Birka sits on the island of Björkö (English "Birch Island") in Lake Mälaren in Sweden and was subject to two phases of excavation starting in the 19th century. The town is about 30 kilometres from the modern capital of Sweden, Stockholm and was an important trading town with ties to central and eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Orient. Birka is generally considered to be Sweden's first town.
Birka's location in modern Sweden (source: Wikipedia)
Founded around the middle of the 8th century, Birka Birka was the Baltic link in the river and portage route through Ladoga (Aldeigja) and Novgorod (Holmsgard) to the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Califate. Despite this importance, contemporary written documentation about Birka is scarce, with only a few mentions in Christian Latin texts which gave the settlement the name Birka. The Norse name is unknown.
A reconstruction drawing of Birka (source: scienceblogs.com)
With little known from contemporary sources, most of what we now about Birka derives from archaeological excavations. Excavations led by Hjalmar Stolpe began on the site between 1871 and 1895 and concentrated on the estimated 3,000 burials that flank the town on the east. Approximately a third of these burials were uncovered and the evidence from them gave a massive amount of information about the chronology of the Viking Age. The grave goods also demonstrated the contacts that the town had with far-flung trading links and the archaeologists were even able to establish the kinds of clothes worn by the inhabitants.
19th Century illustration of grave goods from Birka, showing the wide variety of objects found, including gaming pieces, combs, riding equipment and weapons. (source: Pintrest)
Glass beads from various graves at Birka (source: http://mis.historiska.se)
However, although good information was gained about the inhabitants of the town, the layout of the settlement was unknown until 1994 when excavations began on the 'Black Earth' area of the island. This black earth was caused by the occupation layers of the main area of settlement and archaeological investigations revealed plots of land divided by passageways flanked by ditches. In these plots there were one or two small wooden houses, approximately 5 x 8 metres in area with several outbuildings, probably workshops or stores. The buildings were timber framed with wattle and daub walls and wood, thatch or turf roofs.
Diorama reconstruction of the Birka waterfront (source: anmm.blog)
Objects recovered during these excavations revealed that many of the inhabitants were craftsmen, jewellers or metalworkers. Some prepared the skins of foxes and squirrels to be used for garment trimmings. There were also many merchants, which was suggested by the large amount of Arabic coins and silver bullion that were found.
Silver coins, found at Birka and minted in Hedeby, showing Viking ships (source:www.historyextra.com)
Now a museum and reconstructed buildings stand near the ancient town showcasing the incredible finds and the site has been classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO for its cultural and physical significance, giving it continued protection for the future.
A modern-day reconstruction of a craftsman's workshop at the Birka museum (source: http://stockholmtourist.blogspot.co.uk)
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