In the 800s AD, there may have lived somewhere about a thousand residents in Kaupang trading town in Vestfold, Eastern Norway. (Drawing: Flemming Bau / norgeshistorie.no)
The first trading towns in Scandinavia were established at the same time as the first Viking raids took place on the British Isles and the continent: Birka in Sweden, Hedeby and Ribe in Denmark and Kaupang in Norway.
Kaupang, that translates from kaupangr in Old Norse to “market” or “trading place” in English, was strategically placed in a narrow bay in Sikiringssal by the outlet of the Oslo Fjord, five kilometers northeast of Larvik in Vestfold, Eastern Norway.
Excavations confirm that the town was established in the years 780-800 AD, and for unknown reasons was abandoned about the year 930.
The trading town was divided into many small plots with residential houses smaller than normal Viking longhouses, but had the same structure: A fireplace in the middle of the open room with benches along the sides where residents did work, eat and sleep.
The houses were placed along the shoreline that was about 3.5 meters higher than today. At the largest, the town was 750 meters long, between 20 and 90 meters wide and covered about 54 decares (13 acres).
The inhabitants consisted of a mix of Viking merchants and craftsmen, and Kaupang was one of the first places in Scandinavia where it was bought and sold mass-produced goods.
The town was part of an international trading network and there are found thousands of artifacts from all over the Viking world at the time: Beads from the areas around the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, Frankish glass beakers, ceramics from the Rhine area, Denmark and the Baltic Sea, Arabic (Cufic) silver coins, and not to forget many weapons and tools.
Coins found in Kaupang came from many countries. (Map: norgeshistorie.no).
Only Written Source
The Viking chief and merchant Ottar’s description is the only written source mentioning the trading town of Kaupang. Around the year 890, he travels from Hålogaland in Northern Norway, via Kaupang to Hedeby before sailing to London where he is telling King Alfred the Great about his long journey via Kaupang.
Ottar gives no exact description of Kaupang or any information about the power relations, but he tells that he has traveled along the norðrvegr (Old Norse, “Northern Way” or “way leading to the north”) to Kaupang in Eastern Norway.
Jewelry found and probably produced in Kaupang. (Photo: Midgard Historical Center / Vestfold Museums)
The Royal Frankish Annals of 813 inform that Vestfold was under Danish sovereignty. Although Kaupang often is referred to as Norway’s first town, this is not entirely correct. At the time, the town was founded as a border town by the Danish king to make a defense against Norwegian Vikings.
They preserved artifacts suggest that the trading town existed until about the year 930. Then, the trade and craft activities were dramatically reduced to completely disappear around the year 970 – a fate Kaupang shares with other Viking towns like Birka and Hedeby.
Researchers believe they never will get the answer to why Kaupang totally disappeared due to the fact that centuries of agriculture has removed much of the archaeological material.
New trade patterns in Northern Europe and changed political balance of power in Denmark and Norway were also probably important factors.
Did Norwegian Vikings attack and burn down Kaupang when the Danes lost control in the first half of the 900s?
Another possibility is that the harbor was made unusable due to land rise and mud blockages, and hence the residents were forced to move elsewhere.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews