First workshop of the EAA “Community on Fortification Research (COMFORT)”, 5 /6 March 2020

by Timo Ibsen (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology, Schleswig, Germany; email:; Birgit Maixner (Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, NTNU –, Trondheim, Norway; email:; Sebastian Messal (German Archaeological Institute, Berlin, Germany; email:

At the end of 2018, the EAA Community on Fortification Research (COMFORT) was established to bring together researchers dealing with these fascinating but highly complex monuments. During the Community’s kick-off in Bern in 2019, participants expressed the need for doing regular workshops in addition to the sessions offered at the EAA annual conferences. As a consequence, the first international workshop of COMFORT, entitled “The setting of fortifications in the natural and cultural landscape” took place in early spring on the 5 and 6 March 2020 in Schleswig in Germany at the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA). Altogether, 25 archaeologists from Germany, Russia, Norway, and Finland attended the meeting, which included 16 lectures as well as a community meeting and an excursion to Hedeby. The workshop was financially supported by the ZBSA and the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and we are grateful for their support.

The aim of the workshop was to use case studies to demonstrate the entire range of possible functions depending on the particular situation in the natural and cultural landscape and to discuss possible differences and similarities in different geographical regions in order to find the underlying mechanisms for choosing locations.

Fortifications are a well-known but poorly understood phenomenon in almost all archaeological periods in Europe. Their location in the natural and cultural landscape probably varied according to their function, but depended not only on social preconditions, but also on external location factors such as topography and terrain conditions or the availability of building materials. In addition, a change in the social or economic framework conditions can also change the function of the fortifications or make adjustments necessary. Sometimes fortifications even became obsolete and were abandoned, but came back into use centuries later. Nevertheless, the location in the landscape and the relationship to the surrounding hinterland seem to be the key to understand the complex monuments. Regardless of function, whether traffic and communication routes were to be controlled and the power of the builders had to be actively expressed, or whether they purely worked as refuge castles for the population and their food and belongings, the location of fortifications in the landscape was absolutely decisive for the success of the desired function.

Due to the geographical and cultural diversity, the question of the reasons for this or that choice of location cannot be answered comprehensively. Rather, each site must first be examined individually in order to clarify its specific function, before entire systems of contemporary fortifications and thus "fortified landscapes" can be reconstructed from the individual sites. In 16 lectures colleagues from Russia, Finland, Norway and Germany presented examples of different types of fortifications from Russia, the Baltic States, Scandinavia and Northern Germany.

Ivan Eremeev (Institute of History of Material Culture St. Petersburg – Russian Academy of Science, Russia) presented “The earliest fortifications of Rurikovo Gorodishche near Novgorod” and summarized the newest results of the excavations between 2013 and 2016. The author identified six cultural-chronological stages in the settlement, covering the period from the Early Iron Age to the beginning of the tenth century AD. The most surprising results were fortifications of over 4 m height, dated to the seventh till the first half of the ninth century AD.

Natalia Grigoreva (Institute of History of Material Culture St. Petersburg – Russian Academy of Science, Russia) dealt with the results of the geoarchaeological research conducted in the area of the courtyard of the Ladoga fortress in her talk “Studies of ancient fortifications of Ladoga”. She suggest a more complicated and complex monument than previously thought.

Roman Shiroukhov (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology Schleswig, Germany) discussed the “Galtgarben hill-fort on Alk-Gebirge (Samland) in comparative retrospective” and summarized the entire history of the famous monument, using archaeological, historical, toponymical and mythological sources.

Alexandr Khokhlov and Edvin Zaltsman (Institute of Archaeology – Russian Academy of Sciences Moscow, Russia) presented the latest results from excavations on “Eisliethen hillfort on the Alejka river in Sambia”. Based on the analyses of archaeological material and twelve radiocarbon dates, this hillfort had probably already developed at the early stage of the Roman Age and was inhabited – probably with short breaks – up to the times of the Teutonic Order in the thirteenth century.

Timo Ibsen (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology Schleswig, Germany) in his lecture “Hillforts on the Sambian peninsula – location factors throughout time” presented the natural preconditions of the Sambian peninsula in the Kaliningrad Region of Russia and combined them with new dating evidence. On the basis of more than 100 radiocarbon dates from nine hillforts in the northwest of the Sambian peninsula, covering a time span from Late Bronze Age until the thirteenth century, Ibsen pointed out that the choice of location does not show any chronological differences and must therefore depend on other factors such as the availability of appropriate terrain, communication routes or other strategic aspects.

Olga Khomiakova (Institute of Archaeology – Russian Academy of Sciences Moscow, Russia) presented current results of her research on “Settlement centres in the Southeastern Baltic of the first millennium AD (according to Sambian-Natangian culture)”. According to the data presented in the lecture, the main settlement centres in this part of the Kaliningrad Region in Russia were formed in micro-regions most important for the control of transport and communication routes.

Jens Schneeweiß (Exzellenzcluster ROOTS, Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, Germany) focused on the coincidences in the history of strongholds, the political situation and regional flood activity in his lecture “Everything is in a state of flux. The development of strongholds in a highly dynamic river landscape – the Höhbeck case at the Elbe river”. It seems very likely that in the Slavonic period the course of the River Elbe changed significantly and thus the course of its crossing also changed. He stressed that an altered routing, induced by large-scale natural events, had a direct impact on the function and development of the local strongholds.

