Centrality and growth on Funen in the Late Iron Age and Viking Periode: Project Description

A characteristic feature of social organisation and political structure in the Late Iron Age and Viking period (c. AD 200-1050) are sites with central functions with respect to power, trade, crafts and religious and judicial practices. There are several important questions relative to these places: What determined the localisation of the individual sites? What was the nature of the internal structure and dynamics between them? What effect(s) did central places have on the surrounding agrarian settlement – and can they be seen as catalysts for growth in general?

Via a combination of growth pole and cluster theory, the aim is to carry out a diachronous and geographically-based analysis of central places and agrarian settlements. Central-place research and settlement archaeology will thereby be combined into a synthesis on the development of growth areas, and a new model for central-place dynamics and interaction will be developed.


The aim of the project
The project has the aim of developing a general model which, on a new theoretical foundation, explains both central-place dynamics and growth as well as interactions between central places and their local surroundings in a Southern Scandinavian context.

The work has its point of departure in the observation that central places display an uneven distribution. The fundamental question is what determines these geographic centres of gravity with respect to central places and growth in general? In direct continuation of this is the question of the nature of the internal structure of, and dynamics between, these central places and how they interact with the agrarian settlement in the surrounding areas.

The development of a new central-place model is crucial to the formulation of theories on political structure and organisational power in the Late Iron Age and Viking period. The project’s examination of the interaction between central and agrarian settlement strata will provide a basis for a unified view of the economic development of the period and the effect that central places and agrarian settlements had on each other, both internally and externally. This will accommodate the need for cohesion between central-place studies and settlement archaeology (cf. Widgren 1998; Fabech 1999; Becker 2005). The diachronic approach will also provide a foundation for the dynamic processes that led up to the early urbanisation and will, furthermore, contribute to a historical perspective on the development and decline of growth areas and periphery.


In the 1980s, a new type of metal-rich sites, dating from the Late Iron Age and Viking period, began to enter the archaeological record. These newly-discovered sites differed markedly from the other agrarian settlements of the period in their richness in finds and their evidence of chieftain’s residences, crafts, trade and religion. The expression ‘central place’ was introduced as a catch-all term for a relatively broad range of South Scandinavian sites with significant functions relative to social cohesion in terms of administrative, social and spiritual matters (e.g. Näsman 1991a, 1991b; Fabech & Ringtved 1995; Skre 2007).

Elements of cult and religion appear to be general characteristics of archaeological central places and the importance of these elements, are supported to a great extent by place-name evidence. Gudme is one of the places where this is most clearly reflected in both the archaeological record and the place names evident in the surrounding area (Fabech 1994; Brink 1999; Hedeager 2002; Helgesson 2002; Skre 2007: Christensen 2010; Jørgensen 2011). However, on the basis of both the empirical evidence and the Old Norse sources there are good grounds to see economic and political power, judicial practice, religion, trade and crafts as related and mutually complementary elements in (late) pre-Christian society (Hedeager 2002). Power constituted the unifying link between the central elements and, as power is based on the concentration and redistribution of resources (Näsman 1997, 2006), economic factors must be seen as relevant to several aspects of centrality.

Theories on central-place complexes have provided an explanatory model for concentrations of sites with central functions located within delimited areas. These are seen as expressions of cohesive structures with central functions distributed across a number of locations within the core area of a district (bygd) and under collective leadership (Näsman 1991a; Brink 1999; Fabech 1999). This phenomenon has been variously interpreted as an imitation or a Nordic interpretation of the Roman urban phenomenon (Andrén 1998; Fabech 1999) and as constructed models based on pre-Christian cosmology, with a conscious organisation of central (and mythical) elements in the physical landscape (Hedeager 2002, 2011). Theories on central-place complexes provide a fairly adequate explanation for small geographic concentrations of central places, but they are unable to explain large geographic centres of gravity. Similarly, they do not address the dynamics of central places and their relationship with agrarian settlements in the surrounding area.

A fundamental point is that central places cannot, either on an economic basis, the division and specialisation of labour or the size and density of the population, be classified as actual towns. Nevertheless, their concentration of central functions and evident partial or periodic specialisation are phenomena which tend towards elements in the urbanisation process (cf. Hohenberg & Lees 1985). However, far from all central places developed into medieval towns. On the contrary, the evidence reflects differentiated development: some gradually declined while others developed into manors, parish towns and modern market towns.

Walter Christaller’s economic theory on central places in 1930s Germany (Christaller 1968) has been used for decades in archaeological central-place research as a general explanatory framework. His theory has also, with good reason, been given a significant role with respect to an understanding of the term centrality and as a foundation for a function-based definition of ‘central place’. A problematic element of Christaller’s theory is, however, the statistical nature of his models. These virtually exclude dynamic situations and therefore do not offer a useable theoretical explanatory framework for the origin, development and decline of central places.

