Department of Archaeology

Viking-Age Stavnsager, Denmark

Central places, power and identity at the nexus of the North and Baltic Seas, AD 400-1200: the 150-hectare settlement at Stavnsager, northeast Jutland, Denmark.

Project Directors: Chris Loveluck, University of Nottingham, UK; Karen Høilund Nielsen, Independent Researcher; Reno Fiedel, Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers, Denmark 

Funded principally by The British Academy

Additional sponsors: The Danish Research Council for the Humanities, Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers, The University of Nottingham



Between 2007 and 2009, a pilot project of integrated archaeological surveys and excavations at Stavnsager, in eastern Jutland, Denmark, aimed to evaluate whether a 150-hectare scatter of metal finds represented a pre-Viking and Viking-Age town. The settlement lay on a now silted-up waterway, which used to lead into the Grund Fjord and the Kattegat strait. The surveys sampled 20 hectares and involved the superimposition of magnetometer, minor-element geochemistry and ground-penetrating radar techniques. Different uses of space were suggested by the survey results, and three 30-by-30-metre ‘test-pit’ excavation trenches confirmed the identification of a housing, workshop and trading zone behind a 700-metre embanked waterfront; a habitation zone more akin to agricultural settlements; and a zone of peripheral pits marking the western edge of the settlement. The settlement seems to have undergone several transformations in the following developmental history:

  • several 5th-century hamlets
  • a 6th- to 7th-century central place of at least 50 hectares, with religious, aristocratic and craftworking/trading elements, and links to the wider Baltic, the British Isles, Frisia, Belgium and France
  • a Viking-Age (8th- to 10th-century) trading and artisan centre, with additional associated settlements and cemeteries
  • one or more 11th-century ‘manors’, and the creation of strip fields over the abandoned central place, c. AD 1100

Further survey work needs to be undertaken to establish the southern and eastern limits of settlement activity, and understand inter-relationships of settlement elements, between the 6th and 10th centuries AD.


Research aims and context

This research project aims to shed light on the nature of what is proving to be one of the largest and materially most wealthy settlement concentrations yet discovered in southern Scandinavia, dating from the ‘Migration’ period until the end of the ‘Viking Age’. This settlement is located at Stavnsager, near Randers in northeast Jutland, Denmark, at the head of a now silted-up fjord (the Grund Fjord) that formerly opened on to the Kattegat strait – the linking waterway between the North and Baltic Seas. Hints of the existence of a settlement in this strategic location were identified as a result of chance discoveries in 1994. Uniquely, the Stavnsager concentration of settlement-related finds indicates continuous activity from AD 400 until 1200. Discoveries made by local farmers and metal-detector users in the past two years have shown that the activity area covers approximately 150 hectares in extent. The artefacts found to date demonstrate linkage with contemporary early medieval societies around the Baltic and North Seas, the English Channel, and the Irish Sea coasts.

The range of artefacts and the quantities currently being discovered at Stavnsager are partly analogous to the high-status central places at Gudme, on Funen, Tissø on Zeeland, Sorte Muld on Bornholm, Uppåkra, Sweden and Kaupang, Norway. Unlike the latter settlements, however, the character of the artefacts, typified to date by aristocratic dress jewellery, cult/religious artefacts, gold bullion as ‘hack gold’, silver coinage and some weaponry, fine metalworking debris and other artisan activity, attest to the greater social and economic complexity of the Stavnsager settlement. In particular, the sheer scale of the surface area of the latter activities hints that Stavnsager is perhaps more akin to the large trading and artisan centres located around the North Sea and Channel rim, between the mid seventh and later ninth centuries AD.

Figure 1: Gilded copper-alloy plaque with Scandinavian style II zoo-morphic decoration, paralleled in the Swedish royal ship graves at Vendel and Valsgärde (early 7th century AD) (Image: R. Fiedel)

Figure 2: Frisian ‘Domburg-type’ copper-alloy brooch from the Rhine mouth region of the Netherlands (early 7th century AD) (Image: R. Fiedel)



The ‘feasibility’ project, 2005

In August 2005, a short ‘feasibility’ project was undertaken at Stavnsager, funded by the University of Nottingham with considerable support from Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers, with a view to establishing which integrated and superimposed archaeological survey techniques, backed up by small-scale trial excavations, could help assess the extent and nature of the use of space within the suspected settlement area (whether residential, industrial, market and possibly funerary use). An area of 3 hectares was evaluated in detail with superimposed geophysical (magnetometry & resisitivity) and geochemical/minor element techniques.

