The history of the Ancient Road Hærvejen

The Ancient Road is a historic thoroughfare that follows the glacial ridge of East Jutland. When the Ice Age came to an end, the rivers headed either west or eastward away from the ridge. And to this day, the rivers in the region still run away from either side of the ridge, which is why the Ancient Road became a natural north-south bound route along which people could travel without having to cross water. The Ancient Road has been trodden ever since the very first human settlements in Denmark. This is why there are ancient Bronze Age monuments along the route as well as some of the grandest monuments of the Viking Age, especially in and around Jelling. In the Middle Ages, the Ancient Road was an important droving route for cattle and livestock – from the meadows of Jutland to major European cities. Before refrigerated transport, droving was the only way to deliver fresh meat

The history of the Ancient Road Hærvejen

The history of the Ancient Road

Formation of the landscape
The Ancient Road meanders along the southern borderline of what was once the icecap during the Ice Age. This was as far south as the glaciers reached in Denmark.

The advancing icecap had amassed large amounts of clay, gravel and stones. When the Ice Age came to an end, meltwater drained westward towards the ice-free area.

After the ice had retreated, streams and rivers in the area could also run eastward. The Ancient Road emerged along this ridge where there were no rivers for travellers to cross.

Cattle droving and wayside inns 
In the Middle Ages, the Ancient Road was an important droving route for cattle and livestock – from the pastures of Jutland to major European cities. Before refrigerated transport, droving was the only way to deliver fresh meat.

Steer droving
In olden days, most young bulls were neutered to avoid unruly behaviour. Neutered bulls are called steer. And exports of cattle from Denmark mainly consisted of steer since dairy cows were kept for breeding and dairy production.

In the 1600s, between 30,000 and 50,000 cattle were herded along the Ancient Road annually. Other kinds of livestock were also herded or transported, including horses, pigs, goats, sheep and geese.

Naturally, a droving trip down the Ancient Road took more than a day or two so there was need for accommodation and places for the animals to rest. At intervals along the road were pens where animals could graze and get water, and where they were safe from wolves and thieves (the rest areas were often located by wayside inns catering to the livestock drovers).

Toll and smuggling
In the 1600s, a toll was levied at crossings, bridges and fords for the passage of export livestock. The toll was to cover the cost of maintaining these structures. This development led to drovers attempting to smuggle their livestock over illicit fords. However, the punishment was harsh.

End of steer droving
When the railway arrived in the late 1800s, steer droving became unprofitable and the Ancient Road fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered in the twentieth century. 

Sacred springs
Since the Ancient Road follows what was once the glacial borderline there are several natural springs along the route. The largest, located only a few hundred metres apart in Tinnet, are the headsprings of two of Denmark’s mightiest rivers, Skjern Å and Gudenåen, which run in opposite directions to the east and west respectively. Many of the springs were considered sacred during the Middle Ages and were destinations of pilgrimage. Several of them are located near churches along the Ancient Road.

Rune stones and Vikings
Several of the greatest monuments of the Viking Age in Denmark are to be found by the Ancient Road, especially in and around Jelling, the cultural highpoint of the Ancient Road.

The Viking Age (approx. 800 to 1050 AD) is one of the most important periods in the history of Denmark, not least because of the religious change from Norse paganism to Christianity.

This historical transition manifests itself in the Jelling Monuments, which in 1994 became listed as UNESCO World Heritage. The two royal barrows (or burial mounds), the two rune stones, the vestiges of a giant stone ship setting and the first wooden church preceding the present stone church of Jelling bear witness to the nation’s transition from paganism to Christianity under King Harald Bluetooth.

Another huge monument, also constructed by King Harald Bluetooth, is the Ravning Bridge, a wooden Viking footbridge that today has been partially reconstructed.

Further south of Jelling is another exciting Viking monument, Klebæk Høje. According to the inscriptions a grateful son, called Ravnunge-Tue, erected this impressive rune stone in honour of his late mother, Vibrog. He had chosen a location that had long been sacred and is also the site of two imposing Bronze Age burial mounds that are approximately 2,500 years older.

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