On a hillside above Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city, hundreds of stones poke out from the parched green slope. From a distance they look disorganised, scattered like erratic boulders left by a long-melted glacier. But get nearer and their man-made settings come into focus. Some of the rocks form triangles and squares, others are oval and ship-shaped with two larger stones at each end. The clue to their existence lies in the latter. Vikings believed death was a voyage into the unknown and buried their loved ones in graves shaped likes ships to help them sail on to this mysterious destination.
In the 1950s archaeologists began excavating the area known as Lindholm Høje (meaning small hills of Lindholm, a suburb of Aalborg). Until then it had been blanketed by four metres of sand, gradually built up over 1000 years. Their steady digging uncovered the largest Viking cemetery in Scandinavia, and parts of two neighbouring settlements. Between the villages and the 700 graves, the site spans the entire Viking Age from the fifth century to the turn of the millennium.
While the drifts of sand helped preserve the graves, the Viking’s habit of cremating their dead meant there wasn’t a lot else left behind. The few possessions that survived are on display at the nearby Lindholm Høje Museet, alongside model villages, illustrations and text that builds a vivid picture of life at the settlement.
Particularly interesting is the revelation that the graves are gendered. Because the plaited ones believed death was a journey they, very sensibly, packed off their dead fully clothed, with items they thought might be of use. In the graves shaped like boats and triangles, archaeologists found buckles and weapons, presumably belonging to men, and in the square and oval-shaped graves, they dug up pearls and combs thought to be buried with the women. Quite how the Vikings thought their deceased were going to get anywhere fast in a square, oval or triangle though, is anyone’s guess.
While there are many reasons one would choose to settle in the capital of northern Jutland these days, not least the proximity to the Akvavit (Danish schnapps) distillery and Jomfru Ana Garde, Denmark’s most famous party street, the Vikings had different motivations for making Aalborg their base. Rising 42 metres above sea level, Lindholm Høje gave them a perfect lookout over the Limfjord, vital for guarding against the water-bound advancement of uninvited guests. Positioned at the narrowest point of the fjord that separates Jutland from the mainland, Aalborg was also the best place for crossing between the two and setting off for the North Sea to conquer surrounding lands.
Being high up, the soil was dryer than the surrounding low-lying area which was good for farming, but this lack of moisture eventually backfired. As they felled the forests for building wells, houses, roads and ships the land became exposed to the vicious westerly wind. The soil was ruined and eventually lost under a layer of sand from the western coast.
The Vikings upped ships and left, leaving their dead to weather the elements. This they did rather better than expected thanks to the relentless sand. And now, returning the favour for those who founded their city, the people of Aalborg take good care of their heritage. Happily they realise this doesn’t mean cordoning it off Stonehenge-style. At Lindholm Høje you can wander the ancient cemetery touching the stones and surveying the fjord, drifting back a 1000 years to a time when the Danish nation was just taking shape.