Assembly and Colonisation

Assembly and Colonisation (AD 800-1500) explored the establishment of the Norse assembly sites and thing organisation in the areas of Norse settlement and colonisation, compared and contrasted to the situation in the Viking homelands, and set within the wider context of assembly in Northern Europe. The work was carried out by Alexandra Sanmark

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The runestone at Aspa in Södermanland, Sweden. The inscription reads: This stone stands at the thing site.

The research was focused around a number of key strands, which have been developed through fieldwork and desk based research throughout the duration of the project. The results have been fed into the forthcoming, jointly written TAP monograph, several journal articles (see publications) and a forthcoming monograph.


The assembly site at Anundshögen in Västmanland, Sweden.

(1) Gendered power-structures: The thing has traditionally been seen as an exclusively male arena. This strand has shown this view to be too simplistic since women in varying degrees did participate in the assembly meetings. The key to assembly was access was status and landholding, not gender as such. These results have been connected to previous work on assembly power politics and this project has in this way produced the first overarching study of the role of women and men at the thing.

(2) Collective identities: A major focus of TAP was to investigate the role of the assembly in the creation and maintenance of collective identities. This part of the project has shown the close links between law and identity through the strict legal definitions of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, labels which were reinforced by assembly meetings and associated rituals. Communal activities to strengthen collective identities were combined with political rituals to reinforce the power of the ruler. Rituals were devised to interact with the landscape and the specially designed sites.

(3) Migration of administrative frameworks: The assembly organisation was introduced in all areas of Norse settlements, even those settled for a short time, thus highlighting the significance of the assembly for the functioning of Norse society. The creation of new assembly sites also shows a new elite aiming for power, even in the time before the new settlements were integrated into kingdoms. This is closely linked to the careful planning and design of assembly sites

Thingvellir, the site of the Icelandic althing.

Thingvellir, the site of the Icelandic althing.

(4) Territorialisation: It is clear that the Norse assemblies could be used to draw territories together. The sites were located in the middle of populated areas, at places specially selected for their characteristics and communication routes, and were maintained and named to give authority over people and territories. In the settlement areas, different patterns have emerged. In Scotland where the Norse and Gaelic peoples interacted, several sites are found in boundary zones, and may have been used as places for them to negotiate with each other. The new assembly sites are similar to those in the homelands, but modified according to geography and existing monuments. To some extent the Norse probably reused existing, local administrative systems.

The assembly site at Delting, Shetland.

The assembly site at Delting, Shetland.

(5) Valorisation: As outlined above sites were carefully selected and maintained over time. Specific assembly features were used to communicate power. The topmost sites tend to be the most elaborate, indicating competition between rulers. Mounds constitute one of the most significant assembly features, as they symbolised landownership, kingship and ancestors. This feature is especially frequently occurring in Scotland, where assemblies were used to show power over the native peoples, while in the previously uninhabited Iceland, Faeroe Islands and Greenland, assembly sites were differently designed, often with booths. This strand also addresses the long-term survival of sites and influence of the Norse on modern political geography.