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Kyrksundet in Hitis, SW Finland.

By Torsten Edgren


A Viking Age resting place and trading post on the sailing route to the East. 

One of the oldest written sources dealing with the archipelago in south-western Finland is a description of a sailing route, generally referred to as "the Danish itinerary". The manuscript is part of the Codex ex Holmiensis A 41, also called "King Waldemars land register", Liber census daniae, a Latin copy, which describes the route from Utlängan in south-eastern Blekinge along the east coast of Sweden up to Arnholm in Roslagen, from there over Åland's sea to Lemböte near Mariehamn, and further on via Föglö, Kökar, Aspö and  Hangö (Hangethe), the southernmost point of Mainland Finland. From there you could cross The Gulf of Finland by sailing directly or via Porkala Peninsula further to the east to "Raeuelburgh", that means Tallinn in Estonia.  

Despite its name, the itinerary is, however, not a true description of a route which contains sufficiently precise information about distances and directions that could be used in problem-free navigating. It rather provides an account of the general route through the outer archipelago and register resting places and harbours which were available during early medieval times. People travelled during the day in the shelter of the wide, and as far as navigating is concerned, rather complicated archipelago and overnighted in sheltered harbours. During stormy days and in bad weather conditions the stay could be extended for several days. 

It has also been stressed that the Itinerary enumerates inhabited places where the Fransiscans were in action. The dating of the document seams to be early 14th Century. 

However, it can be noted that most of the areas referred to in the itinerary, were good harbours for the relatively small shallow and easily navigable ships of those days. In some of these harbours chapels where you could pray and, if necessary, be buried, were later erected by early missionaries. Towards the end of the 14th Century only few of the resting places were replaced by real harbours which could accommodate larger and more deep going cargo vessels, most of them were forgotten. At the same time some of the routes were changed to deeper waters. 

Archaeological investigations related to the itinerary have earlier  been carried out only in exceptional cases at the end of  the 1930-ties, the research activities in connection with the harbours of Finland in the Viking and the Middle Ages being more concentrated on historical sources and studies related to place names. The only exceptions of extensive research are those carried out by Kenneth Gustavsson on Hamnö in Kökar on the Åland Islands- one of  the places mentioned in the itinerary - and my own excavations in the 1970-ties on the island of Jurmo, which is also referred to in the itinerary and on Högholmen in Hitis, a little fortified island site close to Kyrksundet.


Kyrksundet in Hitis 

According to the itinerary there is in other words a reference to a place called Örsund being situated between Aspö and Hangö. Such a name is not amongst those currently used. It can however clearly be demonstrated that Örsund refers to Kyrksundet in Hitis, a place which appears in written sources for the first time in August 1347 when the Swedish king Magnus Eriksson visited the place on a trip to Finland. He signed two letters in ”Kirkiusundz”.  The place name Kyrksundet was not restricted only to the narrow sound and the bay between the islands Rosala and Hitis, but covers a larger area called Kyrkosundsskär, nowadays  the parish of Dragsfjärd. It is obvious that King Magnus visited Högholmen outside the village of Hitis where you can find jetties dated by dendrochronology to the 14th Century. 


The Chapel 

At Kyrksundet in Hitis there are some remains of a rejected chapel, visited already in 1871 by early antiquarians. The area was investigated in 1938 and 1939 and also 1993 - 1997. The chapel is surrounded by a 35 x 30 m stone wall. Between the chapel and the surrounding wall several graves has been excavated.  The find material consist mainly of coins - some  50  are found -. which well correlates with the history of settlement and trade in the area. The oldest graves so far can by radiocarbon be dated to the second half of the 12th Century. The chapel was abandoned in the beginning of the 17th century and a new church was erected in the village of Hitis in 1637. 


"The Viking Age harbour or resting place" at Kyrksundet 

In 1990 a collection of Viking Age items was discovered with a metal detector in the immediate neighborhood of the chapel ruins, dating the resting place / harbour of the itinerary already to the Viking Age. Excavations, although only on a limited scale, have been carried out during the summers 1992 – 1997, but only some 400 m2 of perhaps 40 000 m2  have up to now been excavated. Prospecting of the area with metal detector indicates, that there are thinly but clear signs of human activity along the northern shore of the sound along a stretch of at least some 550 m, but no building constructions, not even simple pit houses, have been observed. Pottery is rare on the site. A fragment from a rough clay pot comes from a Slavic or Vendish pot imported in the 12th Century or even earlier from the south coast of the Baltic sea. Some pots of the same type are found on the sea bottom near Purunpää a few miles further to the north. Underwater archaeological investigations in Kyrksundet shows that there are no remains of posts and jetties.  This fact can be of chronological significance in that they are also absent from the Viking age harbours of Gotland - the so called "lagoon" harbours of which Paviken is a good example 

