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.

research

Sweden: Visby

Visby is a medieval city on the Swedish Island of Gotland. I visited Visby in early September 2019 to see the famous medieval charm of the harbour city and the many prehistoric and early Viking Age artefacts in the Gotland Museum. You can read more about my visits to Stockholm Historiska Museum here, the Viking Age burial mounds at Uppsala here and Gotland Museum here.


The harbour city of Visby is located on the central-western coast of Gotland Island. Gotland Island itself is a popular Swedish holiday destination during the summer months and is the furthest south-eastern island of the coast of ‘mainland’ Sweden, accessible only by a large ferry or plane. There is a very easy public transport option with a transfer from Stockholm to the nearby harbour town of Nynäshamn where the ferry crosses the Baltic Sea directly to Visby in 3.5 hours. The journey itself was very comfortable and the sundeck offers the chance to admire the Baltic Sea and get some relaxation and exercise.


Once I arrived at Visby, I learned it is also known as the City of Roses. A short walk from the main track following the the medieval city walls easily explained why this name may have occurred.

The parkland of Östergravar or East Graves is located outside the medieval town walls on the southeastern side of Visby, the wilderness areas off the main paths overgrown with wild roses. These spectacular rose briars immediately reminded me of many famous poems and paintings inspired by the legends and fairytales of castles covered by rose briars.


Visby is famous for the preserved winding medieval cobblestone streets and the numerous church and cathedral ruins located within the city fortifications.

The church ruins are easily accessible and lie at many main junctions of the streets or down cobblestone laneways.

Exploring these historical ruins was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.


The first ruins I visited was the church of Sankt Per (Saint Peter), possibly constructed in 12th century. The ruins were completely open to the sky, operating as a small cafe garden and accessed off a small laneway or two main cobblestone streets.

The second set of ruins on my self-tour was Sankt Drotten (Saint Drotten) dedicated to the Holy Trinity but meaning Lord or King in Old Norse. Construction was approximately the 13th century.

Directly opposite the Drottens ruins is Sankt Lars (Saint Lawrence). Dated to a similar age of construction, Sankt Lars is an unusual cross-shaped formation similar to Byzantine architecture.

Sankt Lars was built by local stonemasons and exploring the passageways through the remaining sections of the ruins was a fascinating experience.

The popular Sankta Katarina (Saint Catharine) is located off the main square, the Stora Torget. Construction of Sankta Katarina began in 1250 as a Franciscan monastery but was never completed after several attempts to renew construction, the building partially collapsed during worship in 1540 with only the ruins remaining.


Outside the city walls is the last church ruins I visited. The Solberga kloster (Solberga Abbey) was a Cistercians nunnery, founded in approximately 1246. The convent remained the only one on Gotland Island but was abandoned before 1469. In the early 13th century, the abbey was presumably destroyed during the lawless decades where Gotland Island was no longer under Swedish control but that of the Teutonic knights in Prussia. In 1404, the Abbess asked the Master of the Teutonic Knights in charge of Gotland for permission to found a new nunnery.


Located outside the town walls, a memorial stone stands near the site of Solberga convent ruins marking the Battle of Visby fought in 1361 when the townspeople of Visby defended the city against the invading Danish army. Although a doomed effort, the slaughter of the Battle of Visby has remained a powerful memory on Gotland Island.

research

Sweden: History Museum

In late September 2019, I visited the Historika Museet (National History Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. I only had a few days in Stockholm but I the Historiksa Museet is located in the central part of Stockholm city and is easily accessible by tram, bicycle or on foot. I visited the museum for the detailed exhibitions on seven important Swedish Stone Age sites and the associations with ritual practices in these prehistoric societies. You can read more about my visit to the Viking Age burial mounds at Uppsala here and the early Viking picture stones at Gotland museum here.


The Historiska Museett in Stockholm normally hosts a large Viking Age exhibition but this was unfortunately closed for renovations when I visited. I did spend several hours walking through the Prehistory section which detailed seven ritual burials and sacrifices from the Scandinavian region.


Prehistory is classified by an absence of a written record and so naturally, the end of the prehistoric era and the beginning of the historic era is very different in many regions of the world. In Scandinavia, Prehistory included the the Stone Age from 9, 000 BC until 1, 000 BC which marked the Bronze Age. The Iron Age did not begin until 0 AD and encompassed the later half of the Roman Empire and the Viking Age in Scandinavia which occurred around 900 – 1, 000 AD.

The Scandinavian Prehistoric era included artifacts ranging from very early blades made from antler horn, a carved comb depicting a human-like face and possibly a horse or dog made from fine stone or the necklaces of split boar teeth.

One of the oldest female burials in Sweden is known as the woman from Barum, excavated in Skåne. The ritualized burial dates from 9, 000 BC and has the woman’s body placed upright in a seated position, arms folded around the chest. Originally excavated in 1939, the Barum burial was described at first as the burial of a male hunter because of the grave goods that consisted of arrows, fragments of a spear and a spear-thrower. The skeleton is actually that of an older woman, with the Barum burial showing another side of prehistoric Scandinavian life where women were buried with similar valued items used in hunting as the men in these communities.


The museum also had fascinating exhibitions on the early stages of the Viking Age where the written records of the legendary sagas and mythologies begin to show traces in artifacts recovered from burials and caches of weapons and treasures.

One such item is the gold brooch depicting a dragon crouched over the body parts of slain warriors who lay scattered around the coiled dragon. There are noted similarities with the epic poem Beowulf and the Viking Age sagas of early Swedish kings. The dragon guardian of treasure and the beast who slays armies is a common monster featuring in the folklore of that time.

The runic language underwent several transformations over the hundreds of years it was used throughout Scandinavia. The most problematic of these changes has meant that the difference between the Younger (more recent) Futhrak and the Older (oldest) runic script do not share similarities and some parts of the Older Futhrak have not been able to be translated except in very simplistic terms. Other items included the large standing stone containing all the letters in the runic alphabet of the Futhrak.

The final aspect of the Viking Age of Sweden exhibition was a reconstruction of Viking Age society including the many accessories used by both women and men to reflect social status, personalities and kinship ties.

The display of replica historical musical instruments like the stringed harp-like instrument displaying the skills and hard work of Viking Age communities.

The final reconstructed item shows Viking Age archaeological material from warfare with battle shields, exemplar swords and various items of horse and military equipment.