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Ute Arents & Silke Eisenschmidt. Die Graber von Haithabu.

UTE ARENTS & SILKE EISENSCHMIDT. Die Graber von Haithabu (Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 15. Band). 368 pages, 110 illustrations, 11 colour maps, 16 tables (Vol. 1); 430 pages, 129 pages of plates with b&w & colour illustrations, 4 maps inset in back cover (Vol. 2). 2010. Neumunster: Wachholtz; 978-3-529-01415-4 hardback 140 [euro].


Hedeby--Haithabu in Germany--is a Viking age town founded in the eighth century AD, an important trading and production site, enclosed by a semi-circular rampart which still dominates today's cultural landscape. The town flourished until 1066, when it was abandoned in favour of Schleswig. Today, the site lies in Germany; in Viking times it occupied the border between the Frankish empire and the Danish kingdom.

Excavations have taken place at Hedeby for over a century, mainly investigating the settlement areas inside the rampart. But the town's cemeteries were excavated too, and the volumes under review represent the publication of the roughly 1350 graves uncovered at Hedeby between 1812 and 1970. The book is based on Ute Arents' doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1992 to Kid University and accessible on microfiche since 1995. Arents' manuscript has been completely revised, updated and partially rewritten by Silke Eisenschmidt. It is no wonder that this took decades, given the complicated history of research and excavation campaigns, lead by Herbert Jankuhn, Heiko Steuer and Kurt Schietzel amongst others, each using different numbering systems. Now, at last, the comprehensive publication is available. Its 800 pages weigh over 4kg on my kitchen scales. That weight is due in part to the excellent quality of the paper, but equally substantial is the research presented within the volumes.

After a chapter describing the site's topography, the investigations and results from the settlement and its history according to the written sources, Chapter 2 presents the grave finds. The research history relating to them is complicated, but its exposition is necessary to assess individual contributions. Despite the size of the volumes, the graves presented here are but a small percentage of all the burials at Hedeby. Only very limited parts of the Viking age town have been excavated, and the number of graves in and around Hedeby has been estimated to have been at least 10 000 graves.

Chapter 3 is an exemplary typological and chronological analysis of the finds from the graves, including weapons and horse trappings, costume and personal ornaments, tableware and personal utility items. Not only is the material from Hedeby itself presented, but also comparable finds from elsewhere. In general, the graves contained relatively few grave goods, especially when compared to other Viking age cemeteries, for example Birka. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the burial customs, both inhumation and cremation. The inhumation burials can be divided into earth graves, coffin burials and chamber graves. Generally, the more effort was put into the construction of the grave, the more grave goods were placed in the grave. The inhumation burials outnumber the cremation graves by far, possibly because the latter have been eroded or ploughed away. The discussion of grave markers concludes that probably all graves were visible above ground for a certain time. Circular ditches that may have marked mounds have been identified and some mounds are still discernible today.

In Chapter 5, the structure and chronological development of the various Hedeby burial grounds--mainly the two large cemeteries, i.e. the flatgrave cemetery and the Southern cemetery--are analysed. Although the cemeteries have not been fully excavated, some conclusions can nevertheless be drawn. For example the flat-grave cemetery inside the semi-circular rampart contained consistently west-southwest/east-northeast oriented earth and coffin burials, lying very close together. Barely 50m away from these, there were several, probably ninth-century, richly furnished chamber graves. The numerous graves investigated south of the rampart began already in the eight century. From the end of the ninth century, abandoned sectors of the settlement were used for burial, and in the 900s houses were built over the ninth-century chamber grave area. A relative and absolute chronology, supported by dendrochronology (in many zones wood was preserved in the wet ground), has led to the construction of a sequence in which a horizontal stratigraphy is observable: the oldest graves are mainly located in the west, and the cemeteries grew eastwards, both outside and inside the rampart.

Chapter 6 is a culture-historical interpretation in the German tradition, discussing questions of ethnicity, religious beliefs and social organisation. An overview of the osteological analyses (Chapter 6.1) sits somewhat oddly in this chapter. These were carried out on less than 10 per cent of the burials because of adverse soil conditions. Nevertheless the insights gained complement and correct the results obtained from the analysis of the assemblages.

Since Hedeby was located in a border zone and functioned as a trading post, it can be assumed that inhabitants of various ethnicities were present. Though Danes, Saxons, Frisians and Slavs are mentioned in the written sources, evidence for distinct ethnic groups at Hedeby is archaeologically elusive (Chapter 6.2). House types and pottery point towards Saxon influence. By the ninth century, the grave goods were Danish-Scandinavian in character. In the early Viking age, different types of burial may indicate groups of inhabitants of different origin. In the course of the ninth century, however, inhumation burial is adopted universally--much earlier than in Hedeby's surroundings. Christian missionary activities from the 830s onwards, led by the Hamburg church, may be the reason for this development. Eisenschmidt discusses several other issues, such as burial form, grave orientation, grave marking, cemetery structure and grave goods, in terms of religious change (Chapter 6.3), concluding that the Hedeby cemeteries were neither entirely pagan nor completely Christian, but reflecting the long and multifaceted process of Christianisation.

Social differentiation--in Germany traditionally understood as hierarchical ranking--is discussed in Chapter 6.4. Eisenschmidt and Arents ascribe the richly furnished chamber graves to members of the leading families of the area. The two most lavish burials are the boat-chamber grave (second quarter of the ninth century) and the female burial in chamber grave 5 in the Southern cemetery. Both might be royal burials. Surprisingly, no horse-rider burials, well known in ancient Denmark, have been found at Hedeby. The female equivalent to the horse-rider burials are women buried with the body of a wagon. One, possibly two, such wagon-graves have been unearthed at Hedeby.

Volume 1 ends with a synopsis of the development of the settlement with its burial sites from the eighth to the eleventh century, and an English summary. Volume 2 contains the catalogue (pp. 12-258), a concordance list of grave numbers, other lists and plates. The lists of 14 object types such as oval and other brooches, buckle or throne amulets do not only comprise the finds from Hedeby, but also finds from the whole Northern region. Further lists give details of the inhumation and cremation burials at Hedeby, and wagon burials from ancient Denmark. The plates are detailed drawings and/or greyscale photographs of the finds and skeletons. Only a few colour plates (mainly of beads) have been included. Finally eleven large-scale maps and three supplements are available to download at

This publication will be highly valued by scholars of the Viking age. The core of the text is German typochronology at its best. The overviews of the settlement investigations, and the archaeological narrative of Hedeby compared to that of the written sources, make this book an exemplary model for the potential of this method. This satisfying content is matched by excellent illustrations, and all texts have been carefully edited. The straightforward title conceals the immense accomplishments of the authors: not content to scour the archives, compile long catalogues and lists, analyse and interpret the Hedeby finds, they have also compared them to the northern European material culture of the time. The result is an outstanding contribution to Viking archaeology, already considered a standard work on the Viking age.


Munich, Germany

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Author:Helmbrecht, Michaela
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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