research

Sweden: Gotland Museum

I visited the Gotland Museum in Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden in early September 2019. You can read more about my research visit to the Uppsala Viking Age burial mounds, the History Museum in Stockholm and the medieval city of Visby on Gotland Island.


Gotland Museum contains an amazing variety of prehistoric Swedish and Viking Age archaeology and history. The collections include picture stones from Gotland Island, large collections from establishment of the official seal and recognition of Gotland county, the doomed Battle of Visby and Viking Age silver and gold hoards found on Gotland Island.

The Gotland Museum collections contain some of the oldest picture stones in Sweden with many dating from the prehistoric era of circa 9000 years ago and including the pre-Viking Age era of circa 700 AD. The earliest picture stones feature animal and geometric motifs before the more familiar Celtic styles of decoration are incorporated into the picture stones. Some of the largest picture stones are well over 6 ft and depict themes and motifs mentioned in Norse mythology. There is one famous picture stone that appears to depict common themes and characters from Norse mythology with a warrior riding into battle on an eight-legged horse, a wolf and a woman holding out a drinking horn. Below that scene is a Viking ship and armed warriors and possibly a Valkyrie or similar winged female archer.


There are also prehistoric human skeletal remains recovered from sites on Gotland Island that offer a rare glimpse into the ritualistic behaviour of the early inhabitants on the island.

The burial of a young woman in her early twenties has been called the “Hedgehog Girl” for the many items made from the local Gotland Island hedgehog which were used to decorate her grave. She was buried with five hedgehog jaws placed across her chest and would have originally worn a cap made from hedgehog skin while her dress was edged with beading made from fox and seal teeth. There were many hedgehog spines found beside her head and it was likely the cap was decorated with hedgehog spines while her grave goods also included offerings of hedgehog spines and teeth. The local inhabitants of Visby confirmed that the hedgehog is still an important symbol of Gotland Island and, despite the ram being on the official seal of Gotland Island, the hedgehog continues to be the symbolic animal of Gotland. There is a strong Association between the symbolic role the hedgehog played in the prehistoric communities and that the common animal today was of symbolic and, possibly ritualistic importance, in the past with some archaeologists interpreting the hedgehog girl had a ritualistic or shamanic role in the prehistoric community.

The grave of a young woman has been named the “Girl with the Flutes” for the total 35 of false bone flutes, 23 buried throughout the grave and another 12 placed directly beside her. The grave was also decorated with red ochre and contained fishing tackle, bone fishing hooks, a finely carved bone comb and bone jewellery. A clay figurine at the foot of the grave is difficult to discern but is either a bird or a seal. The grave was located on the cliffs overlooking the sea and combined with the numerous flutes, it has been suggested a literal or symbolic communication between the girl and the birds or the seals. Whatever the case may have been, the burial shows a strong symbolic nature to the burial where the sea and the role of the flutes was clearly important for the woman buried on the sea cliffs. There was likely a close connection between the prehistoric communities of Gotland Island, they were probably reliant on the sea for survival in times when crops or livestock failed.


The Viking Age was also well-known for the silver and gold hoards that were buried throughout Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe. Gotland Museum has an interesting display of the various hoards associated with the island. Many are vast collections of coins from different regions, silver bracelets, gold torques, silver and gold rings, beautifully crafted silver brooches for cloaks and the elaborately engraved square brooch used by women. Most of the items in these hoards have been recovered during excavations at specific archeological sites but in a few occasions, including a hoard of gold coins stored in a clay jar, an industrious rabbit warren disturbed the buried treasure, bringing the hoard once more to the surface.


Gotland Museum contained an interesting collection of archaeological and historical items from the pre-Viking Age era, Viking Age and through to the Middle Ages. Items from the Viking Age included axe blades and swords recovered from local archaeology sites, carved game pieces made from bone and horse teeth. A gilt weather vane for a Viking longship appears an extraordinary extravaganza by modern standards but retains the deep swirling pictographs on the surface. The arrival of Christianity to Gotland Island was ushered in slowly with early wooden churches a solemn, pagan-appearing place, the wooden form of Christ more resembling Odin during his search for knowledge as he hung upon the tree Yggdrasil. Symbolic jewellery like Thor’s hammer was slowly replaced by the crucifix and the combination ancient and “new” religions defined by the crucifix marked by runes scored into its surface. Other unusual items included Wolfs-head endpieces for a row of church pews, near-immaculately preserved leather boots and the old former seal of Gotland Island established in 1280.


The Battle of Visby was fought in 1361 when Danish forces invaded Gotland Island led by King Valdemar IV and the well-trained Danish army, the force numbering around 2000-2500. In contrast, the defending forces of Visby numbered only 2000 and were not trained infantrymen, or were older individuals, those who had survived previous battles and still bore the marks of injury. The result was a massacre, the Danish forces taking Visby and leaving many of the surviving defending forces of Visby so badly injured they later died from their injuries. The grisly remains from the mass graves outside Visby reveal the savage injuries caused by swords and axes, the damage inflicted from the mace and other battle weapons broke bones and shattered skulls. The healing of these injuries was inadequate and health of the individuals was compromised, with the bones badly set, often twisted and likely leaving the limb unusable.