The emporia of early Viking Age Scandinavia had jetties as key elements of their harbour installations. We have confirmed evidence of these from Kaupang (Norway), Birka (Sweden) and Hedeby (Germany) and the possibility remains their traces will be found at many smaller coastal and lakeside trading sites across Scandinavia and beyond. This evidence unquestionably and directly informed the appearance of jetties in the television show Vikings, both at Kattegat and the unnamed settlement of Harald Fairhair.
The representation of harbour features is one of the more fascinating and detailed dimensions of the coastal settlements in the television show. There are bags used as bumpers to protect the structure from docking ships and a sturdy L-shaped jetty to allow c. 6 ships to be docked at any one time. I’m not aware that we have confirmed the possibility of an L-shaped arrangement. Such details are obviously speculative, including the rudimentary pullies used to assist with the movement of goods on and off ships. I’m sure it is possible to quibble about details but this in general terms seems to be a fair representation of a key component of large trading settlements which allowed them to thrive from the late 8th and early 9th centuries.
What I’m honestly unaware of is any detailed discussion and consideration of jetties by Viking-period archaeologists as more than utilitarian facilities for mooring seagoing vessels and assisting with their loading and unloading without drawing longships up onto the strand.
In the light of the TV show, where the jetty is shown as a point of departure and arrival of raiding expeditions, trading vessels and then also entire armies, perhaps we should give more consideration to their social and ceremonial dimensions. Certainly, Vikings goes far beyond our evidence. Yet, even though clearly fiction and seemingly inventing entire dimensions of what we have no specific evidence for, in doing so it should make us reflect and rethink harbour components beyond the utilitarian. As such, perhaps the way jetties are portrayed in the material world of the TV show offers opens up new vistas of possibility. Just maybe jetties’ had multiple functions and significances for Viking Age people beyond loading and unloading ships of people and goods.
Let me say that again for those who will wilfully misread what I’m saying: I’m not arguing the TV show Vikings is either accurate or inaccurate. Instead, I’m saying Vikings gives us fascinating possibilities to discuss, debate and perhaps discount. Yet in doing so, it takes us on an interesting journey that might make us more attentive to dimensions of Viking-period towns that have received limited attention hitherto. Let me show you what I mean by quickly reviewing some of the different non-economic uses of jetties in the television series.
First, of course, we see it as a space of loading and unloading a host of items, including raided loot, slaves, live animals, food stuffs and other goods. Yet we also encounter the jetty as an important place for greeting dignitaries and elites, turning their embarkation and disembarkation into a ‘march’. (of course, I find it implausible that such arrivals would take place without the approaching ships having first been intercepted at sea and/or challenged by the earl’s officials before alighting their ships).
We also see it as a significant element of departure scenes, as in Season 4 when Ragnar’s army gets a Wardruna send-off. The jetty projects the singer into the water and his voice out over the departing ships.
We also see the jetties perform in the makeshift and inept dimension of the defence of Kattegat when attacked by Jarl Borg: rather than setting Rollo alone at its stem, a dozen archers stationed at its far end could have depleted Borg’s forces massively through flanking fire before they even reached the shoreline. (Of course, in terms of Viking-period communication systems, if your first and only warning of an impending attack is a series of longships heading straight for a trading settlement without first being observed or intercepted hours if not days away from the intended target, then the defenders have already lost!)
Yet the jetties are more than about coming and going in peace and conflict. The jetty seems to have a further significance for performances within the life of the town. For instance, it is packed with townsfolk to listen to Bjorn Ironside’s speech upon the law-rock. Again, I doubt even the loudest of public speakers could have been heard across the water from that distance, but then again, the law-rock is implausibly located for what we know of Viking Age assembly (as I argue in a chapter co-authored with Dr Alex Sanmark in the book Vikings and the Vikings). Likewise, Harald Fairhair gets married to Astrid in front of the jetty at his settlement underneath the suspended bones of a whale (for reasons that are unclear). Jetties are thus depicted as open-air focal points and public gathering places for speeches and performances and even rites of passage.
Then we have the crazy voting for the king of Norway in Season 6, where a bizarre floating circular platform sits out from the jetty at Harald’s settlement. I’m happy to be corrected, but I take this to be the height of fantastical creations for the purposes of the television show; while not based on any sources, it shows again jetties as a focus of gatherings to watch an important assembly and its deliberations. Still, the use of isthmuses and islands for assembly is well attested, as the work of Dr Alex Sanmark has shown.
This use of jetties as ceremonial spaces and assembly places – both set apart and with restricted access, and yet also as stages for many hundreds of potential witnesses on ships, boats and on the land – might relate to the perception of all spaces close to water as ‘liminal’ in spatial and conceptual terms within this fictional world. After all, almost all death rituals in the show take place upon or next to water. It is perhaps hardly surprising, therefore, that jetties are also additionally places of transition between this world and the next. We first see this in the sacrifice of the slave-girl and furnishing of Earl Haraldsson funeral ship. It is then pushed out into the fjord and set alight. Of course, had this been done in the real world, it is likely the burnt carcass of the ship would block access to the jetty for the next generation!
