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Viking Museum Haithabu

Our perception of “the Vikings” tends to vary depending on which part of the world we come from. For those of us from the British Isles they were raiders, pirates, hostile invaders, conquerors and then simply settlers. Seen from further afield, they were the daring seafarers who first crossed the Atlantic to North America, or they were the intrepid traders from Sweden, who braved the rivers of Russia and settled there, or those who served as elite warriors in Constantinople. Our view of them may well be cloaked in the mystery evoked by myth and Hollywood movies. But real-life Hedeby, or Haithabu as it is known here, was Viking home-ground. Vikings were not outsiders, but the people who lived and worked here and welcomed traders from far-away places.

Situated in present-day Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, the location at the neck of Jutland was the perfect site for a trading port, as pre-Viking settlers had already recognised. Here, only a narrow land-crossing separates the Schlei, an inlet of the Baltic, in the east from the then tidal river to the west, giving access to the North Sea. In what were the early days of kingdoms in Scandinavia, the wealth and power generated by long-distance trade prompted Hedeby’s documented foundation by Danish King Göttrik at the beginning of the ninth century. Commercial contact also meant cultural contact leading to the spread of ideas and beliefs as well as fashions and technologies. Trade flourished, workshops produced their wares, the harbour expanded. And at this place where political and cultural boundaries met, one of Scandinavia’s earliest towns developed and thrived. Merchant ships came and went with their cargoes of furs, amber, soapstone, semi-precious stones, iron, silver, glass-beads…  and, not least, slaves.

But as a kingdom’s prized possession, Hedeby was fiercely fought over by rival rulers, and in the tenth century defences were built around it. In the course of the eleventh century, trading was relocated to a site at nearby Schleswig, and when Haithabu was ravaged in the middle of the century it was abandoned. The site within the semi-circular rampart was left virtually undisturbed in its rural context, keeping its memories and treasures hidden, until its rediscovery by archaeologists in the late nineteenth century.

Air view of the Viking Museum Haithabu

The Archaeological Museum
Originally opened in 1985 the Viking Museum, which lies adjacent to the site where Hedeby once stood, was overhauled in 2010 and presents the archaeological findings of over a hundred years of research. The innovative exhibition is housed in five themed rooms, in which various forms of presentation allow visitors to approach topics or items of interest in ways that are evocative and imaginative as well as factually informative. In the exhibition, Hedeby is put on the regional map; the manufacture of everyday items or valuables crafted for export or for the local elite is illuminated; how the material accessories, symbols and tools of power relate to abstract ideas – such as social stratification, language, religious beliefs and death – becomes clearer; Viking interaction beyond the region is highlighted; and the final section of the exhibition illustrates the key role of Viking seamanship in their rise to prominence. The serenity of the view out across the water through the exhibition hall’s great window is a far cry from the hustle and bustle that would have filled Hedeby’s quayside at the height of the trading season, but the view invites the visitor to go outdoors to see the site of the settlement itself.

Inside the museum

The Viking Houses
From the museum window, the thatched rooftops of the houses are just visible, and a walk through woodland, past fields and along the rampart will take you there. This rampart forms part of the early medieval earthworks (the Danewerk) stretching across the land route between the Baltic and the North Sea access, which, along with Hedeby, is being nominated as a UNESCO heritage site. Recent archaeological research has shown that in Hedeby’s heyday, the area within the semi-circular rampart was almost entirely filled with houses, workshops, streets, and some cemeteries.

To illustrate the layout of the settlement and the various construction methods and to show how its inhabitants lived here, seven buildings have been reconstructed in a section of land close to the harbour, where a reconstruction of one of the jetties reaches 40 metres into the water. The houses not only convey an impression of what everyday life in these dark and drafty conditions must have been like, but also offer insights into how buildings were constructed and what materials were used. The inventory of the houses supplements the museum by displaying items such as utility-grade pottery, tables, benches, furs and textiles. In the summer months, reconstructions of Viking ships will sometimes be moored at the jetty and may take visitors for a sail. Throughout the summer, there are demonstrations of crafts and skills such as glass-bead-making, metal-casting, iron-working, wool-dying, spinning, weaving, archery and bread-making, so that the settlement really comes to life. And many of these activities allow for visitor participation, too. Or when there is a Viking fair, the place is a hive of activity as it was in its Viking heyday.

 The Viking Houses

Water, wind and woodland, those three essentials for Viking-age shipping, still characterise the landscape at Hedeby today, so that the place itself provides an evocative backdrop for the imagination. At the same time, the relics of the past unearthed, researched and exhibited in the museum or in the houses give us a clearer picture of this early proto-town and its place in the Europe of that era. So wherever we may come from in the world, Hedeby offers us a new perspective on the Vikings.

Ms Hardcastle

Opening hours
Viking Museum
April – October: 9 a.m.  – 5 p.m. daily
November – March: Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Viking Houses
April – October: 9 a.m.  – 5 p.m. daily
Closed from November to March.

The annual progamme of activities is available as a pdf file entitled “Jahresprogramm”, and is downloadable from the museum website.