The only indication so far of people living on the site  is a very dark and soothy culture layer found in 1995 at a distance of 150 m from the chapel  It was situated in a low concavity in the rock and covered some 25-30 square meters. It can best  be interpreted as the remains of a workshop. The finds includes bronze bars and scrap metal for casting , a matrise of slate for the production of thin ornamented metal folios, raw glass, glass and mosaic beads, small whetstones, a spinning whorl of clay, amber, iron ship rivets and small pieces of silver probably for the production of jewellery. The majority of these pieces are tiny fragments of silver coins, mostly Anglo - Saxon  struck during the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016) or German like Otto Adelheid pennies (983-1040) or frisian minted by Bishop Konrad I (1076-99) in Deventer and Egbert II (1068-90) in Dokkum just to name some examples. The workshop seems to have been in operation at the end of the 11th Century. As there are more examples on bronze casting among the finds from Kyrksundet it is obvious, that bronze technology was an important activity for the people living  on the site. Casting moulds have so far not been found. 

A large number of metal objects have been found during the investigations in Kyrksundet, the majority of them being collected in connection with a systematic prospecting of the area east of the chapel ruins  with a metal detector. It has been possible to localize and collect bronze items, which may otherwise not have been noticed in the rough and very hard packed moraine. This applies, for example, to small droplets of bronze, originating from casting, and to the small pieces of silver coins from the workshop. Despite the rather systematic prospecting, our knowledge of some of the important parts of the area is still limited. 

Of the coins collected on the site outside the workshop mention should be made of fragments of half a dozen of Samanid dirhems. Of these coins the oldest is struck in North Africa already in the 8th Century, two were minted by Ismail ibn Ahmad in Andaraba (892-908), while a third is an imitation of a Tashkent struck dirhem, probably from the Volga-bolgarers area and dated to the 10th century, all well known types from Finnish and Scandinavian Viking age hoards. There are also German coins, minted by Otto III during his caesar period (996-1002) as well as some German Sachsenpfennig from the end of the 10th  Century. Some Anglo-Saxon coins are also present. In a similar manner to the above-mentioned coins being connected with trading, there are also more then twenty loads or weights which were found scattered around the area. The material includes both small polyeder-shaped weights of bronze and iron weights with and without bronze covers and all kind of dots marking their weight. Included in this category of finds related with trade is a gold and silver plated philigree bead of bronze. 

Among the finds of personal ornaments are several penannular brooches of bronze, some of them of  rare Gotlandic types, and a bracelet with long thin outdrawn ends and a lancet-shaped plate decorated with circles, of a type which appears in central Sweden, while a large ring brooch or pin actually represents a western Scandinavian form. Three bronze key shafts, of a shape which has been found e.g. in Birka  in Central Sweden, but most frequently in 10th Century graves on Gotland  are of special interest and unique in Finland, while a key-shaped pendant with attached chain has a counterpart among finds from the Province of Häme. This pendant represents a domestic type. A small bronze fragment originates from the outer surface of a Scandinavian oval-shaped brooch, a trefoil brooch is Scandinavian too as is a fragment of a guilt ringed pin, while a comb-shaped chain divider and a comb-shaped pendant with tin ornamentation represents Baltic and domestic forms. A west Finnish round convex broche of Appelgrens type B belonging to the woman's dress can be dated to the beginning of the 9th Century. It was found hidden between two boulders together with bronze spirals from a belt. 

The iron objects are usually badly corroded except for a heavy axe typical for the Viking age and our knowledge on the use of iron and iron production on the site is therefore sparse. Also Iron slag is nearly unknown on the site. A well preserved  sword of Petersens type H/I with a magnificent pommel with silver inlays  has however been found. 

Regarding the jewellery, it can be noticed that several fragments from heavy bronze bracelets have been chopped with a chisel to return them to raw material; they have in other words been recycled. If they had been collected from a Finnish cremation flat cemetery, of which we have examples from elsewhere, they should have a patina caused by fire. As this is, however, not the case, they must come from inhumation graves or, more likely, from military looting expeditions carried out to northern Estonia. Several bracelets represent Estonian types. In addition to scrap bronze, the material contains several bronze bars of Viking age type.  


Harbour, trading place or outer archipelago settlement    

The majority of the above-mentioned archaeological artifacts can be dated to 800-1100, which indicates that Kyrksundet was frequently visited long before the first chapel was erected at he site and long before the route was described in the Itinerary.   

It is obvious that the site which still lacks a typical culture layer and distinct man made structures is more complex than was originally thought. It seems for instance that some archaeological observations can shed new light on the interesting question of the origin of the place name Hitis, derived from the the Finnish word hiisi, which refers to an "offering site" or "holy grove" and is an example of the many Finnish place names found in the archipelago of Finland Proper. In the center of the site and close to some large boulders, a sword, a spear, a chain-holder broken into pieces,  the already mentioned Finnish convex round brooch and a dress pin decorated with a bulls head were found. The ornaments were discovered in only slightly coloured - but not sooty - soil several meters from each other, whilst the weapons lay in an area of perfectly clean sand. As no burned or unburned bones were found to indicate that a body was buried there, none of the objects can be said to originate from a grave. The round brooch seems moreover to have been bound with a thread ornamented with bronze spirals and then hidden under a stone slab. These objects can perhaps be interpreted as gifts to the Hiisi, one of the gods of the forest according to Mikael Agricola in his list of old Finnish heathen gods included in the first translation of the bible into Finnish in 1542 - "Hiisi Metzeleist soi woiton" which means "Hiisi was the one to provide game". It is obvious that the site at Kyrksundet  already in the 9th Century had religious in addition to mercantile significance. 