Thorsten Lemm (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology Schleswig, Germany) presented “Fortifications and communications routes – The North-Elbian fortresses from the micro- and the macro-perspectives”. Lemm discussed the locations of fortresses in the Saxon territory of North-Elbia from the micro- and the macro-perspectives and briefly presented the method used to reconstruct the early medieval communication network. He pointed out that fortresses have always been placed at certain locations based on strategic and tactical considerations relating to communication routes, both by land and by water. The knowledge of contemporary communication routes appears to be essential for the understanding of the position and thereby the function(s) of a fortress.

Karin Göbel (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology Schleswig - GIS department, Germany) and Vladimir Salač (Institute of Archaeology of the CAS, Prague, Czech Republic) talked about the “Prehistoric and early medieval hillforts in Bohemia”. Within the project „Keltische Oppida und andere Burgwälle“, the locations of 450 Bohemian hillforts from Neolithic up to Early Medieval Times (4300 BC – 1150 AD) were registered in a Geographic Information System (GIS) together with additional information, such as name, municipality, district, occupation times, size, excavation or written sources. In 2019, these results were published in an atlas and are now available for further spatial analysis.

Sergey Chaukin (Institute of Archaeology – Russian Academy of Sciences Moscow, Russia) showed the results of his GIS studies on “Iron Age fortifications in Moskva-river region” and presented a new typology of hillforts with seven types based on the landscape situation, the system of fortifications and parameters of changes of hillforts including new methods of reconstruction.

In his paper “Hillforts in a west Norwegian landscape. Case studies from Sunnhordland”, Håkon Reiersen (Archaeological Museum, University of Stavanger, Norway) presented preliminary case studies of variation in location, size and functions for hillforts in western Norway. Among the studied forts are three sites situated strategically along the crossing of waterways in the Sunnhordland basin. Although situated in a similar landscape, or seascape, it is argued that these forts had different functions and relations to the local settlement. Another three forts in the most favourable agricultural Etne district, which probably was a centre of power, might have formed an interconnected defensive system, guarding the settlement from attacks from the seaside and adjacent valleys.

Lukas Goldmann (Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies, University of Berlin, Germany) presented ideas of his PhD-project “Islands as fortresses? The use of inland water islands in the north-west Slavic region”. Island settlements seem to be common in the north-western Slavic region in early medieval times, notably if compared to the preceding Iron Age or the later medieval periods. Especially during the final phase of the Middle Slavic and the Late Slavic period (late tenth to twelfth centuries AD) islands were settled very frequently. While they represent naturally protected locations in their own right, islands were often additionally fortified. The talk focused on the functions of Slavic island settlements, comparing their defensive role with other possible capacities, e.g. the favourable position of islands within a waterborne network of trade and communication routes or the apparent importance of islands in the Slavic cosmology.

Kristin Ilves (Faculty of Arts, Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland) in her talk ”Hillforts on an island realm” presented six Late Iron Age hillforts (c. 550-1050 AD) found on the Åland Islands, which offered both easy, waterborne connectivity and mobility as well as detachment and insularity. Due to differences in the rich Late Iron Age archaeological material within the archipelago, and the distribution of the hillforts, it has been suggested that Åland consisted of two broad polities at that time, and both had a set of three hillforts each. In her contribution she discussed the setting of these hillforts, and reflected on the question of whether the Ålandic hillforts can be regarded as symbolic manifestations of separate polities i.e. organized groups with social hierarchies and conventions of conduct differentiating themselves from other organized groups.

Birgit Maixner (Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway) presented “Hillforts at the coast of Trøndelag, Norway. Case studies from the Vikna-area”. This lecture introduced a group of coastal hillforts in the Vikna-area in Central Norway which have not been the focus of archaeological research. Only few hillforts are archaeologically known in the area, but an additional number are indicated by place names. The hillforts appear in most cases to be situated in the immediate vicinity of coastal manors and major farms from the first millennium, which again are located strategically along the sailing routes. Analysing the hillforts´ locations in relation to the communication lines and settlements in a chronological perspective within the Scandinavian Iron Age, the paper discussed the setting and possible functions of these hillforts in the context of their maritime cultural landscape.

Oliver Nakoinz and Anna K. Loy (Exzellenzcluster ROOTS, Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, Germany) discussed “The location of connected fortifications” with respect to the fortification's function in conflict processes. The authors applied the concept of ROOTS of Conflicts: Competition and Conciliation (Subcluster 6 of Cluster of Excellence ROOTS) which considers de-escalation and conciliation to be as important as escalation and competition, and these roles are tightly connected to the location of the fortifications.

The final discussion, led by Prof. C. von Carnap-Bornheim from the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology, was organized in four discussion groups with randomly selected members that should discuss and formulate the most interesting, surprising or disappointing results, the advantages and disadvantages of certain methods or general personal impressions. After a time slot of 20 min the groups presented the results. Surprisingly almost all groups in the discussion focussed on structural and strategic rather than content-related issues.

Finally, we discussed the establishment of a digital communication platform to enhance networking facilities of COMFORT. In addition to sessions at the EAA annual conference in Budapest 2020 and in Kiel 2021, the next workshop of COMFORT is intended to take place in spring 2021, to continue the successful start of examining European fortifications within a wider scientific community.

Figure 1: Vice chair Birgit Maixner presenting her paper to the participants of the COMFORT workshop in the lecture room of the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig (Photo: T. Ibsen).

Figure 2: Participants of the workshop walking in heavy rain on semi-circular rampart of Viking Age site Hedeby during the excursion (Photo: T. Ibsen).