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II Case-Studies

Kings’ Jelling. Monuments with Outstanding Biographies in the Heart of Denmark

Steen Hvass


On 16 April ad 2000 the 60th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark was celebrated. To mark this particular day seventeen new tapestries were placed in Christiansborg Palace, in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. The tapestries depict the history of the Danish monarchy throughout 1,000 years. In the middle of the banqueting hall hangs the first and one of the largest tapestries about the Viking period. Here the history of King Gorm’s lineage begins: King Gorm the Old, his Queen Thyre, their son Harald Bluetooth, his son Svein, and Svein’s son Canute the Great, who ended up ruling over the whole of Denmark and England. Above the heads of the kings, ‘paganism’ fights against Christianity (Hornum 2000, 85).

The most stately and noble monument in the history of Denmark are the Jelling Monuments (Figure 3.1). The Jelling Monuments stand as a key site in the archaeological and historical explanation of the political and religious transformations of the Scandinavian world at the end of the Viking Period. The site consists of the two largest burial mounds in Denmark, two runic stones dating from the Viking Period, and the church situated between the burial mounds. Since 2005, new

The Jelling monuments in ad 1861. After Kornerup 1875, pl. 1

Figure 3.1. The Jelling monuments in ad 1861. After Kornerup 1875, pl. 1.

excavations have expanded the monument area with the discovery of a huge stone setting depicting the outline of a ship measuring almost 360 metres in length, and a four-sided wooden palisade, which once encircled an area of approximately 12.5 hectares. The Northern Mound with a burial chamber is the centre for both the stone-ship and the entire expanse of the newly discovered palisade.

Archaeological investigations in Jelling began as early as ad 1586, when Caspar Markdanner, King Frederik II’s lord lieutenant at Kol- dinghus Castle, raised one of the two rune-stones known at the site to an upright position so that its honour and dignity would be restored. In 1591 the lord lieutenant had an etching made of the entire site, and in 1643 Ole Worm drew up the first description of the monuments.

In 1704 the first excavations were carried out in the North Mound at the initiative of King Frederik IV. In 1820 local peasants found a burial chamber in the North Mound and the following year excavations funded by King Frederik VI took place (Magnusen and Thomsen 1827). The archaeologically interested monarch, King Frederik VII, conducted extensive investigations in 1861 (Kornerup 1875).

The National Museum of Denmark made extensive excavations in both burial mounds in 1941 and 1942 (Dyggve 1942, 65; 1948, 190).

This project became the largest of its type in Scandinavia. In 1947-8 and in 1951 excavations took place in the church itself (Dyggve 1955, 221), and in 1965 large surface excavations were carried out around the North Mound in order to examine various theories about two rows of large monoliths found at the site (Glob 1970,97). During the period 1976-9 Jelling became the object of renewed interest after subsequent excavations inside the church itself, where a burial chamber and traces of more wooden houses were uncovered (Krogh 1983, 194). Every decade from 1940 and up until 1980 The National Museum of Denmark carried out a series of excavations. The excavations were concentrated exclusively around the church and the burial mounds.

The excavations from 1941 to 1979 have triggered new interpretations and debate. Concerning the two rows of large stones under the South Mound, found in 1941, the various theories can be seen on Figure 3.2, from 1942 (Dyggve 1942, 65), 1968 (Glob 1970, 97), and 1970 (Andersen 1970, 26). In the proposal from 1970 the stone rows in the north ended by the edge of the Bronze Age barrow, found under the North Mound in 1942. In 2009 it has been documented that there was no Bronze Age barrow under the North Mound (Andersen etal. 2010, 9).

From 1986 Vejle Museum subsequently carried out preliminary archaeological surveys related to all impending civil engineering projects to be made in Jelling, with a focus on unearthing settlements from the Iron Age and the Viking Period. The upshot is that a picture can be drawn—on the ground area south of the present town of Jelling—of one ongoing settlement that has continuously evolved

Various theories about the two rows of large stones under the South Mound, found in 1941. Drawing by Niels-Chr. Clemmesen. © Steen Hvass

Figure 3.2. Various theories about the two rows of large stones under the South Mound, found in 1941. Drawing by Niels-Chr. Clemmesen. © Steen Hvass.

since around the time of the birth of Christ all the way up to the period contemporaneous with the monuments in Jelling (Hvass 1998, 161; Christiansen 1999, 181).

First, in 2006, a small excavation was made on the ground area north of the mounds. It brought to light a group of large stones, ranging up to 2 metres in length, having the same size and forms as some of the stones that were found in 1941 underneath the South Mound. But there were more surprises in store. Discovered here, also, were the pits for a number of upright posts for a house with a form and construction familiar from the Viking Period’s ring fortresses in Denmark with the name Trelleborg houses. But not only this, a very solid post-constructed palisade fence that could be traced for quite a stretch in a straight line was also found.

The excavations in 2006-13 opened up a whole new chapter in the history of Jelling-related scholarship. With a grant from an important foundation in Denmark, The National Museum of Denmark (in collaboration with Vejle Museum and Arhus University) was able to launch a major Jelling Project from 2008. The results of the latest round of excavations in Jelling have, so far, spelled out a veritable archaeological breakthrough in the exploration of this site.

Today, the perception of the layout’s history and function is fundamentally different from what it was just a few years ago (Hvass 2000). The monuments, with the burial mounds, the ship-setting and the rhombus-formed enclosure cover an area of 12.5 hectares, and each of the four sides is 360 metres long (Hvass 2011b; Holst etal. 2012,474).

From the mid tenth century we know of a continuous succession of kings, beginning with Gorm the Old. The monuments in Jelling appear to fall within the historically assumed reigns of King Gorm the Old, who died around ad 958, and Harald Bluetooth, who lived around 958-87.

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