The results indicated dense settlement along what appeared to be a street, with apparently more dispersed activity behind it over the entire 3-hectare area. The small trial trenches uncovered both residential (longhouses, ancillary buildings) and industrial activities (a smithy). The processed minor element data suggest other industrial zones, as well as domestic refuse areas and a possible cemetery (from calcium and phosphorous levels) in the area behind the dense activity along the street.


Superimposed Geophysical and Minor Element Geochemical Surveys, 2007

 Figure 3

Following the award of a Large Research Grant from the British Academy, integrated and superimposed geophysical and minor element geochemical survey continued in 2007. The magnetometer survey covered the 15 hectares as planned, divided into three five-hectare blocks, as described in the project proposal. The first block was sited around Hørning church, known to have been constructed on a 30-metre wide barrow, with an internal wooden chamber dated by dendro-chronology to circa AD 1000.

The Hørning landscape block was located on the possible western extremity of the Stavnsager settlement concentration. The second five-hectare block was sited just under a kilometre to the northeast of Hørning church, immediately to the west of the three-hectare field that had yielded survey and excavated evidence of a street, habitation and industrial activity during the ‘feasibility’ stage of the project in 2005. This second block was located with the aim to further investigate evidence for the longevity of the settlement, its planning, and use of space in the immediate hinterland of the waterfront zone, next to the Oxenbaek inlet of the Grund fjord. The third five-hectare block was defined to examine activity stretching on an approximate northeast to southwest alignment, stretching from the waterfront of the Oxenbaek-Grund fjord towards Hørning. The combined landscape blocks and the feasibility study area from 2005 have allowed the integrated survey of a coherent 15-hectare area along the line of the former Grund fjord, and its immediate hinterland, together with 5 hectares around Hørning church at the southwest extremity of the possible settlement

Figure 3: Topographical situation of the fjord-edge settlement at Stavnsager, and the modern church at Hørning, in the background, viewed from Virring church looking southwards, on the opposite side of the former fjord (C. Loveluck).

One of the principal aims of this pilot project was to evaluate:

  • whether the preliminary discoveries made by local farmers, metal detector users and the ‘feasibility’ survey of 2005 truly reflected a stable occupied settlement area of 150 hectares, between the fifth/sixth and twelfth centuries;
  • or whether the occupied area migrated over this time;
  • or whether there were several distinct but possibly associated settlement foci within this area that remained stable, wandered or fluctuated in size, between the fifth and twelfth centuries AD.

Within the first 5-hectare block around Hørning church, a range of geophysical anomalies likely to reflect both cemetery and settlement features have been identified. The mid to late eleventh-century stave church at Hørning was built on top of a 30-metre wide barrow, dating from c. AD1000, and several additional large circular features that probably reflect further barrows have been found beyond the current graveyard, in a field to the south of the church.

Elements of a large enclosure and structural features were also identified, enclosing a much larger area than the current church and graveyard. At two other places in Jutland, Lisbjerg and Haldum, eleventh-century churches have been shown to have been placed either within earlier Viking-Age barrow cemeteries that subsequently became settlement foci; or the church was built within an existing settlement focus. The geophysical evidence from Hørning suggests a similar occurrence. The minor element distributions in the field to the south of the church also suggest both settlement and cemetery use. High levels of calcium occur throughout the area next to the likely barrows, suggesting the existence of a Viking-Age flat cemetery alongside the barrows (higher calcium levels resulting from skeletal remains). These provisional findings are also supported by phosphorous and manganese peaks in this area. There is also a generally higher level of phosphorous and iron within the enclosure identified by magnetometry, suggesting habitation or more intensive use of space within the enclosed area.


 Figure 4 

Within the second 5-hectare block of landscape, adjacent to the street and associated habitation and metalworking zone discovered in 2005, there were indications of settlement activity throughout, but two distinct uses of space. The geophysical survey identified a very dense concentration of anomalies, probably equating to structures (on the basis of results from 2005), covering the eastern three hectares of the block. The likelihood of this zone having been a habitation area is supported by a huge phosphorous concentration covering this area (although not associated with calcium or manganese). Metal-detected finds from the area include a plaque of the goddess Freja.

