Danish Archaeology

Ancient Cult of the Viking Kings

Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?

The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.

‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.

A large part of the rolling countryside around the hamlet of Lejre, near the cathedral town of Roskilde, an area which abounds in ancient burial mounds and Viking stone tombs, has been designated as an archaeological site.

Here, archaeologists have been excavating since 1986 in the hope of finding the ancient seat of Denmark’s first Viking kings. The sagas say that Leje was the chief city of Denmark’s first Viking royal family – the Skjold, or in English ‘Scylding’ dynasty – dating back to around AD 400-500. Nordic myths tell us that King Skjold, which means ‘shield’ in Danish, was so named because he made his first mysterious appearance asleep in a boat, lying on his shield.

The Scylding dynasty lasted at least a century, through Skjold’s successors Halfdan, Roar, Helge and Rolf Krake. The oldest known reference to the dynasty’s heroic and bloody exploits is in the eighth century Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’, often called the first major work of English literature.

Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.

Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.

The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.

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