Hedeby was an important settlement in Viking Denmark, flourishing from the 8th to 11th centuries and located towards the southern end of the Jutland Peninsula. It developed as a trading centre at the head of a narrow, navigable inlet known today as the Schlei (Danish: Slien) which connects to the Baltic Sea. Hedeby was the largest Nordic city during the Viking Age and used to be the oldest city in Denmark. Denmark lost the territory on which Hedeby was located to Austria and Prussia in 1864 in the Second War of Schleswig. As a result of these border movements, the site is now located in the province of Schleswig-Holstein in the extreme north of Germany. The name 'Hedeby' means the "town on the heath". Abandoned almost a thousand years ago, Hedeby is now by far the most important archeological site in Schleswig-Holstein. A museum was opened next to the site in 1985.
site of the former town Haithabu
Hedeby is first mentioned in the Frankish chronicles of Einhard (804) who was in the service of Charlemagne, but was probably founded around 770. In 808 the Danish king Godfred (Lat. Godofredus) destroyed a competing Slav trade centre namied Reric (Rerik) and it is recorded in the Frankish chronicles that he moved the merchants from there to Hedeby. This may have given the town of Hedeby its initial impetus to develop. The same sources record that Godfred strengthened the Danevirke earthen wall which stretched across the south of the Jutland peninsular. The Danevirke joined the defensive walls of Hedeby to form an east-west barrier across the peninsular, from the marshes in the West to the Schlei inlet leading into the Baltic in the East.
The town itself was surrounded on its three landward sides (north, west, and south) by earthworks. At the end of the 9th century the northern and southern parts of the town were abandoned for the central section. Later a 9-metre (29-ft) high semi-circular wall was erected to guard the western approaches to the town. On the eastern side, the town was bordered by the innermost part of the Schlei inlet and the bay of Haddebyer Noor
Two reconstructed houses at Hedeby
Hedeby became a principal marketplace because of its geographical location on the major trade routes between the Frankish Empire and Scandinavia (north-south), and between the Baltic and the North Sea (east-west). Between 800 and 1000 the growing economic power of the Vikings led to its dramatic expansion as a major trading centre. The following indicate the importance achieved by the town:
* The town was described by visitors from England (Wulfstan - 9th C.) and the Mediterranean (Al-Tartushi - 10th C.).
* Hedeby became the seat of a bishop (948) and belonged to the Archbishopric of Hamburg and Bremen.
* The town minted its own coins (from 825?).
* Adam of Bremen (11th C.) reports that ships were sent from this portus maritimus to Slavic lands, to Sweden, Samland (Semlant) and even Greece.
A Swedish dynasty founded by Olof the Brash is said to have ruled Hedeby during the last decades of the 9th century and the first part of the 10th century. This was told to Adam of Bremen by the Danish king Sweyn Estridsson, and it is supported by three runestones found in Denmark. Two of them were raised by the mother of Olof's grand-son Sigtrygg Gnupasson. The third runestone is from Hedeby, the Stone of Eric (Swedish: Erikstenen) and it was discovered in 1796, which shows Norwegian-Swedish runes. It is, however, possible that Danes also occasionally wrote with this version of the younger futhark.
Life was short and crowded in Hedeby. The small houses were clustered tightly together in a grid, with the east-west streets leading down to jetties in the harbour. People rarely lived beyond 30 or 40, and archaeological research shows that their latter years were often painful due to crippling diseases such as tuberculosis. Yet make-up for men and rights for women provide surprises to the modern understanding.
The Arab traveller Ibrahim Al-Tartushi (late 10th C.) provides one of the most colourful and often quoted descriptions of life in Hedeby. Al-Tartushi was from Cordova in Spain, which had a significantly more wealthy and comfortable lifestyle than Hedeby. While Hedeby may have been significant by Scandinavian standards, Al-Tartushi is unimpressed:
"Slesvig (Hedeby) is a very large town at the extreme end of the world ocean.... The inhabitants worship Sirius, except for a minority of Christians who have a church of their own there.... He who slaughters a sacrificial animal puts up poles at the door to his courtyard and impales the animal on them, be it a piece of cattle, a ram, billygoat or a pig so that his neighbors will be aware that he is making a sacrifice in honor of his god. The town is poor in goods and riches. People eat mainly fish which exist in abundance. Babies are thrown into the sea for reasons of economy. The right to divorce belongs to the women.... Artificial eye make-up is another peculiarity; when they wear it their beauty never disappears, indeed it is enhanced in both men and women. Further: Never did I hear singing fouler than that of these people, it is a rumbling emanating from their throats, similar to that of a dog but even more bestial."