Archaeology and the Legendary Hleidargard

According to Hrolf's Saga, the seat of the Skjoldung dynasty was Hleidargard. Gard means courtyard, farm, estate, or stronghold, and the Icelandic information about Hleidargard corresponds to information from medieval Denmark. As early as the twelfth century, Danish historians associated the legendary Hleidr with the small village of Lejre on the central Danish island of Sjælland. Lejre, a site with a long history of prehistoric habitation, lies a short distance inland from Roskilde. It is surrounded by Stone Age and Bronze Age mounds and there are many indications of Iron Age habitation.

There is little doubt that in the early Middle Ages Hleidr was a center of power, and, although there is no sure proof, it has often been surmised that it was the site of Heorot, the Danish hall to which Beowulf came, or a similar royal dwelling. In any event, both Hrolf's Saga and Beowulf treat the state of the king's hall as an indication of royal strength. In Beowulf the fiend Grendel ravages Heorot, whereas in the saga a troll-like dragon comes to Hleidargard, destroying the king's peace.

Following earlier, sometimes romantic investigations, systematic archaeology began at Lejre around the 1940s. Major finds were discovered in 1986-1988 when excavations under the leadership of the Danish archaeologist Tom Christensen uncovered traces of a huge (48.3 meters in length by 11.5 meters in width), possibly royal, Viking Age hall [see illustrations]. Dated by radiocarbon to the mid tenth century, the hall stands partially on top of an earlier hall of similar size and construction, this one from around the year 660 A.D. Because of the way the two structures sat, one on top of the other, the decision was made to concentrate on the better preserved and more accessible Viking Age building, diminishing somewhat our knowledge of the older hall. A small number of artifacts that were found in and around the site corroborate the dating of the great halls and the surrounding settlement to the period from 600 to 900.

The oldest of the halls appears just a little too young to be identified with Beowulf's Heorot or Hleidargard of Hrolf's Saga. It is, however, possible that these halls replaced an older structure in the vicinity, whose remains have been obscured or have yet to be found. The large nearby burial mound called Grydehøj, "Pot Mound" is evidence of earlier chieftains being connected with the site. Dated by radiocarbon and artifacts, including gold threads and pieces of bronze, to approximately A.D. 550, the Grydehøj mound was a rich burial. It contained one of the few princely graves known from the Migration Period in Denmark and was most likely erected for a person of considerable political power.

The presence of a tenth-century hall at Lejre may also have been a strong influence on the reinvigoration, in the Viking period, of older legends about the site. Medieval literary accounts preserve the memory of Lejre's social and political prominence during the Viking Age. For example, the German chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg knew Lejre as an important capital and pagan cult site. In 1015 he wrote the following description of Lejre based on information learned earlier in 934, when the German Emperor Henry I had invaded Denmark:

I have heard strange stories about their sacrificial victims in ancient times, and I will not allow the practice to go unmentioned. In one place called Lederun (Lejre), the capital of the realm in the district of Selon (Sjælland), all the people gathered every nine years in January, that is after we have celebrated the birth of the Lord, and there they offered to the gods ninety-nine men and just as many horses, along with dogs and hawks.

Index to illustrations

  1. Great Hall at Lejre (interior)
  2. Great Hall at Lejre (exterior)
  3. Great Hall at Lejre (end-view)
  4. Cross-section of the Viking Age hall
  5. Archeological plan of the two Great Halls