Figure 4: Copper-alloy plaque depicting the goddess Freja (early 7th century). (Image: R. Fiedel)

The third landscape block surveyed was located on a northeast to southwest alignment, to the west of the second block and stretching from the former Oxenbaek-Grund fjord waterfront towards Hørning. As with the other areas, magnetic anomalies suggest the presence of structures throughout this area, although not at the same density as the eastern half of the second block. The minor element distributions are also very different in this third area. There are a series of especially strong iron concentrations in the hinterland of the waterfront area, and also specific concentrations of calcium and manganese, as well as magnesium and aluminium. Large iron-smithing hearths and smelting evidence has been ploughed up by the farmer in this area before, and the iron concentrations may reflect an iron smelting and smithing zone, and the calcium, manganese and magnesium concentrations may also suggest a non-residential use of space, perhaps a craftworking zone.


Evaluation by Excavations, 2008

Guided by the results from the combined geophysical and minor-element-geochemical surveys from the three landscape blocks, defined in August 2007, three 30-by-30-metre excavation trenches were located with the aim of evaluating the extent to which the integrated surveys could identify different uses of space, in the northern and central areas, within the 150-hectare settlement zone at Stavnsager: namely,

  • an area at a key communication point within the settlement, at the terminal of a trackway identified in 2005 and 2007, not far from a likely waterfront – Trench 3;
  • a habitation zone within the settlement – Trench 4;
  • and ideally, a zone of peripheral activity to evaluate whether the edges of the settlement could be identified (Trench 5).

The three trenches did, indeed, confirm that the survey results enabled identifications of different zones of land use within the settlement. Trench 3 revealed parts of longhouses, workshops, a Grubenhaus, wells (lined with reused timbers, one giving a dendro date of AD 746), a likely retting pit, pathways emanating from the trackway terminal (some timber-lined and metalled), and a shallow valley leading to a waterfront and probable metalled slipway. The approach to the water had been progressively levelled with huge dumps, prior to the construction of the metalled trackway and slipway, probably during the early ninth century.

Figure 5: Annotated magnetometer-survey results showing the trackway leading to a Viking-Age waterfront and probable slipway at Stavnsager (Image: K. Strutt, D. Taylor, R. Fiedel and C. Loveluck)

Figure 6: View of Trench 3, from the west, 2008, showing levelling dumps, a metalled trackway constructed over them in the direction of the slipway, a path to a well, and foundations of buildings in the background (Image: C. Loveluck)



 Figure 7 

Trench 4 possessed the remains of at least three longhouses, exterior hearths and nine Grubenhaus structures, dating from the 6th/7th to 11th centuries. Trench 5 revealed a zone of pits on the edge of the settlement, and they proved to date from the ‘Pre-Roman-Iron Age’ from circa 400-300 BC, on the basis of a large pottery assemblage. All the activity in the three trenches was cut by gullies/ditches of medieval strip fields, which were probably created in the later 11th or 12th centuries AD.

Figure 7: View of Trench 4, from the southwest, 2008, showing Grubenhäuser and post-hole foundations of buildings (Image: C. Loveluck).

Excavated deposits were also subject to dry sieving on-site, and environmental samples were all processed in a flotation tank on-site and at Kulturhistorisk museum, Randers. An extensive programme of deposit sampling was also conducted for micro-analysis using a scanning-electron micro-probe, and soil micro-morphology samples were also taken from Trench 3


Ground-penetrating Radar Surveys, 2008

The original integrated survey methodology was augmented in August 2008, by the addition of targeted Ground-penetrating-radar (GPR) survey. The GPR surveys were designed primarily to provide an extra level of definition/precision to the superimposed geophysical and minor element geochemical surveys, in specific areas where there was a possibility of surviving below-ground structural evidence. The first area investigated by GPR was the 5-hectare field adjacent to the site of the 11th-century stave church at Hørning (on the SW edge of the Stavnsager settlement) which had itself been constructed on top of a 30m-wide late Viking Age barrow, with a chamber grave.

