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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.

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Sweden: Viking Burial Mounds

In early September 2019, I traveled to Uppsala in Sweden to one of the most accessible archaeological sites from the early Viking Age, a series of impressive burial mounds. You can read more about Viking Age history and archaeology from my visit to Stockholm’s Historiska Museum here and Gotland Museum here.


The site of Gamla Uppsala has long inspired many generations with the 19th century archaeological investigations uncovering a series of significant burials within the massive Viking Age burial mounds. The discovery of these burials were initially associated with the Norse gods and many the epic poem Beowulf among other Viking Age sagas.

The early archaeological investigations also connected the burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala with a royal houses of Sweden, the Ynglinga Dynasty who ruled the region of Uppsala during the 5th and 6th centuries. Further away from the Royal Mounds, Roman and Iron Age burials have also been found, showing Gamla Uppsala has a long tradition of burial practices. Gamla Uppsala is a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site located only 4 kilometers north of Uppsala city, easily accessible from Stockholm by train and a public bus from Uppsala stops outside the Gamla Uppsala Museum and the site. There are three main Royal Mounds within the site complex which dominate the landscape, standing between 9 to 12 meters high.

The Royal Mounds overlook a ploughed field which has revealed many artifacts associated with a horse racing arena, suggesting the largest of the burial mounds which existed before the horse arena, might have been a site for ritualized celebrations involving the horsemanship to honor the royal dynasties.

There are several 19th century reminders at the site where even the ‘romantic’ stylized Odin’s Mead Hall, now a historic restaurant has also been preserved as part of the history at the Gamla Uppsala site.

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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.

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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.

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Spain: Royal Palace of Madrid

In late August 2019, I visited Madrid, the capital city of Spain. Although Spain still has a royal family, the Royal Palace of Madrid is no longer occupied by the Spanish royal family and is open to the public on most days. You can read more here about my visit to the Spanish capital and the interesting history I learned while exploring Madrid.


Part of my visit to Madrid was to see the Real Palacio de la Madrid, built on the foundations of the Alcazar of Madrid, a medieval fortress, expanded into the massive royal palace, the residential palace of the Spanish royal family but now only used for administrative purposes.


Across from the royal palace, a short walk through the impressive golden gates is the beautiful Cathedral of La Almudena which stands opposite the royal residence separated by the wide ceremonial courtyard of the palace and above the plateau and sprawling gardens below. From the arched balconies of the main courtyard, the palace overlooks the royal woodlands and the expanse of gardens below.


During my visit to the palace, I was particularly interested in the museum collections of the Real Armeria de Madrid, an impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance weaponry and armor. The collection contains many original pieces from the Spanish royal family, collected over the generations including detailed displays of armory and weaponry throughout the late Medieval and Renaissance periods and into the late 19th century. In the lower floor of the Royal Armory are the historical parade armor worn by various kings and princes of the royal family, including pieces commissioned by Queen Isabel I of Castille including her own parade armor and that of her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, both historically remembered for her campaign to unite southern Spain under Catholic rule, ending the last Islamic dynasty in Spain with the fall of Granada and the expulsion and persecution of non-Catholics in Spain.

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Spain: Granada & the Alhambra

In late August 2019, I traveled to the city of Granada in the region of Andalusia, southern Spain. Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, where the sprawling national park is a natural barrier between Granada and the Mediterranean Sea. The steep woodland hills surrounding the Sierra Nevada Mountains are known as Las Alpujarras and you can read about my horse riding trek into the western Alpujurras here.



Granada has always been an interesting city to me, the fascinating history and culture of Andalusia epitomizing southern Spain in my mind.

Granada reflects the rich cultural history of Roman, Celtic, Islamic, Christian, Jewish and gypsy civilizations that have influenced the architecture and atmosphere of the city. The streets are narrow, retaining the medieval style as they spiral around the central mountain complex of the UNESCO Alhambra palace which dominates Granada still.

The prosperous Islamic kingdoms of southern Spain that established dynasties of emirs to rule Moorish Spain finally met the military might of the combined Catholic armies of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The final collapse of the Islamic kingdoms of Moorish Spain in 1492 was the momentous occasions when Granada fell to Isabel and Ferdinand.

