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Viking Archaeological Site and Others Earn World Heritage Status

The trading center of Hedeby and its surrounding wall are considered one of the most significant Viking sites in Northern Europe

Part of the Danevirk wall surrounding Hedeby (Unesco)
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The Unesco World Heritage Committee is currently meeting in Bahrain, and its major order of business is “inscribing” or adding new areas of natural or cultural significance to the list of World Heritage sites. So far, reports Francesca Street at CNN, about 20 new places have been added to the list, which began in 1978 and contains 1092 with the new additions.

The additions for 2018 include Gobekli Tepe, a Neolithic temple in Turkey known for its carved skull fragments, the well-preserved ruins of the Caliphate city of Medina Azahara outside Cordoba, Spain, and the Aasivissuit-Nipisatan Inuit hunting ground in Greenland.

Another of the additions, which promises to yield more insights into Viking culture in the coming decades, is an area called the The Archaeological Border Complex of Hedeby and the Danevirke in what is now Schleswig, northern Germany, on the Jutland Peninsula. According to Kerstin Schmidt at Deutsche Welle, the Viking settlement of Haithabu, or Hedeby, located at the end of a navigable Baltic Sea inlet, was discovered in 1897 and has been under excavation since 1900. To this day, archeologists are still uncovering new artifacts and data about the people who settled the area between the ninth and eleventh centuries, when it was mostly under Danish control. According to Unesco, though, there are ancient burials and other signs that the harbor was used as far back as the first or second century A.D.

Hedeby wasn’t just any Viking town. It turns out the area near the modern day Danish border was the most significant long-distance trading center in Northern Europe during its heyday, and trade routes from all over Europe and as far away as Byzantium, now Istanbul, converged in the area. Hedeby supported 1,500 to 2,000 full-time inhabitants, besides the boatloads of traders that visited. Fully loaded merchant boats could anchor in the city’s harbor and Viking longboats could stage in the harbor in preparation for raiding season, making it an ideal hub.

But Hedeby isn’t the full story. To secure the city and the southern edge of their kingdom, butting up against the Frankish Kingdom, Danish kings also built the Danevirke, a 20.5 mile-long semi-circular wall to protect Hedeby. While the wall helped for a while, it couldn't save the trading center. The Haithabu Museum points out the city's growing wealth and prize location made it a source of contention. Rival Viking rulers fought for the town and it changed hands often. In 1066, a Slavic army invaded, sacking and burning the town, which was slowly abandoned as the Viking Age ended. Its remaining inhabitants moved to the new nearby city of Schleswig, which exists to this day.

So far, reports Schmidt, despite over a century of digging, archeologists believe they have only uncovered five percent of the Hedeby site, meaning there are lots of discoveries to come. Currently, the museum at Hedeby displays the iron, glass, precious stones and other artifacts found at the location. It also includes seven thatch-roofed buildings reconstructed using Viking methods. During the summer, the site offers demonstrations of Viking ironsmithing, baking, glass-bead-making and other skills.

Becoming a world heritage site is a great honor, but it does not automatically provide any legal protection for Hedeby and Danevirk. Instead, the designation raises the visibility and prestige of the area, which, it’s hoped, will lead to a higher level of protection and preservation. It also makes the site eligible for some financial assistance from Unesco and technical assistance in preservation.

Unesco will vote on several more Heritage sites before its meeting concludes on Wednesday, including the 139 war memorials on the Western Front of World War I in Belgium and France and Zatec, a city in the Czech Republic known as the Town of Hops for its role in producing the critical beer-making flower.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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