A Centuries-Old Mystery: Did This Elusive Viking City Exist?

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Poland Dispatch

Was a “medieval New York” called Jomsborg a literate phantasy oregon a humanities reality? New archaeological discoveries whitethorn supply a clue.

Snow-covered woody  buildings beside a river.
A recreated “Slav and Viking” settlement, with medieval trade demonstrations, re-enactments and guided tours successful Wolin, Poland.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Andrew Higgins

May 18, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

After the section authorities decided to physique an reflection operation atop a sandy elevation connected Wolin, an land successful the Baltic Sea, a Polish archaeologist was called successful to cheque the tract earlier operation and look for buried artifacts from the spot’s macabre past.

Hangmen’s Hill, a nationalist park, had successful earlier times been an execution ground, a cemetery and, immoderate believe, a spot for quality sacrifices — truthful who knew what grisly discoveries were successful store?

But what the archaeologist, Wojciech Filipowiak, recovered erstwhile helium started digging caused much excitement than distaste: charcoaled wood indicating the remains of a 10th-century stronghold that could assistance lick 1 of the large riddles of the Viking Age.

Was a fearsome fortress mentioned successful past texts a literate phantasy oregon a humanities reality?

It has agelong been known that Nordic warriors established outposts much than a millennium agone connected Poland’s Baltic coast, enslaving indigenous Slavic peoples to proviso a booming enslaved trade, arsenic good trading successful salt, amber and different commodities.

Not known, however, was the determination of the Vikings’ biggest colony successful the area, a municipality and subject stronghold that aboriginal 12th-century texts called Jomsborg and linked to a perchance mythical mercenary bid known arsenic Jomsvikings.


When Wojciech Filipowiak began digging connected the elevation successful Wolin, helium recovered indications of a imaginable 10th-century Viking stronghold.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Some modern scholars judge that Jomsborg was ne'er a existent place, but alternatively a fable handed down and embroidered done the ages. The findings astatine Hangmen’s Hill connected Wolin Island mightiness change that view.

“It is precise exciting,” said Dr. Filipowiak, a student successful Wolin with the archaeology and ethnology conception of Poland’s Academy of Sciences. “It could lick a enigma going backmost much than 500 years: Where is Jomsborg?”

Interest successful Vikings, erstwhile mostly confined to a niche tract of world study, has surged successful caller years arsenic tv bid similar “Game of Thrones,” movies, graphic novels and video games person embraced — and distorted — Norse themes, covering and symbols. The Viking Age, oregon astatine slightest a unsmooth approximation of it, has go a fixture of fashionable culture.

This has been bully quality for the tourism concern successful Wolin. “Vikings are sexy and pull a batch of interest,” said Ewa Grzybowska, the politician of Wolin, which includes a municipality and a wider land territory with aforesaid name.

But the politician bemoaned that acold less visitors travel to her domain than to a adjacent formation resort. She said much wealth was needed to transportation retired excavation enactment and make Wolin arsenic a world-class destination for Viking researchers and amateur enthusiasts.

Pointing retired of her model successful City Hall to a quadrate that is believed to incorporate a treasure of unexcavated aboriginal medieval artifacts, she said: “Wherever you spell here, determination is simply a portion of history.”

That history, however, has often been a root of discord.


A presumption of a recreated Viking settlement. “Vikings are sexy and pull a batch of interest,” said Ewa Grzybowska, the politician of Wolin.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Nazi archaeologists scoured Wolin, which was portion of Germany until 1945, for grounds of the beingness of Vikings — and for impervious of what the Nazis believed was the superiority of the Nordic contention and its dominance successful the aboriginal medieval play implicit section Slavic peoples, who aboriginal came to place themselves arsenic Poles and claimed the onshore for Poland.

When Poland took power of Wolin aft World War II, Polish archaeologists hunted for artifacts that would heighten their country’s clasp connected erstwhile German lands and assistance reenforce a consciousness of nationalist identity.

Schools successful Wolin organized re-enactments of Viking invasions of Poland’s Baltic seashore and, for decades aft World War II, “far much kids wanted to beryllium Slavs defending the island,” said Karolina Kokora, manager of Wolin’s past museum.

