Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Great Wall of . . . Denmark???

I'm intrigued by the news that archaeologists in Germany have uncovered a new section of a Viking-era defensive wall, originally designed to provide cover for a transshipment route from the Baltic Sea across the foot of Denmark to the North Sea. Der Spiegel reports:

Their attacks out of nowhere in rapid longboats have led many to call Vikings the inventors of the Blitzkrieg. "Like wild hornets," reads an ancient description, the Vikings would plunder monasteries and entire cities from Ireland to Spain. The fact that the Vikings, who have since found their place as droll comic book characters, were also avid masons is slightly less well known.

The proof can be seen in northern Germany, not far from the North Sea-Baltic Canal. There, one can marvel at a giant, 30-kilometer (19-mile) wall which runs through the entire state of Schleswig-Holstein. The massive construction, called the Danevirke -- "work of the Danes" -- is considered the largest earthwork in northern Europe.

Archeologists have now taken a closer look at part of the construction -- a three-meter-thick (10 feet) wall from the 8th century near Hedeby (known as Haithabu in German). It is constructed entirely out of stones collected from the surrounding region. Some of them are only as big as a fist, while others weigh as much as 100 kilograms (220 pounds). "The Vikings collected millions of rocks," says archeologist Astrid Tummuscheit, who works for the state archeology office of Schleswig-Holstein.

At a press conference Friday, Tummuscheit's team announced a further find -- one that they are calling a "sensation." The researchers have discovered the only gate leading through the Danevirke, a five-meter (16 feet) wide portal. According to old writings, "horsemen and carts" used to stream through the gate, called "Wiglesdor." Next to it was a customs station and an inn that included a bordello.

. . .

The new find is certain to attract significant attention above Germany's northern border as well -- the Danevirke is seen as a national treasure in Denmark. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has visited the site, as has Prince Frederik.

New calculations as to the age of the construction indicate, however, that the earliest parts of the wall might have been built by the Frisians and not by the Danes. Archeologists now think the foundation stone might have been laid as early as the 7th century.

The Frisians, who lived on the west coast of what is now Denmark and on a number of islands in the North Sea, were fighting for supremacy in the region with three other peoples: the Danes, the Slavs and the Saxons (see graphic). "It was the Kosovo of the early middle ages," says Carnap-Bornheim. In the end, however, it was the Danes who emerged victorious. According to contemporary records, King Göttrik of Denmark ordered in 808 that the border of his empire with that of the Saxons be fortified.

. . .

In order for goods from the east to be shipped to the west, they had to cross the narrow strip of land at the base of present-day Denmark. Traders would sail inland on the Schlei Inlet, but when they got to Hedeby, their wares were offloaded and carted overland to the Treene River, 18 kilometers away. Only there could the goods be reloaded onto boats and sailed into the North Sea.

For the duration of this short overland trek, the valuable goods -- including gold from Byzantium, bear pelts from Novgorod and even statues of Buddha from India -- were open to attack from the mainland. In order to protect this important trade artery, archeologists now believe, a bulwark of earth, stone and bricks was constructed. The Danevirke, in other words, was little more than a protective shield for commerce.

There's more at the link, including more photographs of the excavations.

It's fascinating to think of the decision process that led to the building of such fortifications. The amount of labor involved must have been immense; gathering so many rocks and stones, taking them to the places where they were needed, providing skilled masons to set them in place and secure them, then providing a garrison to defend the wall against intruders. Indeed, the effort would have been so great that it wouldn't have been economically worthwhile . . . unless the threat confronting them was so severe as to make such a colossal effort worthwhile. That, in turn, gives you some idea of the nature of the conflicts confronting our distant Northern European ancestors.

I guess, in its own way, this is a (much) smaller, simpler version of the Great Wall of China, which was built to keep invaders out of the Celestial Kingdom (with about as much success as the Danevirke enjoyed, in the long run!).


No comments: