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Portages in South Scandinavia - the example of Spangereid

Apart from the two main sea routes along the Norwegian coast – the inner and the outer ones – written sources and oral tradition both give testimony that a third, innermost route once existed. This innermost route, probably ancient in its origins, was in many cases still used for local transports in the 19th century, sometimes even later. This route exploits the inner fjord systems where these exist, and they often incoporates portages – stretches of land, that is, where cargo or even vessels were carried or hauled over land. In special cases parts of this innermost route were used by people who otherwise went by the inner or outer sea route, either to circumvent particularly dangerous sea stretches, or to avoid waiting for the right wind.

There are a substantial number of portages known from various sources in South Norway. Each of these portages obviously have their own, specific history. And while portages as a phenomenon is by no means uncommon in European history, and while it rings true that they were more important in South Scandinavia in the Iron Age and the Medieval period than later on, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence in written or archaeological sources for the innermost sea route at any time being the most important one, not to say the only one in existence. This might have been the case in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, but in the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval period, neither written sources nor archaeology indicate that the innermost sea route along the coast was used on a regular basis by long-distance travellers. Local, small-scale transports we know less about.

However, different kinds of sources, not least the Norse sagas, shows us that portages were used, but probably not as systematically as suggested by some authors. Furthermore, it could be argued that the amphibious petty seafaring (’allmogeseglation’) responsible for most of the references to portages in written sources from the early modern period, is in fact a rather new phenomenon, resulting from the break-down of medieval social systems and medieval systems of trade and seafaring. The entrepreneuring, small-holder slash fisherman slash sailor celebrated in a number of cultural historical works in the Scandinavian countries might, together with the portages used by him, thus be a rather modern phenomenon.

Nonetheless, some portage localities still stand out. In South Scandinavia, this is the case first and foremost with the portage between the North Sea and the Baltic by way of the river Treene and the Schlei fjord in South Jutland. On the Norwegian coast, the isthmus of Spangereid seems to have played a similar role as a gateway between the North Sea coast of SW Norway and the Skagerack coast of SE Norway.

Lindesnes – the gate of the Skagerrack

“The awful sublimity of the coast fills the imagination with ideas of desolation and horror; the rocks dreadfully shattered by the impetous billows of the great Northern Ocean, which here rolls its vast watery mountains on the craggy shores, dashing and foaming over the sheers and desolate rocky islands, until it meets a proud defiance from the majestic frowning bulwarks of granite which form the barrier of the country…”

This rather grim view of Cape Lindesnes, or the Naze, captured by a travelling Briton in 1812, is due not only to the romanticism of the era. The Naze was really a feared and terrible landmark on a coast that to the outsider looked as a very inhospitable place indeed. Cape Lindesnes was considered the most dangerous point of passage on the Norwegian coast. On old sea maps The Naze is often shown way out of proportions, like on Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539).

Christer Westerdahl points to the importance of the Lindesnes area as a transitional zone. According to him, the Naze was the transit point between two different zones of transportation – the West Norwegian North Sea coast and the East Norwegian Skagerrack coast. As such, Cape Lindesnes also functioned as a border zone between two different cultural regions. Many of the cultural traits believed to be particular to Western Norway have a pattern of distribution ending in the Lindesnes area. The same goes for many East Norwegian cultural traditions. For the topographical authors of the 18th and 19th centuries these differences were noteworthy. One source from the 1790s states that there were diverging traditions of boat building on either side of the Naze, with the vessels in the eastern area being shorter and wider than the ones in the West. The traditional border zone between the use of iron and wood for nails in shipbuilding is here, as well. Similar distribution patterns are known from fields as varied as agricultural methods, house types, and language. As for the archaeological source material, the Viking Age morturary customs seem to have been rather different on either side of Cape Lindesnes, and the distribution of East Norwegian artefact types from this period stops rather abruptly at Lindesnes.

The pivotal role of Lindesnes for the traffic between the Vik area and the Baltic on the one hand, and the North Sea on the other, was pointed out by the scholar Peder Claussøn Friis more than 400 years ago. He wrote:

”That Naze is known by all seafarers in the Western Ocean, because there they make landfall in this land, and from there they set course on other lands.”

This was hardly a new phenomenon at this time. The German Seebuch, in a chapter which probably dates back to the 14th century, two direct routes from Walcheren to the South Norwegian coast are described – one goes to Lindesnes (Nese), the other one to Skudenes (Schutenessen). Norse sagas also testifies to the importance the Naze for seafarers.

In some periods the role of Lindesnes as a transitional zone seems to have had a political aspect, as well. In 1170 the Danish king Valdemar demanded overlordship in SE Norway, ’all the land that lies between Lindesnes and Denmark’. His demand was but an echo of the Danish rule in the Vik area in the 10th and 11th centuries. There are a number of saga references indicating that the Danish rule in Skagerrack at times reached all the way to Lindesnes, and indeed that the Vik name itself was used for this extensive coastal area.

We know from written sources that it was not uncommon in recent centuries for travellers to use the portage of Spangereid when sailing one of the routes along the South Norwegian coast. Cape Lindesnes was difficult to cross. ‘It is well known’, writes a keen observer back in 1810, ‘how difficult it is for those vessels that have to sail close to the coast to pass Cape Lindesnes! Even when the winds are good for sailing, one often has to make halt at the Naze. Ships and boats stay for weeks and months in the harbours in the Lindesnes area, waiting for a chance to cross this point. Cargos go bad and travels fail because of the long stay at either side of the Naze.’

These difficult conditions for sailing ships is caused by the combined forces in this area of the reigning winds and a strong current running along the Norwegian coast in a westward direction. The potential advantages of circumventing the Naze thus seem obvious.

The Spangereid canal

The importance of the Spangereid isthmus in the late Prehistoric period is related to its position at the Naze. This goes for the major harbour site in Seleyjar immediately to the west of Cape Lindesnes, too. However, Seleyjar will not be dealt with here.

Many important archaeological monuments and finds are known from the area around Spangereid. The archaeologist O. Rygh excavated more than 40 burial mounds in Spangereid itself in 1879. In the 1970s a number of Viking period boatgraves were excavated. Several of the monuments in the area – including a court site, many rich graves, eight huge boathouses and a number of less substantial ones, and an early Romanesque stone church – indicate that Spangereid was a place of some importance in southernmost Norway, with indicators of centrality spanning the Iron Age, the Viking period and the Early Middle Ages. The clustering of big boat houses in Spangereid is surpassed only by the Hafrsfjord area further west.

According to late 16th century sources, a shallow depression in the shape of a trough was visible across the isthmus of Spangereid. In 1591 some of the oldest men in Spangereid – one of them aged 110! – testified that this through, called “Groben”, had been dug a long time ago, “so that ships could go through here”. This they had been told by their parents and grandparents. Pictorial sources from the late 18th century clearly shows that Groben covered a distance of c. 250 m from the Northern side of the isthmus and southwards.

<>In 2001 Vest-Agder county municipality carried out a trial excavation in the part of Groben that is still preserved in Spangereid. The shallow depression that characterizes the Groben of today was found to be the remains of a much more substantial trough, a later in-filled structure that originally was 12 m wide and 1,5 m deep. Furthermore, the results of this small-scale excavation indicates that Groben was in fact built as a canal, effectively leading from a sheltered harbour immediately to the South of the isthmus and northwards to the fjord system on the inner side of the Lindesnes peninsula. At the bottom level, the structure may have been as wide as 7 m, but the side walls of the structure were not clearly distinguishable during the investigation. The bottom level of the canal seems to have been c. 0,90 m above the present sea level.

So far, two radiocarbon-datings are available, one from a later infilling in the canal (cal. AD 1040-1260), and another from a horizontal turf layer that seems to have built up in a freshwater environment after the canal had gone out of use (cal. AD 1010-1190). Judging from the stratigraphical situation, the canal predates the phases characterised by these datings. For topographical reasons (the bottom level of the canal relative to the land rising over the previous 2000 years) it was probably established in the late Roman and Migration period or somewhat later. At a sea level 2,5 m above today’s, not only the canal but also seven substantial Iron Age boathouses would be positioned at the sheltered harbour in Kjerkevågen.

The Spangereid canal has only two parallels in Middle and Northern Europe: the Kanhave Kanal in Samsø, Denmark, dendro-dated to AD726, and Fossa Carolina, Southern Germany, dated to AD 793.

The Kanhave Kanal on Samsø is considered to have been a royal naval base for controlling sea traffic in the Cattegat. As for the canal in Spangereid, it may have served a similar function for controlling the “highway” along the southern Norwegian coast. This hypothesis is further strengthened by the substantial number of big boathouses positioned at the coast in the immediate vicinity of the canal – in fact the second biggest cluster of such buildings in Scandinavia. Boathouses like these were used to shelter war ships of the Nydam type.

It is likely that whoever was responsible for establishing a naval base at Spangereid, seeked to control this “gate” in the border zone between the Western and the Eastern Oceans. He might have been a SE Norwegian chieftain based in the Vik area, or he might have been a Danish (proto) king.

Spangereid – the post-canal period

Oral tradition in Spangereid tells that ‘the Vikings’ used to haul their ships across Spangereid. No other sources tell us if this is indeed the case. However, in this specific case we do know that a canal once existed, and that the rising land level made it useless around AD 1100 at the latest. It can’t be ruled out that the partly dried up canal was used for hauling ships into the medieval period. At least when dealing with ships of Nordic type, this would perhaps be a rather easily accomplished task for yet some generations after 1100.