The geophysical survey had suggested the possibility of other barrows, and the GPR survey aimed to identify any indications of further below-ground structures. The second area examined was the current wetland edge on the northern edge of the settlement, which seems to have been a waterfront on to what had been a navigable Fjord in the early Middle Ages. The waterfront seems to have run for at least 700m, on the basis of an earthwork made of fire-cracked granite and earth, running along the former fjord edge. The aim was to identify any below ground revetments. The GPR survey was carried out by Yossi Salmon and Ragna Stidsing of Haifa University. Provisional results have demonstrated the construction details of the waterfronts at Stavnsager, and also a major phase of habitation, indicated by a large building, below the ring-ditch of a ploughed-out barrow at Hørning.

Figure 8: GPR-survey at Hørning, 2008 (Image: C. Loveluck)

Figure 9: The reconstruction of the excavated 11th-century stave-church at Hørning at Moesgård Museum, Aarhus. (Image: C. Loveluck)



Advances in Methodological Approaches

The value of the integrated and superimposed programme of geophysical and geochemical surveys, combined with their evaluation by trial excavation and deposit micro-analysis has been demonstrated at both extensive and intensive levels. The plotting of artefacts dating from the 5th to 12th centuries AD by Karen Høilund-Nielsen, between the fields known as Stavnsager and the surviving hamlets at Moeskaer, Hørning and Ammelhede suggested an occupation area of approximately 150 hectares, prior to the integrated survey and excavation research. If the surveyed areas from the 2005 ‘feasibility’ project and the 2007-9 pilot are combined, approximately 20 hectares of the 150-hectare are have now been sampled, by locating 5-hectare blocks of landscape in different areas of the known artefact scatter.

The combined use of the magnetometer survey with the minor element geochemistry allowed the provisional identification of different uses of space within the occupied area, and features which helped to structure morphology – trackways; a probable slipway; a linear feature defining a 700-metre waterfront; clusters of large pits indicating the sunken features of Grubenhaus workshops; industrial areas; dumping zones and potentially, cemetery zones. Evaluation with sufficiently large ‘test-pit’ excavation trenches, 30-by-30-metres in size, also confirmed the results suggested by the surveys conducted from the surface and the base of the ploughsoil, namely identification of different activity zones: a housing and workshop zone near a waterfront; a habitation area further behind it, 200 metres to the southwest; and the western edge of the settlement zone.

The micro-analysis of the archaeological deposits using a scanning-electron microprobe and micro-morphology, has also enabled examination of any correlation between minor element concentrations in the lower reaches of the ploughsoil with the physical and chemical composition of excavated deposits, thereby further testing the predictive ability from the survey results. The necessity for significant excavation alongside survey methodologies has also been reinforced, especially in Trench 3, where half of the surface area comprised over two metres of dumped deposits on an approach to the edge of the, now, silted fjord; with several phases of activity from the Neolithic-Early Bronze Age, and from the 6th/7th to 11th centuries AD. Such deposits were not detectable from the surface, and their identification will guide future sediment core and radar surveys.


Understanding the scale, spatial organization and chronology of occupation at Stavnsager

The pilot surveys and excavations have given considerably greater resolution to the 150-hectare artefact distribution, dating from the 5th to 12th centuries AD, within the fields known as Stavnsager, and the three surviving hamlets on their periphery – Hørning, Moeskaer and Ammelhede (one of the few place-names in Denmark to preserve the name of the Danish King, Ammel, the ‘Hamlet’ of Shakespeare). The northern part of the settlement area ran along the southern edge of the waterway that led into the Grund fjord, and hence the Kattegat Strait. An area of at least 50 hectares of spatially continuous occupation is suggested fronting on to a 700-metre-long, embanked waterfront on the basis of the surveys, excavations and metal-detected finds. It expanded from at least two 5th-century foci to cover the whole 50 hectares by the mid 6th century. From the 6th to mid 11th centuries, this 50-hectare settlement nucleus was divided into two broad functional zones: a waterfront, workshop and exchange zone fronting on to the fjord; and an agricultural and craftworking/industrial zone behind it to the south.

The western edge of the settlement was defined in 2008, although the eastern edge of the settlement has yet to be found - dense clusters of pits and Grubenhäuser continue to Moeskaer and beyond. Until further survey has been undertaken, it is also unclear how far occupation continued to the south, although the southern extremity of the overall 150-hectare artefact scatter is 400 metres to the south at Hørning. Several settlement foci could have existed within the overall 150-hectare artefact scatter, with the artefact distribution giving the impression of spatially continuous occupation due to dispersion by ploughing.

The excavation of the stave church at Hørning in the 1960s certainly demonstrated use of the area for cemetery purposes in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and the church may have been the focus for an 11th -century manor controlling what remained of the Stavnsager settlement. The new GPR results add to this complex history of human activity by demonstrating the existence of an, as yet, undated phase of major buildings below the barrows of the Viking-Age cemetery.


Central places, ‘towns’ and their networks, at the interface of the Baltic and North Sea worlds, AD 400-1100

During the past two decades a series of large settlements dating from between the 5th/6th and 11th centuries have been discovered around the Kattegat Strait: Uppåkra, southwest Sweden, Bejsabakken and Sebbersund, on the Limfjord, northern Jutland, and Sorte Muld, on Bornholm; in addition to the better known Viking-Age towns at Kaupang (Norway) Aarhus (Denmark) and Hedeby (northern Germany). Unlike the newly discovered settlement at Stavnsager, none of the latter settlements have a continuous occupation sequence from the 5th/6th to the 12th centuries. Consequently, Stavnsager provides a currently unique window on the social transformations in the western Baltic throughout the second half of the first millennium AD, reflected in three emerging periods of activity and linkage with the wider world.

Firstly, in its 6th - and 7th-century incarnation, it was a settlement that covered at least 50 hectares, with a pagan cult centre, an aristocratic warrior element, and farming, artisan and trading communities, with links to the British Isles, Frisia, Belgium and northern France, as well as the Baltic region.

Secondly, between the 8th and 10th centuries, it was an agricultural, artisan and trading centre, using imported Islamic silver coinage, and was perhaps secondary to the emporia at Kaupang, Aarhus and Hedeby. And finally, during the 11th century, it was probably a major manorial centre and linked community of artisans, which lost its role in coastal and wider sea-borne trade during the course of that century. Tantalising questions remain, however, especially in regard to the expansion of the settlement in the 6th and 7th centuries, the relationships between the settlements of Hørning, Moeskaer, Ammelhede and Stavnsager in the 11th century, and the abandonment of Stavnsager and the creation of ‘strip-fields’ in c. AD1100.



Loveluck, C.P. and Salmon, 2011-2012: ‘Exploring early medieval harbour and settlement dynamics at Stavnsager, Denmark: a geoarchaeological dialogue’, Antiquity (accepted).

Loveluck, C.P., Strutt, K. with Clogg, P., in press/ 2011, ‘From hamlets to central places: integrated survey and excavation strategies for the social analysis of settlements in northern Europe, dating from c. AD 400-1100’, in R. Fiedel, K. Høilund Nielsen and E. Stidsing, eds., Non-agrarian settlements and integrated survey and excavation strategy, Randers Museum Monograph.

Loveluck, C.P., in press/2010: ‘Central places, exchange and maritime-oriented identity around the North Sea and western Baltic, AD 600-1100’, in S. Gelichi and R. Hodges, eds., From One Sea To Another. Trade Centres in the European and Mediterranean Early Middle Ages, Turnhout: Brepols.

Fiedel, R., Høilund Nielsen, K. and Loveluck, C.P., in press/2010: ‘From hamlet, to central place, to manor. Social transformation of the settlement at Stavnsager,eastern Jutland, and its networks, AD 400-1100’, in T. Panhuysen and F. Theuws, eds., Transformations in Northwest Europe, AD 400-1100, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.

Høilund Nielsen, K., 2009: ‘Stavnsager, 400-1100. Weiler, Zentralort, Herrenhof’, in S. Brather, D. Geuenich and C. Huth, eds., Historia Archaeologica. Festschrift für Heiko Steuer zum 70. Geburtstag, pp. 415-433, Berlin & New York: de Gruyter.

Høilund Nielsen, K. and Loveluck, C.P., 2007. ’Fortid og fremtid på Stavnsager: om de britiske undersøgelser august 2005 og de foreløbige resultater’, i Smit-Jensen, J., ed.,  Kulturhistorsk Museum Randers Årborg 2006, pp. 63-79.




Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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