from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages

HaNoA - Harbours in the North Atlantic (800–1300 AD)

Das Arbeitsgebiet von HaNoA
Lage des wikingerzeitlichen Handelsplatzes Kaupangr, Island (Foto Mats Wibe Lund).
Der Hafen von Búðasandur, Hvalfjörður, Island. Die Überreste eines Handelsplatzes befinden sich in der Bildmitte, das mittelalterliche Hafengebiet (rechts) ist heute versandet (Foto N. Mehler).

Almost all the important medieval ports on the northern European mainland were part of the infrastructure of considerably-sized settlements, many of which evolved into towns and cities. A large number of the ports had special facilities such as wharfs, landing stages and storehouses, which all facilitated a well-developed and organised shipping operation and turnover of goods. The situation on the islands in the North Atlantic region at that time, on the other hand, was completely different. There were no towns or cities during the Viking period or the Middle Ages in the settlement areas of Iceland, Greenland, Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Most of the small trading posts were not permanent facilities but simply temporary settlements that were used only during the summer months. Still, those ports facilitated trade of considerable value and importance to the local economy, and played a significant role in the economic history of northern Europe. However, very few remains still survive on land and quite often trading activity from the past is only borne out today by place names or written sources.

The study area encompasses the four northernmost groups of islands, which were gradually settled as part of the western expansion of the Vikings from the 8th century onwards, and the Norwegian homeland of most of the colonialists. These subpolar areas are linked to the northern part of the North Atlantic, and not only share a common Nordic cultural area, but also the same landscape and climatic zone. Despite the lack of towns or other large settlements, the islands played an important role in the economic history of northern Europe. Greenland, for instance, supplied Europe with walrus ivory and pelts, while Iceland traded wool, fish and gyrfalcons. This trading of goods was conducted via numerous centres, without which the colonisation of the islands or the continued existence of their young societies would not have been possible. The ports played a key role in the settlement process of the islands, and by understanding how they functioned, we will be making a considerable contribution towards the research into the colonisation of the North Atlantic during the Viking period.

HaNoA takes the approach of combining the remains on land with those under water, with the aim of gaining an holistic understanding of the ports from the point of view of maritime science and economic history. On one hand the project aims to examine selected ports using established archaeological, geophysical, geomorphological and geographical methods, and on the other to develop and hone new methods. It is hoped that together these methods will allow us to gain a detailed understanding of the ports and the practical aspects of how trade was conducted.

The core aims of the project are:

  • to investigate possible port facilities and their functions by studying medieval written sources,
  • to examine the topography of ports in relation to navigational aids (e.g. landmarks), ballast fields, the seabed and the locations of landing-places and port facilities on land,
  • to refine and consolidate the so-called fetch method to localise and evaluate ports or landing-places,
  • to analyse ballast as an archaeological source for the first time, in order to gain an understanding of the origins of trading vessels and the volume of maritime trade,
  • and to ascertain the most reliable indicators for the elusive ports of the Viking period and the Middle Ages in the North Atlantic.

The project comprises six sub-projects (sp) using different methods, all of which will be jointly applied to a selection of 13 ports in the study area, beginning with an analysis of Old Norse sagas and law collections (sp 1), which occasionally mention port facilities, their functions and their conditions of ownership. This part of the work will be carried out by Birna Lárusdóttir from the University of Reykjavík. It will be followed in the summer by archaeological and geophysical surveys at selected ports on land and under water (sp 2). They will include topographical studies of the terrain, geomagnetic and ground-penetrating radar surveys, the mapping of landmarks and other navigational aids, dives, and side-scan sonar imagery. Excavations will only be carried out to a limited extent. The partners in this sub-project are Endre Elvestad, Stavanger Sjøfartsmuseet, and Dr. Mark Gardiner, School of Geography, Archaeology, and Palaeoecology at Queen´s University Belfast. The third sub-project (sp 3) will be dedicated to selected under-water ballast fields. The provenance of the non-local rocks will be ascertained using various methods including inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), which will provide interpretations with regard to trade routes and trading partners. The so-called fetch method (sp 4), which was developed by Dr. Marianne Nitter, climatologist at the Arkeologisk Museum Stavanger, will be used to determine wave height, wind force and wind duration, with the aim of localising landing-places and ports and to evaluate their potential. In addition, geomorphological methods (sp 5) will be used to examine factors and processes such as erosion, currents and siltation, which would have had an impact on the ports. This sub-project will be carried out in cooperation with the School of GeoSciences of the University of Edinburgh. All the data collected will be stored and analysed in a central GIS project (sp 6) under the guidance of Joris Coolen. 

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