Be that as it may, the mentioned testimony given by the local inhabitants in 1591 is the oldest documentary source dealing with traffic across the isthmus. It is perhaps noteworthy that although a couple of the local inhabitants at that time argued that ‘Groben’ was in fact dug as a canal in the old days, none of them mentioned any portage activity being carried out in their own time. Neither does Peder Claussøn Friis, who lived in this very area, refer to such activities in his writings – although portages as a phenomenon were in no way unknown to him, since he does mention that smaller vessels were being transported across Listeid, further to the west. We do know from other sources, however, that cargos were transported over land in Spangereid at this time.

The 1591 testimony was used in a legal dispute four years later. This dispute, involving the owners of two neighbouring farms in Spangereid, did not end until 1784 – almost 200 years later! – when the matter was finally settled by the High court of justice. At stake was, among other things, the income stemming from the transportation of cargos across the isthmus. These cargos were transported by the farmers, using carts. This we learn from a settlement in 1694, when the Stokka farmers demanded fifty percent of the cart transports carried out by the farmers themselves, and half the tolls payed by all those who came with textiles or other goods over Spangereid. The route used by the carts went from Båly to Høllen.

However, we have no certain evidence for the transportation of vessels over land in Spangereid until the beginning of the 19th century. During the Napoleonic wars, a naval officer was stationed in the outport of Svinør, near Spangereid, and he wrote a voluminous report to the Admiralty in Copenhagen, arguing for a canal to be built across the isthmus. In his report, it is stated that smaller and relatively light boats were being transported on carts across Spangereid – but from Njervesfjord to Høllen, thus indicating a slightly different route than the one contested by the Stokka farmers in 1694 and later. This practice might have been something out of the ordinary, and caused by the difficult war time circumstances, with English man-of-wars guarding the waters on the South Norwegian coast, as the first real road in these parts was built in 1809 to facilitate the transportation of privateers across Spangereid. It is, however, likely that small vessels were transported over land well before this time.

Besides the cargo transports, special individuals could also be transported across Spangereid as part of a sea voyage. This, for instance, was the case with the Danish prime minister in 1811. He travelled by ship along the Norwegian coast that summer, but he did not wish to stay onboard while passing Cape Lindesnes. Therefore he was transported by a light boat to Spangereid, to a so-called ‘King’s pier’ at the Njervesfjord, on the southern end of the isthmus. There, he either walked or was driven by horse-and-carriage across the isthmus, to another ‘King’s pier’ on the north side, in Høllen, where another light boat was waiting to take him by the safe inner route to Farsund.

General observations

To some extent one can, on a very general level, distinguish between three different, and only partially overlapping, phases in the history of Spangereid and other major portages in South Norway. These are:

1. The non-systematic hauling of large ships over a lesser or larger strip of land. This phase seems to belong to the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval period, i.e. the centuries until new ship technology makes it unpractical or impossible to transport large vessels on land. This ’phase’ is the one we know less about, but neither saga sources nor oral tradition indicate that this was a very widespread practice. It is likely that only a proportionally small number of the portages known from the post-medieval period were ever used in this way.

2. With the new types of ships in the Later Medieval period, the transporting of vessels over land came to a halt. People and cargo, however, could in some instances still be carried. The ships themselves went by sea to the other side, or one changed vessel on the other side of the portage. When this phase is recorded in written sources, it is to a large extent high ranking government officials or other prominent people that use the portage to avoid particularly dangerous sea stretches – ’to avoid risking one’s soul’, as one source tells about Lindesnes in the 1790s. In the well-studied region of Agder the inner sea route along the coast, as it is known from 17th and 18th century sources, might in more special circumstances involve the use of portages of this kind, but only a limited number of the localities were used in this way in a systematic fashion. In the Western part of Agder the portages in question seem to be distinguished by having so-called ’King’s piers’, one on each side of the isthmus. In Vest-Agder ’King’s piers’ are known from three sites – Spangereid, Lyngdal, and Framvaren/Listeid.

3. The third phase involves local transport of small vessels and cargo in the post-medieval period. The majority of the portages were probably never used on a regular basis until this final phase. In the case of Spangereid we have evidence that the systems described here as phases 2 and 3 existed simultaneously in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In one case, and one case only, we know of a phase pre-dating ’phase 1’. But the canal in Spangereid was most likely established, whether this was in the Late Roman/Migration period or in the Late Iron Age, as a means to facilitate the use of Spangereid as a naval base. The canal can hardly have been established to accomodate civil traffic; in this early period, large scale building projects were probably initiated by royal powers for military, not ’civil’, purposes. Whether the Spangereid canal was used for ordinary transports in the Iron Age, we do not know. If it was, however, this was probably a purely secondary use. To the extent that this did happen, and in so far as the practice of hauling ships then continued into the Medieval period, phases 2 and 3 can – in this particular case, that is – be interpreted as resulting from later reorganizations of the transport system specific to phase 1.


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