After the local government decides to build an observation tower atop a sandy hill in Wolin, an island in the Baltic Sea, a Polish archaeologist is called in to inspect the site before construction and look for buried artifacts from terrible past of that place.
Hangmen’s Hill, a public park, was once a place of execution, a cemetery and, some believe, a place for human sacrifices – so who knows what gruesome discoveries will be made stored?
But what the archaeologist, Wojciech Filipowiak, found when he started to dig caused more excitement than anger: charcoal wood showing the remains of a 10th-century fortress that could help solve a of the great riddles of the Viking Age.
Is the terrifying fortress mentioned in ancient texts a literary fantasy or a historical fact?
It has long been known that Nordic warriors established outposts more than a millennium ago on the Baltic coast of Poland, enslaving native Slavic peoples to supply a thriving slave trade, as well as trade in salt, amber and other commodities.
Unknown, however, is the location of the largest Viking settlement in the area, a town and military fortress that in early 12th-century texts is called Jomsborg and is associated with a possibly mythical mercenary order known as the Jomsvikings.
Some modern scholars believe that Jomsborg is not a real place at all, but a legend passed down and embroidered over the years. The discoveries at Hangmen’s Hill on Wolin Island may change that view.
“This is very exciting,” said Dr. Filipowiak, a Wolin scholar with the archeology and ethnology section of the Polish Academy of Sciences. “This solves a mystery that goes back more than 500 years: Where is Jomsborg?”
Interest in the Vikings, once largely confined to a niche field of academic study, has increased in recent years as television series such as “Game of Thrones,” the movies, graphic novels and video games adopted – and distorted – Norse themes, clothing and symbols. The Viking Age, or at least a rough approximation of it, has become something of a popular culture.
This is good news for Wolin’s tourism business. “Vikings are sexy and attract a lot of interest,” said Ewa Grzybowska, the mayor of Wolin, which includes a town and a wider district on the island with the same name.
But the mayor laments that fewer visitors come to his domain than to a nearby beach resort. He said more money is needed to carry out excavations and develop Wolin as a world-class destination for Viking researchers and amateur enthusiasts.
Pointing from his City Hall window to a square believed to contain a treasure trove of unexcavated early medieval artefacts, he said: “Everywhere you go here, there’s a piece of history. “
That history, however, has always been a source of controversy.
Nazi archaeologists examined Wolin, which was part of Germany until 1945, for evidence of the Viking presence – and for proof of what the Nazis believed to be the superiority of the Nordic race and its dominance in the early period of the Middle Ages by the local Slavic people, who later came to recognize themselves as Poles and claimed the land for Poland.
When Poland took control of Wolin after World War II, Polish archaeologists looked for things that would improve their country’s hold on former German lands and help strengthen a sense of national identity.
Schools in Wolin reenacted Viking raids on Poland’s Baltic coast and, in the decades after World War II, “more and more children wanted to be Slavs defending the island,” said Karolina Kokora, director of Wolin’s history museum.
That changed after Poland rejected communism and began to turn to the West, away from Russia and its emphasis on Slavic pride. “After 1989, everyone wanted to be a Viking,” recalled Ms. Kokora.
Public interest in the Vikings has also led to a surge in amateur historical observation.
Among them is Marek Kryda, a Polish American amateur historian and author of a polemical 2019 book that denounces Polish archeology as a morass of ethnic chauvinism that is often blind to the role the Vikings played in its early formation. in Poland.
Mr. Kryda sparked a storm of controversy last summer in Poland after he announced to The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, that he had found the probable grave of Harald Bluetooth, the historic Danish Viking. the king who used to rule this place.
The consensus view among historians is that Harald probably died in the region at the end of the 10th century but was buried in Denmark.
Mr. Marek said he had located Harald’s probable grave in Wiejkowo, a small village inland from Wolin, by using satellite imaging. Dr. rejected that. Filipino “pseudoscience.”
The anger over where Harald Bluetooth was buried made the Viking king – celebrated as a unifier of warring Nordic fiefs and the inspiration for the name of a wireless technology designed to connect devices – an agent in noisy division.
Ms. Grzybowska, the mayor, said she was not qualified to judge whether Harald was buried in her district but added that she would be happy if it was true. “It will add special grandeur and magnificence to our island,” he said.
The district of Ms. Grzybowska has a Slavs and Viking Village, with wooden huts and a stone inscribed with runes celebrating Harald Bluetooth. But they are modern forgeries — representations of a distant Viking past that excite the imagination but are difficult to pin down with certainty despite decades of digging by archaeologists looking for traces in Jomsborg.
Ms. Kokora, the museum’s director, describes the elusive 10th-century settlement as a “medieval New York of the Baltic” – a trading entrepôt with a mixed population of Vikings, Germanic peoples and Slavs – which mysteriously disappeared from the map, leaving only traces of its existence in ancient texts.
It is said to have thousands of inhabitants, a fortress and a long harbor to accommodate the Viking ships that sailed to and from Scandinavia and as far as North America. Traces of enslaved Slavs sold on the Baltic coast in the first millennium have been found thousands of miles away in Morocco.
Sifting through shards of excavated pottery on a cluttered table in her museum, Ms. Kokora says the Vikings didn’t bother making pots much and weren’t very good at it. “They just took it from the Slavs,” he said.
In the 1930s, German archaeologists, eager to challenge Polish claims that the area was originally settled by a majority of Slavs, excavated a mound on the opposite side of town from the Hangmen’s Hill in the hope of finding traces of Jomsborg – and proof that the Scandinavians, an important pillar of the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy, were the first there. They found some artifacts but no evidence of a Viking fort.
Parts of Hangmen’s Hill were excavated before Dr. Filipowiak to dig, but not the place chosen for construction. The archaeologist said his surprising find of what he thought could be Jomsborg’s 10th-century fortress wall still needed further analysis, but he believed there was “80 percent certainty” that it was the site.
The debate about Jomsborg’s location – or whether it actually exists – “is a long discussion,” said Dr. Filipowiak. “Hopefully, I can help end this.”