Surrounded by History

An hour’s drive from our housesit in Denmark, Vikings were making glass and casting bronze on a riverbank 1,300 years ago—right where we strolled on a windy afternoon. Ten minutes away from our house, just on the other side of Haderslev, the weapons and accoutrements of more than 200 Germanic soldiers were ritually flung into a lake in 300 AD—almost within view of where we ate dinner one balmy evening with some new acquaintances.

While staying in this area, I’ve tended to focus on the medieval half-timbered houses, white churches, golden wheat fields, and other sights I see around me. But it seems that many of the stories and wonders of southern Jutland lie in layers beneath my feet.

On a rare sunny day last week, we visited Denmark’s oldest town, Ribe. Its position up a sheltered river on the southwestern coast of Jutland made it a natural gathering spot. Around 700 AD, a market developed there, where seagoing ships from the coasts of what are now Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands—plus river vessels and wagons from the interior—could meet to buy and sell their goods. Through that trade, objects from as far afield as Paris and Byzantium found their way to this corner of Denmark, and local goods found their way back across the miles.

Ribe was a center of glass bead making

One of the specialties of the artisans who first settled around Ribe’s market was glass making. With glass made from local sand, and glass rods of different colors imported from elsewhere, they worked over small, hot fires, melting blobs of glass, catching drips on a rod, and twirling them to form little beads of intricate colors and patterns. I thought that fine millefiori glasswork originated in Italy centuries later, so it was fascinating to learn in the Ribe Viking Museum that it was being made here so early.

Ribe is one of the prettiest towns we’ve ever visited

Besides the Viking Museum and a nice little fine-arts museum, Ribe is a beautiful town for sightseeing. A fire ravaged the town in 1580, so many of the buildings date from just after that. Strolling the quiet center reveals street after street of intricate brick work, half-timbered houses with carved beams and doors, old mills, a large cathedral with an eclectic mix of styles, the oldest hotel in Denmark, and a riverfront embankment (once the center of trade) with small boats moored on each side. We ate lunch at a cozy inn dating from 1600 and felt as Old World as could be.

Closer to home, we had dinner one night with a couple of teachers from Haderslav who belong to the same international hospitality organization, Servas, that we’ve been members of for years. They treated us to a very nice meal at their renovated farmhouse.

Before dinner, as they took us on a walking tour of their neighborhood, including a pretty viewpoint overlooking a small lake. They mentioned that a while ago, when the lake had been drained for development, treasure hunters with metal detectors had found a bunch of old Viking weapons.

The story sounded interesting, but it didn’t really have an impact until we visited the wonderful (and under-advertised) Hadserslev archaeological museum. There on display was the hoard from the Esjbol lake: more than 3,000 objects, including hundreds of swords, spear points, and barbed arrowheads made of iron. There were also metal buckles and clasps, decorative pieces of horse harness, coins, ships’ nails, and thin rods of gold (an easy way for a rich officer to carry his wealth?).

Scholars think the lake was a “sacrifice bog” from about 300 to 400 AD, where the weapons and possessions of captured enemies were ritually broken and thrown away to symbolize the winners’ destruction of the losers.

Some of the weaponry excavated from the Ejsbol lake in Haderslev in the 1990s after it was drained

Once the lakebed had been excavated, Haderslev officials shelved their plans for development and let the lake refill. Today, driving by that quiet spot, you’d never know it was the site of one of the most extensive archaeological finds in Denmark. It makes you wonder what other bits of history lie hidden in otherwise unremarkable spots all around you.

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