One should also recall that in the sagas of both Njál and St Olav the coastline of Southern Finland is called "Balagårdssidan". The name obviously refers to the custom of lightning fires on high rocks to warn the population against the Vikings attack. 

In the saga of St.Olav you can read how Olav sailed to Finland after returning from a plundering expedition to Eysyssla (Saaremaa, Ösel in swed.,in Estonia): 


Then he sailed to Finland, went ashore and embarked on destruction, but all the inhabitants escaped in the forest, taking along with them all their belongings from the area. The king went far inland and through some forests: there were some valley district called Herdalar. They took some property but captured no men. At dusk the king returned to the ships. But when they entered the forest, people gathered from all directions to meet them, they were shot at and severely harassed. The king told his men to seek shelter, but before he found his way out of the forest he had lost many men and many more were injured. He reached the ships in the evening. At night the Finns raised a storm in the sea with their spells. But the king ordered the anchors to be weighed and set the sails; they tacked along the shoreline in the night. The king´s good luck was then, as often, more effective than the spells of the Finns. During the night they managed to tack along the coast of Balagård and out to sea. But the Finnish troops followed by land as the king sailed along the coast


If one consider that the archipelago is ecologically one of the most productive zones of the country, with excellent shore pastures, waters teeming with fish and possibilities for seal hunting, it is natural that the inhabitants of the coast and the inner archipelago made the most of these resources, at least on a seasonal basis. The silver coins and weights indicate that people also traded,  and the many examples of bronze casting indicate that there were also craftsmen present. If one consider that the sailing season after all is rather short - maybe from early May to mid October - it appears likely that living in Hitis was tied to the seasons.  In such a case one can assume that Kyrksundet was inhabited by people from iron age farms to the north in Halikko, Kemiö and Bjärnå, who during the summer moved south to the eastern route and traded with travellers and benefited from the favourable economical conditions of that time. This trade was more international during the 11th and 12th centuries than in previous centuries as reflected in the rich grave finds from those regions. Gradually there was a need for more permanent facilities for the travellers which led to a more stabile settlement. The spinning whorl clearly indicates that also women were present on the Kyrksundet -site. 

The examples of bronze casting mentioned above, together with the important workshop find, suggest that itinerant craftsmen gradually established themselves in the vicinity of the sound, thereby giving the settlement a more permanent character. This led also to the need of a cemetery, which was established in the same location where the medieval chapel was later raised. It is not impossible that these events might reflect the first stages of that Swedish colonization of the southwest Finnish coast which came to dominate the following decades. On the other hand, immigrants and transients from all directions may have gradually formed the basis of a multiethnic population as happened for instance in Staraja Ladoga. 

An important find related to the settlement in Hitis is a  find of a fragment of a Scandinavian rune stone, the only so far found in Finland. The ornamented stone was found in a sheltered bay but despite underwater archaeological prospecting on the find spot it is still an open question how it got there. It is not out of question that the stone may have belonged to a ships ballast. Of the fragmentary text you only can reed a mans name torfast.  

There are good reasons to believe that most of the Scandinavian seafarers on their way to Gårdarike, Aldeigjuborg,  Holmgård, and the big Russian rivers leading to Miklagård and the eastern Mediterranian world used the route described, spent a day or two in the harbour of Kyrksundet and left all kind of trading goods behind them. But on the contrary there are only few finds of eastern origin in Kyrksundet. Perhaps the seafarers found it wise to take an outer route on their way home, just to avoid looting Finns and save their luxury goods for their people at home. On the other hand it is a common trend that the eastern trade gradually diminished in the 11th Century. 

According to historical sources, the interaction between the outer archipelago and the settlement located in the protected bays of the mainland further to the north continued into the 17th Century, when people from Halikko seined for Baltic herring on the islands west of Hitis. As we can see  this interaction has ancient roots. 

The fluorishing economy in Viking Age Finland cannot as a whole  be explained solely through foreign contacts and trade relationships. On the contrary, the changes appear to emanate from a domestic economical evolution, which included e.g. a definitive shift to permanent fields (as opposed to shifting swiddens) and the birth of village communities. At the same time, it is apparent that the rise in the standard of living affected an ever larger portion of the population. Viking Age grave finds point to an egalitarian society of the type that usually characterizes affluent farming communities. None of the graves differ from the others – whether in construction, location or grave goods – to the extent that they could be thought of as belonging to leaders with exclusive political power. This does not mean, of course, that there were no affluent landowners or merchants who could afford to buy  expensive swords, nor indeed paupers and slaves.


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