Today, Granada retains the cultural heritage of the past, the narrow city streets and the white-washed houses of the surrounding hills.

Beyond the city, the expanse of the irrigated crops in the dry valley are the legacy of Moorish settlement in Granada.


The Alhambra complex is situated on mountainous  area overlooking the city of Granada and the surrounding countryside. Although the Alhambra was originally built as a fortress in 889, the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, Emir Muhammed Al-Ahmambra begun to re-purpose the Alhambra into a royal palace in 1238.


In 1492, Granada fell to the combined Catholic armies of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, ushering Andalusia into some of the darkest historical eras to follow. The alarming rates of religious persecution and expulsion of non-Catholics from Spain increased throughout the successive monarchies. The communities within Andalusia, Jewish, Islamic and other faiths were quickly driven from Granada and surrounding towns, fleeing from what had been their homelands for successive generations.


The Generalife gardens are part of the UNESCO Alhambra site, a sprawling series of gardens originally part of the Nasrid dynasty summer palaces built as extensions to the pre-existing hunting lodge. These summer palaces comprising the Generalife are a series of walled gardens, overhung by deep shade trees, persimmon archways, connected by many walled courtyards with hidden pools and fruit trees.

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Spain: Las Alpujarras

In late August 2019, I visited the western Alpujarras, in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, where I traveled from the city of Granada to the small town of Lanjarón, about 50km southwest of Granada. Lanjarón is famous throughout Spain for the local spring that is historically purported to have healing properties and which provides the basis for many local spas, health resorts and provides the bottled water sold throughout Andalusia. Lanjarón and many of the towns along the steep hillsides of the Alpujarra are nestled against the towering slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range above. You can read about my visit to nearby city of Granada here. Las Alpujarras are distinguished for the steeply wooded hillsides and narrow gorges, with naturally-occurring mountain springs providing water for orchards and farmsteads, and where the larger valleys provide shelter for the small villages that are dotted along the hillsides. The white-washed houses, half-hidden among the steep cliffs and accessible only by narrow, twisting roads are typical of the region and part of the reason for its settlement.


In 1492, the Castilian army of Queen Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon finally took the city of Granada, the last stronghold of Moorish rule in Andalusia and the end of the Nasrid emirs and their dynasty. To the largely Islamic population who remained in Granada the occupation of the city by Castillian forces meant the enforcement of Christianity as the only religion. Those among the Moorish population of Granada who refused to convert to Christianity fled into the nearby hillsides and harsh terrain of the Alpujurras. Once within those steep gorges, the remaining Moorish groups refused to convert to Catholicism and through harnessing the mountain springs and building irrigation networks as they had done with Granada, the rebellious Moorish communities became self-sufficient amid the harsh hillsides, aided by largely inaccessible slopes and the network of trade routes that crossed the Alpujarras and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Eventually, much like the remainder Andalusia, Las Alpujarras fell under the dominion of the Catholic Spanish kingdom but the Moorish past is imprinted on the landscape and irrigation systems are still used by local farmers today.

I had the great opportunity and pleasure to revive my long-neglected horse riding skills again. I organised a trek for several hours, riding one of the local Andalusian horse breeds through the Alpujarra above the town of Lanjarón.

Following my guide across the steep hillsides, I had a wonderful view of the expanse of this section of the western Alpujarra and the daunting height of the rocky slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range continuing above me.

The trek followed the twisting and half-obscured Moorish mule tracks, the trade routes once used to connect the inland city of Granada to the Mediterranean coastline and for many hundreds of years later, still served as passage between inland Andalusia and the coast. These mule tracks are still be used today and traverse the hillsides of Las Alpujarras before climbing into the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There are some horse riding treks and hiking treks that still follow these age-old routes to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains and down to the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Spain: Madrid

My European writing holiday and research gathering adventure began in Madrid in mid-August 2019. Madrid is the capital city of modern Spain but has also been the historical capital of Spanish kingdom and it is where the Royal Palace is still located today. You can read more about my visit to the Real Palacio de la Madrid here. Madrid is a fabulous sprawling city of twisting alleys, open plazas and lively markets. I visited Madrid to better understand the history of Spain, at least as it is reflected in the historical architecture, classical museums, cityscape and local populous today.