That changed aft Poland ditched communism and began turning West, distant from Russia and its accent connected Slavic pride. “After 1989, everyone wanted to beryllium a Viking,” Ms. Kokora recalled.


Karolina Kokora, the manager of Wolin’s past museum, examining pottery shards and carnal bones that were discovered during the past excavation successful Wolin.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Public fascination with Vikings has besides led to a surge successful humanities sleuthing by amateurs.

Among them is Marek Kryda, a Polish American amateur historiographer and writer of a polemical 2019 publication that denounced Polish archaeology arsenic a morass of taste chauvinism mostly unsighted to the relation Vikings played successful the aboriginal enactment of Poland.

Mr. Kryda acceptable disconnected a tempest of contention past summertime successful Poland aft helium announced successful The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, that helium had located the apt sedate of Harald Bluetooth, the humanities Danish Viking king who erstwhile ruled successful this area.

The statement presumption among historians is that Harald astir apt died successful the portion astatine the extremity of the 10th period but had been buried successful Denmark.

Mr. Marek said helium had placed Harald’s apt burial mound successful Wiejkowo, a tiny colony inland from Wolin, by utilizing outer imaging. Dr. Filipowiak dismissed that arsenic “pseudoscience.”

The furor implicit wherever Harald Bluetooth is buried has turned the Viking king — celebrated arsenic a unifier of feuding Nordic fiefs and the inspiration for the sanction of a wireless exertion designed to unite devices — into an cause of noisy division.


A tract extracurricular the colony of Wiejkowo, Poland, wherever immoderate judge that Harald Bluetooth, a Danish Viking king who erstwhile ruled successful the area, was buried.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Ms. Grzybowska, the mayor, said she was not qualified to justice whether Harald was buried successful her territory but added that she would beryllium delighted if true. “It would adhd peculiar splendor and grandeur to our island,” she said.

Ms. Grzybowska’s territory has a Slavs and Viking Village, dotted with thatched woody huts and a chromatic inscribed with runes celebrating Harald Bluetooth. But these are modern fakes — representations of a distant Viking past that excites the imaginativeness but has been hard to pin down with certainty contempt the decades of digging by archaeologists looking for traces of Jomsborg.

Ms. Kokora, the depository director, described the elusive 10th-century colony arsenic a “medieval New York connected the Baltic” — a trading entrepôt with a mixed colonisation of Vikings, Germanic radical and Slavs — that had mysteriously vanished from the map, leaving lone whiffs of its beingness successful archaic texts.

It is said to person had thousands of inhabitants, a fortress and a agelong pier to accommodate the Viking ships that sailed to and from Scandinavia and arsenic acold arsenic North America. Traces of enslaved Slavs traded on the Baltic seashore successful the archetypal millennium person been recovered thousands of miles distant successful Morocco.

Sifting done shards of excavated pottery connected a cluttered array successful her museum, Ms. Kokora said the Vikings hadn’t bothered overmuch with making pots and were not precise bully astatine it. “They conscionable took from the Slavs,” she said.


A rune chromatic dedicated to Harald Bluetooth successful a parkland successful Wolin.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

In the 1930s, German archaeologists, anxious to situation Polish claims that the country had primitively been settled chiefly by Slavs, excavated a mound connected the other broadside of municipality from Hangmen’s Hill successful the anticipation of uncovering traces of Jomsborg — and impervious that Scandinavians, an important pillar of the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy, had been determination first. They recovered immoderate artifacts but nary grounds of a Viking stronghold.

Parts of Hangmen’s Hill had been excavated earlier Dr. Filipowiak started digging, but not the country selected for construction. The archaeologist said his serendipitous find of what helium thinks could beryllium the ramparts of 10th-century Jomsborg’s stronghold inactive needed much analysis, but helium believes determination is already “80 percent certainty” that this is the site.

The statement implicit Jomsborg’s determination — oregon if it truly existed — has been “a precise agelong discussion,” Dr. Filipowiak said. “Hopefully, I tin assistance extremity it.”

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