As a consequence of the huge increase in empirical evidence seen in recent years, a need has arisen to couple fundamental theorisation with a dynamic perspective in order to investigate how central places develop within a region and the effects that central places and the surrounding agrarian settlement have on each other. This would make it possible to uncover how centrality and growth are catalysed and, as a consequence, how places of power arise and develop and how they interact, both internally and with the surrounding settlements.


Empirical data, method and theory
The island of Funen constitutes the geographic framework for the project’s empirical analyses. It is well-suited to the purpose due to an extensive archaeological record for the period which is accessible, well-documented and can be subjected to operational classification and dating frameworks. Furthermore, Funen’s archaeological record contains numerous finds and localities of a central character. Among these is Gudme, which occupies a pivotal role in North European research into central places. The study area is geographically well-delimited and is of an appropriate size with respect to the general significance of the results of the analyses and feasibility of the project’s execution. Data from most archaeological investigations on Funen are also available in digital form and this makes it possible to process large quantities of data within a realistic time frame. Relevant sorted datasets, which can be directly reused in the present project, are also available from two current research projects examining, respectively, hoards from the period AD 200-1050 and agrarian settlement during the period AD 200-1200 (Henriksen 2009; Hansen in progress).

The present study will begin with collation and classification of the archaeological data from the Late Iron Age and Viking period. The data will be mapped digitally and localities with indicators relevant to central places (cf. Helgesson 2002, 2008) will be plotted on a separate map layer. This will result in two general maps of the archaeological record, illustrating respectively central places and agrarian settlements. With the data grouped into fixed dating frameworks and with defined categories of central-place functions, these separate map layers will make it possible to investigate the dynamics and growth in the area.

As a supplement to the archaeological mapping, place-name evidence indicating centrality will also be drawn upon. Place names can reveal central-place-relevant functions, for example the name Odense, which reflects a pre-Christian shrine dedicated to Odin, and the name Salby, which reflects a chieftain’s settlement or hall (sal) (Christensen 2010). Mapping of central-place-related place names can supplement the archaeological record and the combined archaeological and onomastic evidence will provide the broadest possible picture of central places on Funen during the relevant period.

The development of theoretical models for the description of central-place dynamics and forms of interaction will be based on the empirical evidence coupled with selected economic theories. Elements of cluster and growth pole theory are particularly well-suited to studies of instability and dynamics. Even though both theories were developed as explanatory frameworks for societal and market economy-related matters, they address such fundamental elements of centrality, growth and forms of interaction that they can be ascribed general relevance and, consequently, also explain dynamic processes in past societies.

Cluster theory emphasise cumulative interaction within a cluster: A cluster is defined as a concentration of units and institutions within a particular area and can encompass economic, sociological, geographic and political aspects (Madsen 2004). Models for these processes can fittingly be used as an explanatory framework for the development of centrality within geographically delimited areas in late prehistoric times.

Growth pole theory is primarily associated with the French economist Francois Perroux (Perroux 1950). Definition of growth centres, causal explanations for development and polarisation and description of the interaction between places of production are pivotal to the present project; these are taken from Perroux and more recent growth pole theory.

A fundamental distinction is made between growth and centrality, as these are seen as two theoretically independent factors, despite their frequent coincidence (Parr 1981). Growth can influence both central places and the agrarian settlement in a region. The crucial aspect of growth is that a place or an area has developed more favourably than the general level prevailing in the local area. This could be in terms of the size of an individual settlement or the settlement density in an area, number of functions present, technological development and development in agrarian practices, material wealth etc. Distinguishing between growth and centrality makes it possible to record growth within a region, both in the agrarian-settlement and the central-place map layers. Consequently, the growth analyses in these two layers can be coupled together to give a collective analysis which makes it possible to examine growth from a diachronous perspective. Growth areas can be identified and detailed analyses can be carried out of the central places and their surrounding areas. This diachronous perspective makes it possible to analyse interactions and directions of stimulation between the sites/places and thereby also relations and interactions between central places and the surrounding area. On this basis, results derived from central-place research and settlement archaeology can be combined to provide a synthesis with respect to the development of growth areas and interactions between the society’s agrarian settlement and central places. Account is taken of the differentiated causal factors with respect to location.


Publication and dissemination
The empirical data will be disseminated and made available via Historisk Atlas (http://historiskatlas.dk/), which is regularly maintained and updated.

The project will regularly be presented, both nationally and internationally, via papers given to conferences and seminars. It is important that the research is presented in research environments involving archaeologists, historians and place-name scholars.

The work will culminate in an English manuscript for a peer-reviewed monograph to be published by a Scandinavian university publisher.



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