and Goting, Nieblum is the third large scale settlement of that period on the island. One of the excavated pit houses yielded Frisian shell-tempered pottery and Frankish glass vessel sherds, providing valuable evidence on trade activities in the settlement. 

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