We encounter it again as a key transitional space during Queen Aslaug’s funeral when her craft is set adrift and alight between two jetties.
While not a jetty proper but instead some form of bespoke on-water ceremonial stage, King Ivar creates a bizarre sacrifice over water to execute ‘Lagertha’ tied to a ship’s mast upside down in Season 5.
In Season 6 part 2, however, we see two further striking uses of jetties. First, King Olaf is killed by being burned whilst seated in a chair upon the jetty by Prince Igor. I’m unaware of any precedent from the saga literature for this scene, so I’m guessing it is a mere invention of the show. Indeed, it makes no sense whatsoever to burn someone on a wooden jetty; it would be a public spectacle most certainly, but so would the spectacle of the entire jetty going up in flames impeding access to your settlement for at least a season while the wreckage is cleared and the structure rebuilt! Still, again it shows the repeated use of jetties as places of public ceremony including killings.
Second, the jetty is shown a place for marriage ceremonies and also a point of embarkation to Valhalla. This takes place during the marriage of King Harald to Ingrid and Gunnhild. While Harald’s marriage to Astrid had been on the landward side facing the jetty at his settlement, here at Kattegat the ceremony takes place upon the jetty itself, with its length utilised as a processional approach flanked by warriors. An altar made of an upturned tree stump is set at the end of the jetty and priests surround it. Once they have married Ingrid to Harald, Gunnhild walks down the jetty towards them. However, Gunnhild refuses to be married to Harald at the last moment. Instead, she proclaims herself still married to Bjorn in her heart. She steps up onto the ‘altar’, smiling, and proclaims her departure from this world. She then undresses and swims out into the fjord to her inevitable death. What’s particular odd here is that a mastless longship is positioned docked at the right angle of the jetty behind Gunnhild, and yet she doesn’t seem to jump into it or out of it to reach open water.
As with Lagertha’s funeral, death over water is perceived to be a potential mechanism for an eschatological journey. I’m aware of occasional references to death at sea as a voluntary action (embarking without a properly maintained ship is recorded), yet swimming out to one’s death and to Valhalla seems to be a distinctive and creative touch of the show’s own making and again the jetty is an important part of the action.
In sum, jetties in Vikings conflate many different functions and roles, including those shared by elite residences, assembly places, bridges and burial grounds in this fictional rendition of the 9th century world. In the context of the TV show, the jetties crystallise the maritime nature of the Vikings and their story from the first raids to kingdom formation. Certainly, the fjords provide a dramatic backdrop but also prevents unbridled access to the elite ceremonies taking place, akin to the way Viking scholars have discussed assembly places. Likewise, like discussions of causeways/bridges, points of transition are considered by Viking scholars as ‘liminal’ zones with both socio-political and cosmological import. This idea has never before been applied to jetties to my knowledge. In the show, jetties = elite ‘Viking’ – the raiding, the trading, the warfare, the voyages of exploration. But in terms of the real Viking world of the late 8th to early 11th centuries, is this all just fantasy?
I’ve made clear that most of it seems fictive, and significant numbers of the scenes don’t fully make sense in regard to the evidence we do have (or indeed in their own right). So, should we dismiss this varied set of representations of jetties beyond their utilitarian use as unsubstantiated in the same fashion that archaeologists repeatedly denounce representations of Viking-period horned helmets and ship-cremation over water? Or is this fiction hinting at some real possibilities we have hitherto overlooked as scholars?
If the latter, how might we explore and evaluate potential evidence for the social and ceremonial deployments of jetties in the archaeological record? Is there any chance that, as points of arrival and departure at high-status coastal trading settlements, and as occasional public spaces for gatherings and ceremonies, jetties might have been really perceived as prominent and important architectures in political and social terms as well as economic regards? As a further leap of inference, as mentioned above, might jetties have been perceived – like bridges/causeways are often argued by Norse scholars – as liminal places in the ‘Viking mind’ associated with journeys between worlds?
I don’t have answers, but I would contend they are neither irrelevant nor fantastical lines of thinking; they are legitimate questions we can and should pose inspired by Michael’s Hirst’s fictional world. So, I would contend that Vikings should not be seen as ‘getting this right’ anymore than they ‘get it wrong’ regarding jetties. Instead, the show positively alerts us to the limits of our knowledge and the potential for a particular line of archaeological enquiry regarding the architectures and spaces of Viking-period towns and trading places. My bigger point? TV shows can go far beyond our evidence, and this needn’t always be seen by scholars as a ‘threat’ and ‘spreading misinformation’: sometimes it might offer us opportunities for fruitful debate and fresh enquiry.
Professor Judith Jesch has kindly drawn my attention to these two skaldic poems, one mentioning London’s wharfs, the other a departure scene from a town by ship, each giving allusions to the kinds of scenes represented in Vikings.