I stayed in one of the older regions of Madrid, near the El Retiro Park (regretfully did not have time to visit) and bordering the literary quarter where the famous Spanish Golden Age authors Cervantes and Lope de Vega once lived. The house of Lope de Vega is now preserved as a historical museum. Staying in this central area of Madrid with its labyrinth-like streets was a great experience.


I visited the Peutra de la Sol, The “Gate of the Sun” which is now a plaza marking the limits of the former 12th century city walls. A prominent statue of Spanish King Charles (Carlos) III (1759–1788) occupies the centre of the plaza at the Peutra de la Sol.

In 1735, Charles III was recognized for re-taking of the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples but he did not succeed to the Spanish throne until 1759. Despite his reforms to the Church, promotion of science during the time of Enlightenment and reforms to university education, Charles III seemed hindered by having spent his first 20 years in the Italian peninsula and the developments and success he met with there were not replicated with ease in Spain. He was remembered for trying to reduce the influence of the Church, advanced agricultural reforms and reduce warfare. He died at age 72 at the Royal Palace of Madrid in 1788.


There is also a famous and fairly confusing statue of a bear eating fruit from a small tree. This ancient symbol is also on the Coat of Arms for principality of Madrid. The statue is called El Oso y el Madroño or “The bear and the strawberry tree’. There is an interesting history behind the origin of this curious symbol for Madrid. Apparently, during the Roman Empire, the region surrounding what later became Madrid, was inhabited by many wild bears living in the forests. The city that became Madrid was named Ursaria, from the Roman “Bear”.


The Plaza Mayor is the largest and most important central square in Madrid. Historically, it was a scene of executions for those convicted criminals and also the heretics trialed under the Spanish Inquisition. The opposing ends of the Plaza Mayor catered to the secular executions and punishments and those executed and punished under religious crimes.

A statue of Spanish King Philip III (1529-1621) holds prominent place in the centre of the Plaza Mayor.

The impressive equestrian statue shows Philip III who is also known as “Philip the Pious” for his strong religious views. Philip III is not remembered kindly in history with most commentaries linking the decline of the Spanish kingdom and empire to his reign. It was during Philip II’s reign that Spain entered the The Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Philip III was also responsible for continuing the decree of his father Philip II on the expulsion of Muslim descendants from Spain. Further issues inherited from Philip II continued to drastically affect Philip III’s reign and his reliance on the Duke of Lerma was particularly negative and damning to his reputation and the fortunes of Spanish kingdom and the empire.

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Vikings in Australia

While the Northern Hemisphere celebrated MidSummer, the Southern Hemisphere filled with the sudden arrival of icy winter storms. I ventured to Melbourne, Victoria for a brief research trip and an amazing experience of Vikings in Australia. Not to mislead, it is not thought Vikings ventured into the Southern Ocean but an unmissable museum exhibition from Sweden had definitely made the journey.
First stop in any research-writing experience was a visit to the grand building housing the State Library of Victoria. Located in the library front gardens are many wonderful bronze statues. Two bronze statues, my favourite (and endlessly fascinating) historical and legendary figures, gracing the forecourt. The impressive statues of Joan of Arc and St George and the Dragon stand at the main entrance to the State Library.

Next stop on the research journey was the Melbourne Mvuseum and the exhibition I’d been waiting to see: Vikings: Beyond the Legend. The exhibition is part of a large travelling exhibition from the popular exhibit We Call them Vikings displayed at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The Vikings exhibition in Melbourne featured Viking Age artefacts (750 to 1110). Th ese artefacts ranged from beautiful beaded jewellery for women with gold and silver, a stunning pendant of Thor’s hammer. Other items included the archaeological remains of Nordic swords and daggers (evidently prized for functionality, not beauty), household items, farming implements, slave shackles and religious items. The exhibition was well-planned with sections dedicated to different aspects of Viking Age life with rich detail on the household, battle, religion, entertainment, seafaring and trade. The exhibition at Melbourne Museum continues until late August.


At the end of a long, inspirational day, I felt renewed with interest and heavy with this treasure trove of research books from the exhibition and my detour via the bookstore at the State Library of Victoria.