Birka spooking

Matts Dreijer's vision of Kvarnbo as Birka. From Dreijer 1988

Matts Dreijer’s vision of Kvarnbo as Birka with the earthern wall surrounding the St. Maria church of Saltvik and the black cultural layer around it. From Dreijer 1988

“Viking Age trading place Birka was located in Saltvik, Åland, not on Björkö in the Swedish lake Mälaren” – this was the conclusion that made Matts Dreijer into a scandalous figure among Fennoscandian archaeologists. And guess where he placed this trading place? 😉 – yes, at Kvarnbo! Dreijer worked hard in order to argue for Kvarnbo on Åland being Birka, the important trading center which handled goods from Scandinavia as well as Central and Eastern Europe and the Orient. Building up his narrative, Dreijer’s starting point was the absence of early Christian graves on Åland (that are otherwise common in the Late Iron Age cemeteries in the Baltic Sea region) together with the written text called Vita Ansgari (The life of Ansgar) describing the missionary work of Ansgar around 830 AD at Birka, the first known Christian congregation site. And, long story short, putting these two things together, Dreijer concluded that Åland was the first territory to be Christianized in this part of the Baltic Sea region and a bridgehead for Christianizing the surrounding areas. Kvarnbo as Birka emerges from the archaeological point of view owing to the thick cultural layer with Viking Age finds documented not only around the church, but also underneath it, without direct parallels around other churches on Åland. Also, thanks to postholes documented under the floor of the church indicating a wooden building before the stone church was built. A find of a continental silver coin from the 11th century (the only continental coin found on Åland belonging to the late Viking Age and early medieval times) and a small lead cross from the same, wooden-building-before-the-stone-church context were lifted in the argument as well. Dreijer also saw a crescent-shaped earthen wall surrounding the church and the area with the black cultural layer.

Dreijer’s writings in general are very assertive; he just draws conclusions telling us “how it actually was” without really discussing any other possibilities and/or explanations, there isn’t much source-criticism in his work. And in many cases it makes it difficult to distinguish which parts of Dreijer’s narratives are actually based on facts and which ones constitute his own opinion. Dreijer’s love for Åland, however, is salient in his work and there is no doubt that his historical interpretations were often motivated by some kind of nation building – in order to advocate the Ålandic, to prove the existence of grand heritage was considered a necessity. Such political dimension in the academic work would be outrageous and not accepted in today’s archaeology, but when the provincial government on Åland appointed Dreijer as an archaeologist during the inter-war period, according to Dreijer’s autobiography published in 1984, it was done with the deliberate aim of protecting the island’s autonomy by strengthening the Ålandic identity (!)

I am definitely not placing Viking Age trading place Birka to Åland, but there is a number of intriguing aspects and a growing amount of evidence supporting the hypothesis of Kvarnbo in Saltvik being a place of not a very ordinary character, to say the least. The results of the metal detecting survey constitute a piece in solving this puzzle and very shortly I will present the finds that will explain, why I found it enthralling to introduce Dreijer’s conclusions 😉

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