Open search
« Tuna 2 / 2019

Tallinn’s Sources

The earliest history of Tallinn’s formation is open to new interpretations and hypotheses, even after research on written and material sources that has lasted for the past one and a half centuries. By now we have surely gotten further than the contradictory viewpoints that prevailed in the mid-20th century. According to one of these viewpoints, the emergence of urban settlement goes back to the 10th–11th centuries. According to the other one, however, the genesis of this Hanseatic town has to be sought from the settlement of Scandinavian and German merchants on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland in the first half of the 13th century. At the start of the 21st century, we can state that both sides of the debate are correct – the oldest densely populated settlement of Tallinn’s core area probably dates from the time period that preceded the colonisation that was carried out at the start of the 13th century, but the settlement unit – the exact nature of which nevertheless still requires more precise interpretation – was located farther inland from the previously assumed location (that is the present-day territory of the Old Town). Yet if we speak of urban settlement in categories corresponding to medieval legal and material culture, then the later Hanseatic town was founded sometime in the second quarter of the 13th century, and more likely independently of the earlier settlement unit. The previous settlement pattern no doubt affected the selection of the location for the Hanseatic town, but nowadays we cannot point with any certainty to direct continuity between the ancient and the medieval settlements, and the intentional relocation of the settlement. It is possible that in the early years of the Hanseatic town, two settlement cores existed side by side: the old settlement that originated in ancient times on the southern side of Tõnismäe, where the Danes may have made the first attempt to establish a town in the first half of the 1220s, and the new colonial town that started being established at the foot of the eastern slope of Toompea after 1227 under the rule of the Order of the Brethren of the Sword.

It is difficult to assess the earliest history of the development of the Hanseatic town because, regardless of continuous archaeological research that has by now lasted nearly 50 years, the material that has been collected has yet to be worked through systematically. In light of the existing data, it can nevertheless be asserted that based on analysis of construction-historical and archaeological substance, the existence of no clear oldest settlement core, or a so-called Gründungsviertel, can be delineated within the area circumscribed by the city walls. Neither can the existence of more narrowly demarcated ethnic settlement areas be substantiated, aside from the Russian covered market in the northern part of the city. Nothing at all conclusively supports the location of the oldest city core in the vicinity of the Church of St. Nicholas, in other words the area where according to previous interpretations, merchants from Gotland had settled when they moved to the city after 1230. Traces of settlement that are temporally just as old (that is the first half of the 13th century, primarily the second quarter of the century) have been found elsewhere in the territory of the Old Town. These traces are concentrated more in the city’s southern part due to better opportunities for research excavation, but this may change if the city’s northern part, where by 2019 only one more extensive archaeological rescue excavation has taken place, is studied more thoroughly. It is possible that then the assumption of the existence of an early Scandinavian settlement nest in the vicinity of the Church of St. Olev can be more convincingly verified or refuted, much as the location of the Russian covered market of the 13th–14th centuries was successfully more precisely localised in 2003. At the same time, taking into consideration the results of research conducted over the last decade, it has to be considered possible that the staging points of foreign merchants on the outskirts of the city were more likely at the foot of the slope of Tõnismäe, similarly to the ancient settlement. This location was better connected to the harbour site situated at the mouth of the Härjapea River and the fortress on Toompea, which provided security for the trading venue.

Taking a closer look at the earliest development of the Hanseatic town that was established on the site of Tallinn’s present-day Old Town, we see that the activity of people with very different backgrounds intertwine in the development of the town’s urban space and its material culture. Alongside the material heritage inherent to North German towns, there are traces in Tallinn’s archaeological material of artisans from Southern Scandinavia and Northwestern Russia. Jewellery is an indication of the contribution to Tallinn’s daily life from the town’s Estonian residents, to say nothing of more distant objects that arrived in the town through trade contacts. Thus during its first decades, the Hanseatic town that was founded on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland in the second quarter of the 13th century already resembled 21st century Tallinn – brokering transit trade and intertwining influences from different peoples and cultures.