A Centuries-Old Mystery: Did This Elusive Viking City Exist?



After the native authorities determined to construct an remark tower atop a sandy hill on Wolin, an island within the Baltic Sea, a Polish archaeologist was known as in to verify the location earlier than development and search for buried artifacts from the spot’s macabre previous.

Hangmen’s Hill, a public park, had in earlier instances been an execution floor, a cemetery and, some imagine, a spot for human sacrifices — so who knew what grisly discoveries had been in retailer?

However what the archaeologist, Wojciech Filipowiak, discovered when he began digging brought about extra pleasure than distaste: charcoaled wooden indicating the stays of a Tenth-century stronghold that might assist resolve one of many nice riddles of the Viking Age.

Was a fearsome fortress talked about in historic texts a literary fantasy or a historic actuality?

It has lengthy been recognized that Nordic warriors established outposts greater than a millennium in the past on Poland’s Baltic coast, enslaving indigenous Slavic peoples to produce a booming slave commerce, as nicely buying and selling in salt, amber and different commodities.

Not recognized, nevertheless, was the situation of the Vikings’ largest settlement within the space, a city and navy stronghold that early Twelfth-century texts known as Jomsborg and linked to a probably legendary mercenary order referred to as Jomsvikings.

Some trendy students imagine that Jomsborg was by no means an actual place, however as an alternative a legend handed down and embroidered by way of the ages. The findings at Hangmen’s Hill on Wolin Island would possibly alter that view.

“It is extremely thrilling,” stated Dr. Filipowiak, a scholar in Wolin with the archaeology and ethnology part of Poland’s Academy of Sciences. “It might resolve a thriller going again greater than 500 years: The place is Jomsborg?”

Curiosity in Vikings, as soon as largely confined to a distinct segment area of educational examine, has surged lately as tv sequence like “Sport of Thrones,” motion pictures, graphic novels and video video games have embraced — and distorted — Norse themes, clothes and symbols. The Viking Age, or not less than a tough approximation of it, has change into a fixture of fashionable tradition.

This has been excellent news for the tourism business in Wolin. “Vikings are attractive and appeal to a whole lot of curiosity,” stated Ewa Grzybowska, the mayor of Wolin, which features a city and a wider island district with identical identify.

However the mayor bemoaned that far fewer guests come to her area than to a close-by seashore resort. She stated more cash was wanted to hold out excavation work and develop Wolin as a world-class vacation spot for Viking researchers and newbie lovers.

Declaring of her window in Metropolis Corridor to a sq. that’s believed to include a treasure of unexcavated early medieval artifacts, she stated: “Wherever you go right here, there’s a piece of historical past.”

That historical past, nevertheless, has usually been a supply of discord.

Nazi archaeologists scoured Wolin, which was a part of Germany till 1945, for proof of the presence of Vikings — and for proof of what the Nazis believed was the prevalence of the Nordic race and its dominance within the early medieval interval over native Slavic peoples, who later got here to establish themselves as Poles and claimed the land for Poland.

When Poland took management of Wolin after World Battle II, Polish archaeologists hunted for artifacts that might improve their nation’s maintain on former German lands and assist reinforce a way of nationwide identification.

Faculties in Wolin organized re-enactments of Viking invasions of Poland’s Baltic coast and, for many years after World Battle II, “much more youngsters wished to be Slavs defending the island,” stated Karolina Kokora, director of Wolin’s historical past museum.

That modified after Poland ditched communism and started turning West, away from Russia and its emphasis on Slavic pleasure. “After 1989, everybody wished to be a Viking,” Ms. Kokora recalled.

Public fascination with Vikings has additionally led to a surge in historic sleuthing by amateurs.

Amongst them is Marek Kryda, a Polish American newbie historian and creator of a polemical 2019 ebook that denounced Polish archaeology as a morass of ethnic chauvinism largely blind to the position Vikings performed within the early formation of Poland.

Mr. Kryda set off a storm of controversy final summer time in Poland after he introduced in The Every day Mail, a British tabloid, that he had positioned the seemingly grave of Harald Bluetooth, the historic Danish Viking king who as soon as dominated on this space.

The consensus view amongst historians is that Harald in all probability died within the area on the finish of the Tenth century however had been buried in Denmark.

Mr. Marek stated he had positioned Harald’s seemingly burial mound in Wiejkowo, a tiny village inland from Wolin, through the use of satellite tv for pc imaging. Dr. Filipowiak dismissed that as “pseudoscience.”

The furor over the place Harald Bluetooth is buried has turned the Viking king — celebrated as a unifier of feuding Nordic fiefs and the inspiration for the identify of a wi-fi know-how designed to unite units — into an agent of noisy division.

Ms. Grzybowska, the mayor, stated she was not certified to guage whether or not Harald was buried in her district however added that she can be delighted if true. “It will add particular splendor and grandeur to our island,” she stated.

Ms. Grzybowska’s district has a Slavs and Viking Village, dotted with thatched picket huts and a stone inscribed with runes celebrating Harald Bluetooth. However these are trendy fakes — representations of a distant Viking previous that excites the creativeness however has been exhausting to pin down with certainty regardless of the many years of digging by archaeologists searching for traces of Jomsborg.

Ms. Kokora, the museum director, described the elusive Tenth-century settlement as a “medieval New York on the Baltic” — a buying and selling entrepôt with a combined inhabitants of Vikings, Germanic folks and Slavs — that had mysteriously vanished from the map, leaving solely whiffs of its existence in archaic texts.

It’s stated to have had 1000’s of inhabitants, a fortress and an extended pier to accommodate the Viking ships that sailed to and from Scandinavia and so far as North America. Traces of enslaved Slavs traded alongside the Baltic coast within the first millennium have been discovered 1000’s of miles away in Morocco.

Sifting by way of shards of excavated pottery on a cluttered desk in her museum, Ms. Kokora stated the Vikings hadn’t bothered a lot with making pots and weren’t superb at it. “They simply took from the Slavs,” she stated.

Within the Nineteen Thirties, German archaeologists, desirous to problem Polish claims that the realm had initially been settled primarily by Slavs, excavated a mound on the alternative aspect of city from Hangmen’s Hill within the hope of discovering traces of Jomsborg — and proof that Scandinavians, an necessary pillar of the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy, had been there first. They discovered some artifacts however no proof of a Viking stronghold.

Components of Hangmen’s Hill had been excavated earlier than Dr. Filipowiak began digging, however not the realm chosen for development. The archaeologist stated his serendipitous discover of what he thinks may very well be the ramparts of Tenth-century Jomsborg’s stronghold nonetheless wanted extra evaluation, however he believes there’s already “80 % certainty” that that is the location.

The controversy over Jomsborg’s location — or if it actually existed — has been “a really lengthy dialogue,” Dr. Filipowiak stated. “Hopefully, I will help finish it.”