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28.11.2020

Birka, Bjorko

Birka on the island of Björkö in modern Sweden, is an important Viking shopping center, which handles goods from Scandinavia and Finland, as well as Central and Eastern Europe and the East. Björkö is located on Lake Melaren, 30 km west of modern Stockholm, in the municipality of Eckero.

The label was founded in about 750 AD and flourished for over 200 years. It was abandoned c. In 975 AD, around the same time, Sigtuna was founded as a Christian city about 35 km north-east. It was estimated that the population of Birka during the Viking Age was between 500 and 1000 people.

The archaeological sites of Birk and Hovgorden on the neighbouring island of Adelso form an archaeological complex that illustrates the complex Viking Scandinavian trading networks and their impact on the subsequent history of Europe. Usually considered the oldest city in Sweden, Birka (together with Hovgorden) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. The silver ring from the Viking Age tomb at Birka is the first ring with an Arabic inscription of that era found in Scandinavia. 

Birka was founded around 750 A.D. either by the king to control and expand trade, or originated from a seasonal trading place around. It was one of the first urban settlements in Scandinavia. Birka was the Baltic link on the river and the crossing of Ladoga (Aldeya) and Novgorod (Holmsgard) to the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate of Abbasids. Tag was also important as the place of the first known Christian community in Sweden, founded in 831 by St. Ansgar.

As a shopping center, Birka most likely offered fur and iron products as well as handicrafts in exchange for various materials from most of Europe and Western Asia. Furs were extracted from the Saami, Finns and residents of Northwest Russia, as well as from local hunters. Furs included bear, fox, marten, otter, beaver and other breeds. Deer antlers were an important exchange item, as were handmade combs made of horns. Walrus teeth, amber and honey were also exchanged.

Foreign goods found in Birka's tombs include glass and metal tableware, earthenware from the Rhine region, clothing and textiles, including Chinese silk, Byzantine fine gold thread embroidery, brocade with gold mat and high quality wicker cords. From the ninth century onwards, coins minted in Haitabu in northern Germany and elsewhere in Scandinavia began to appear. However, the vast majority of coins found in Birk are silver dirhams of the Caliphate. The coins of England and the Carolingians are rare.

Birka's sources are mainly archeological finds. No texts from this area have survived, although the written text by Vita Ansgari Rimbert (c. 865) describes the missionary work of Ansgar around 830 in Birke and the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Acts of the Bishops of the Great Church) by Adam of Bremen in 1075 describes Archbishop Unni, who died at Birkee in 936. The work of St. Ansgar was the first attempt to convert the inhabitants of the Scandinavian religion to Christianity, and it proved unsuccessful.

The exact location of Birka was also lost over the centuries, which led to the assumptions of Swedish historians. However, in the so-called "Chronicles of Sweden" the island of Björkö was first called Birka already around 1450:

And there were three capitals in Sweden two of which were not long away from Uppsala (Vpsala). The one was called Sigtuna (siktuna) and the other Birka (birka). Birka was on an island in Lake Mälaren (mälar) that is called Björkö (birköö). The third was in Westgötaland (westergötlandh) and was called Skara (skara).

In search of Birka, the national antique dealer Johan Hadorf was the first to attempt excavations on Björkö in the late 17th century.

At the end of the 19th century, an entomologist by education, Jalmar Stolpe, arrived to Bjorko to study the fossilized insects found in the amber on the island. Stolpe found a very large amount of amber on the island, which is unusual because amber is not usually found in Lake Melaren. Stolpe suggested that the island might have been an important trading point, which prompted him to conduct a series of archaeological excavations between 1871 and 1895. Soon, the excavations showed that there was a large settlement on the island, and finally, Stolpe spent two decades excavation of the island. After Björkö was identified with ancient Birka, it was assumed that the original name Birka was simply Bierkø (sometimes spelled Bjärkö), an earlier form of Björkö.

During excavations, a significant collection of tissue fragments, mainly from chamber graves, was discovered. Agnes Gageer published the most detailed analysis of this collection in 1938, although her research was based on only 5% of the 4800 fabric fragments preserved from this place. The collection represents the usual variety of different types of textiles, demonstrating high-quality textiles made using different techniques such as striped fabric and twill. The quality of fabrics, mainly made of wool and linen, was studied by Geyer and ranged from very coarse to fine fabrics with a large number of yarns, which required sophisticated techniques. Silk and other materials, such as gold and silver threads, were less common.

The ownership of Björkö today is mainly in private hands and used for agriculture. However, this settlement is an archaeological site, and a museum was built nearby for the exhibition of finds (mainly replicas), models and reconstructions. It is a popular place to visit in summer time. A full collection of archaeological finds from the excavations at Björkö is kept in the Swedish Historical Museum in Stockholm, and many of the artifacts are exhibited there.

Archaeological excavations are located in the northern part of Björkö and cover an area of about 7 hectares (17 acres). The remains are both burials and buildings, and in the southern part of this area there is also an ancient settlement called "Borgen" ("Fortress"). The technology of building construction is still unknown, but the main material was wood. On a nearby island are the remains of Hovgorden, an estate in which during his visits were placed the retinue of the king.

Approximately 700 people lived in Birk, when it was the largest, and about 3000 graves were found. Its administrative center was supposedly located outside the settlement itself, on the neighboring island of Adelse.

The most recent major excavations were undertaken between 1990 and 1995 in the area of dark soil, which is believed to have been the site of the main settlement. Today, Björkö is mainly engaged in agriculture, and shipping companies take tourists to the island, where you can see life in the Viking Age in the museum.

 

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