Kaupang was a trade centre (called a ’kaupang’) situated at the narrow Kaupang Bay in Viksfjord, five kilometres outside Larvik. Kaupang is considered to be Norway’s first ever town, and it is assumed that in the 9th century about 400 to 600 people lived there. It was founded at the same time as the first Viking raids took place on the British Isles and the continent. In its time the place was probably refereed to as the ’kaupang’ in Skiringssal.
Excavations in the area confirm that Kaupang was established around 800 AD, in a place where there was no previous settlement. The settlement stretches along the shoreline as it was at the time, which was approximately 3.5 meters above where it currently is. At its largest the settlement stretched for 750 meters and reached a breadth varying between 20 and 90 meters. The central parts were organised as lots. The more peripheral parts were more loosely structured, and appear to have served a different purpose, than the central ones. Perhaps they were only in use during certain periods or for certain seasons. The northernmost parts of the area were sometime in the latter half of the 9th century, or at the beginning of the 10th, designated as burial ground.
Kaupang was in use up until 950. At this point the activity ceased, apparently rather quickly, but it seems there was still some activity from the 950s to 970s. Subsequently the area was again covered in forest. Towards the end of the middle ages the majority of it was turned into cultivated land.
Finds from Kaupang
The archaeological finds from Kaupang bear witness to the fact that a number of different craftsmen worked on the site. Melting pots, casting moulds, casting models and some half-finished lead jewellery are remnants of the jewellery casters. Over 120 kg of slag and cinder stem from the ironsmiths ’ workshops. Weaving weights and spinning wheels indicate an extensive production of thread and textiles. Small pieces of amber with cut marks; started and half-finished amber beads, indicate that Kaupang may very well also have harboured an amber smith. Near to a thousand colourful glass beads have been found. Some glass beads containing mistakes, as well as glass sticks and raw glass in the shape of mosaic pieces demonstrate that many of the beads would have been made in situ.
Furthermore, any number of items found at Kaupang tell the story of great trade activity: 10 kg of soap stone, 300 whetstones and 6 kg of raw material intended for making whetstones, indicate there would have been extensive trade with other areas in Norway. Some of the beads travelled far before reaching Kaupang. Archaeologists have found glass beads made in the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. Beads made from semi precious stones called cornelian came from the areas around the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea. Frankish beakers of glass and ceramic tubs from the Rhine area, Denmark and the South Coast of the Baltic Sea also made their way to Kaupang. Several coins have been discovered at the site, first and foremost Frankish and Arabic (Cufic) silver coins. One of the coins is a Roman bronze coin, which would have been an antiquity already at the time of Kaupang.
Why was Kaupang abandoned?
Archaeologists name several reasons why Kaupang apparently was abandoned so quickly, amongst them that the harbour was rendered unusable by a rise in the land and mud blockages, and that they hence had to move elsewhere. Another theory is based on historical and political reasons, which entail that Vestfold was under Danish rule in Merovingian times (about 570 to 800 AD). The foundation of Kaupang would thus have been a result of a Danish initiative around the year 800. There are many indications that this hegemony vanished during the first half of the 10th century, and this could be an important factor in the gradual disappearance of Kaupang. When the Danish hegemony, especially under the rule of King Harald Bluetooth, once again gained ground, the Danes wanted to establish new trade centres in Norway, but this time not at Kaupang. Towards the end of the 10th century, slowly but surely we witness the appearance of towns such as Skien and Oslo, but in these cases we are talking about town formations of a much more organised kind than that of Kaupang.