Harald I, also known as Harald Bluetooth, of Denmark spent a great deal of time flexing his autocratic muscles. Nowhere is his desire to demonstrate his power more evident than in the archaeological remains of massive circular forts, according to a new study. The study author, Jens Ulriksen, has proposed the fortifications were less functional than symbolic, to warn would-be usurpers that the king could crush them at will.
During his 30 year reign, Harald Bluetooth commissioned construction projects across his kingdom, including a giant palisade in Jelling, a 760 meter-long bridge (the longest in Scandinavia at the time), and a considerable extension to the Danevirke, a defensive wall on the southern border of the Jutland Peninsula.
His most remarkable building achievement may have been the iconic circular forts scattered across Denmark. At least five have been uncovered in modern times, and they are comparable in size to modern sports stadiums. The five forts currently under archeological study are:
- Borgring, near Køge
- Trelleborg, near Slagelse
- Aggersborg, the largest, near Aggersund
- Fyrkat, near Hobro
- Nonnebakken, in Odense
A Propaganda Machine?
Jens Ulriksen, a researcher at the Museum of South-East Denmark (Museum Sydøstdanmark), has been leading excavations of the fort at Borgring for the past four years. The fort was discovered near Køge in 2014 and is today the most famous of the five. It is thought to have been built in the middle of his reign. In a recent lecture, Ulriksen proposed Harald had constructed the fort with a specific goal in mind: to promote himself and the legitimacy of his reign to the surrounding area. More simply, Ulriksen’s theory suggests Harald spent lavishly on his forts for propaganda, not actual defense.
“What is striking is that they are all connected to important road corridors, that is, roads that have been in common use for centuries, and I think there was a clear plan behind that,” Jens Ulriksen explained in a recent interview for Videnskab DK, about his work.
Ulriksen’s theory rests on an important historical theme: Harald was the first Christian king of Denmark, and his subjects were not all on his side. To prove himself, and to dissuade unrest, he had to make ostentatious displays of power, particularly for local lords to see. The placement of the fortresses is not random, either. Each appears to have been built at strategic choke points for trade routes between the country’s largest settlements of the time. If they weren’t there to control trade, they indeed were a strong message to the rest of the aristocracy.
“As a reminder of the king to all those who traveled, to say that it was a new era with a new faith and a new king,” Ulriksen explains. He firmly believes that the forts were built to be as visible as possible to remind passersby who was king, even if the king himself was not there. His theory stands in contrast to other archaeologists who have suggested the fortresses were instead built to fend off attacks and to provide the king with greater mobility to squash rebellions.
Asserting Christianity as the Ruling Authority in Denmark
“Of course, it was impossible at the time to see the fortresses from above. But do you know who could?” Ulriksen muses. “God could.”
The problem Harald had initially was that there were many important men across the country interested in the role of decision-maker and ready to challenge anyone with the audacity to proclaim himself king. Most kings before Harald fought incessantly with the ruling class, which impacted their reigns. In addition, Harald Bluetooth was the first ruler to launch a conversion of his people to Christianity. Denmark was not yet entirely Christian when he ascended to the throne.
The size of the circular forts varies, but their design is nearly identical. Their strict geometric layout — 4 openings distributed to four opposing points, or exactly 90 degrees from each other— form a cross inside a wheel when viewed from above. “Of course, it was impossible at the time to see the fortresses from above. But do you know who could?” Ulriksen muses. “God could.”
The Changing Face of the Forts
Jens Ulriksen has turned quite a few heads for his new theory. At a recent conference, his talk, based on work that had not at the time been published, received positive acclaim. Included among those who find the theory plausible, the archaeologist Mads Runge, chief inspector of the Odense City Museum, said: “Jens’ ideas are fascinating because he deploys a bundle of perspectives and places the fortresses in a broader context. This is a new way to look at these sites.” Runge’s own research investigates the concentration of power that took place in Denmark from the Iron Age to the beginning of the Middle Ages. He acknowledges that Jens’ research could prove useful for his.