In the 800s AD, there may have lived 400-1000 residents in Kaupang. (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”, which 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.
Excavations confirm that the town was established in the years 780-800 AD, and for unknown reasons was abandoned about year 930.
The trading place was divided into many small plots with residential houses that were smaller than the Viking farms, but had the same structure: A long fireplace in the middle of the open room with benches along the long sides where residents did work, eat and sleep.
The houses were placed along the shoreline which was about 3.5 meters higher than today. At its largest, the settlement was 750 meters long, between 20 and 90 meters wide and covered about 54 decares (13 acres).
The inhabitants consisted of a mix of 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 it is found thousands of artifacts from all over the Viking world: Beads from the areas around the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea, Frankish beakers of glass and ceramic tubs from the Rhine area, Denmark and the Baltic Sea, Arabic (Cufic) silver coins, in addition to weapons and tools.
Coins found at Kaupang came from many countries. (Map: norgeshistorie.no).
Only Written Source
The Viking chief and merchant Ottar’s description is the only written source that mentions the trading place. 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 journey.
Ottar gives no description of the town or information about the power relations, but he tells that he has travelled along the “norðrvegr” (Old Norse, “northern way” or “way leading to the north”) to Kaupang.
Jewelry found and probably produced in Kaupang. (Photo: Midgard Historical Centre/ Vestfold Museums)
The Royal Frankish Annals of 813 tell 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 defend against Norwegian Vikings.
They preserved artifacts suggest that the trading place existed until about the year 930. Then, the trade and craft activities have been reduced, to completely disappear around the year 970 – a fate Kaupang share with other Viking towns like Birka and Hedeby.
Researchers believe they never will get an answer to why the town vanished. This is due to the fact that centuries of agriculture have removed much of the archaeological material.
New trade patterns in Northern Europe and changed political balance of power in Denmark and Norway were probably important factors. Did Norwegian Vikings attack and burn down the town when the Danes lost control in the first half of the 900s?
Another theory 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