I visited Iceland in September 2019 as part of my writing research for novel-in-progress Ragnarok Dreaming. Part of my Icelandic experience was the National Museum of Iceland, riding tour outside Reykjavik on the iconic Icelandic horse, exploring glaciers, black sand beaches, glacial lakes which influenced the Viking and Icelandic culture.
Gljúfurárfoss is also known as its translation “dweller in the cave” referring to the large boulder that blocks the front of the waterfall, almost enclosing the waterfall itself and making it accessible only by the narrow cleft in the rock and by crossing the rivulet.
A large basalt boulder encloses most of the waterfall, leaving the freezing water of the Gljúfurá river as the only entrance and exit to the cavern and Gljúfurárfoss itself. The stepping stones are difficult to navigate but provide a narrow path along the edge of the slick and uneven cliff walls to where the cavern expands at the base of the waterfall.
Gljúfurárfoss drops from the height of 60m to the cavern floor. Another large basalt rock is positioned directly adjacent to the base of the waterfall. The cavern is freezing where the icy spray cascades from the waterfall and is trapped within the rock confines of the cave.
The view of Gljúfurárfoss where the Gljúfurá river cascades over the edge of the cliff, the rock surface covered in the dense moss and lichen. The Gljúfurá river has its source in the Tröllagil (Troll Gorge) as a spring-fed river before it passes through a marsh and along the northern edge of a lava field formed by Eyjafjallajökull glacier.
The moss and lichen covered rock surfaces of the upper part of the cavern and a view of the boulder (called Franskanef) that is suspended above the waterfall, hiding it from view on the outside and giving it the cave-like appearance.
Foss á Síðu Waterfall
Foss á Síðu is a small waterfall located in southeastern Iceland not far from the Ring Road, located between the larger settlements of Vik and Hof.
The river Fossá drops from a height of 30m over the basalt cliffs before continuing toward the Atlantic Ocean. At the foot of the Foss á Síðu waterfall is a farm inhabited since the 9th century and associated with local folklore legend of a curse, a ghost dog named Móri who cursed the family living on the farm (which is actually called Foss á Síðu), thereby cursing the family for nine generations.
Foss á Síðu is also the location of another Icelandic folklore. Located opposite the waterfall are basalt boulders called Dverghamrar or ‘dwarf rocks’ are believed to be the dwelling place of some of the ‘Hidden People’ of Icelandic folklore.
Seljlandsáfoss is located 750m from the Ring Road in southern Iceland and only 29 km east from the popular Skogafoss waterfall. One of the most iconic Icelandic waterfalls, a deep pool of water at the base and sheltered space behind the waterfall itself provides a unique experience.
Seljlandsáfoss cascades over the ancient sea cliffs, falling from a height of 65m into a deep pool of water at the base of the waterfall called Kerið or Fosske.
A large cavernous space behind the waterfall provides some shelter from the drenching spray and allows some magnificent photography.
Seljlandsáfoss has its source in the Eyjafjallajökull glacier and during the warmer months, the glacial melt swells the Seljalandsa river, making Seljlandsáfoss one of the more powerful Icelandic waterfalls.
I visited Iceland in September 2019 as part of my writing research for novel-in-progress Ragnarok Dreaming. Part of my Icelandic experience was the National Museum of Iceland, riding tour outside Reykjavik on the iconic Icelandic horse, exploring glaciers, black sand beaches, glacial lakes which influenced the Viking and Icelandic culture.
Írárfoss (Irish River Waterfalls)
The Írárfoss waterfalls are located in southeastern Iceland, where the river Írár flows from its source in the nearby Eyjafjallajökull glacier. The largest of three waterfalls from the Írár river, the Írárfoss waterfall is not considered among the more famous of southeast Iceland’s waterfalls with the larger and more spectacular Seljlandsáfoss waterfall located 10km west of Írárfoss.
As with many of the waterfalls in Iceland’s southeast, the source of the main rivers lie higher in the glaciers in the surrounding volcanic mountains. The rivers descend into the lowlands below via waterfalls, where rivulets and brooks are numerous throughout the lush meadows.
These glaciers and volcanic landscapes are also responsible for the black basalt rock that lifts above the lowlands meadows which are often suited for grazing horses and sheep.
Skogafoss waterfall is one of the most visited waterfalls in southern Iceland and is easily accessible just 500m from the Ring Road. Located 6km from Selfoss waterfall, the Skogafoss is one of the most powerful and impressive waterfalls in southern Iceland.
The Skogafoss is also associated with a legend of buried treasure by a Viking Age sorcerer, Þrasi Þórólfsson, who was responsible for directing the flow of two rivers during a great flood which is also associated with the volcanic eruption of in the Mýrdalsjökull Caldera. The legend of the artefact known as Þrasi’s ring is believed to be part of the treasure buried behind Skogafoss waterfall.
I was fascinated by these stone formations protruding from the front of Skogafoss. These reminded me of the Icelandic folklore about the trolls who become stone if caught by sunlight. These oddly shaped, moss and lichen covered rocks somehow seemed like figures to me, sitting beside the waterfall in the castoff from the spray.
Skogafoss is only 62m high and 32m wide but the strength of the waterfall is impressive with the view from above as waters plunge dramatically over the mossy edge, the rising spray and circling sea birds adds a drama to the small but powerful waterfall.
The view from the top of Skogafoss waterfall, the hiking track continues toward Þórsmörk, following the river Skogar upstream between the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull and past numerous lesser waterfalls.
A view from the top of Skogafoss waterfall of the opposing cliffs overlooking the lowlands and the abundant farmlands that now occupying the fertile meadows where the sea once was. In the distance, the current shore of the sea is just visible, now located about 5 km from Skogafoss waterfall.
The vista from the top of Skogafoss of the lowlands and a distant remnant of the former sea cliffs that is now an isolated promontory in the middle of the lowlands.
The view opposite Skogafoss waterfall shows natural and untamed landscape with the cliffs consumed by passing low cloud as the autumn storms pass out to sea.
The cliffs surrounding Skogafoss are rugged and formed into striking rocky pinnacles and natural stone formations reminiscent of fantastic landscapes.
After the Skogafoss waterfall, the river Skogar continues to flow across the rich black sand beach at the base of the waterfall and out through the lowlands toward the sea.
Skógafoss waterfall is now located less than 5km from the sea but the black sand coastline has receded over time, with these former sea cliffs now isolated promontories rising above the lowlands.
The river Sokogar forms into many rivulets with the lowlands covered in black pebbles and black sand, the remnants from previous volcanic eruptions and the annual glacial melt. These natural changes to Icelandic landscape are visible on such a massive scale throughout southern Iceland and are some of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen.
In September 2019, I visited the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. While in Iceland, I visited many of the wonderful major natural landmarks in the National Parks in the southern Iceland. You can read about my experiences riding Icelandic horses, exploring waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers, an iceberg lake and black sand beaches.
The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik is situated on a slight hill, overlooking pleasant gardens, walking pathways and a feature lake against the city centre. On the opposite hill is the imposing white form of Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran parish church of Reykjavik.
One of the most iconic figures of Viking Age and Icelandic archaeology is the tiny bronze statue of Thor known as the Eyrarland Statue recovered from farmland near Akureyri, Iceland in the 1850s. It is believed to depict a scene from the Prose Edda where Thor recovers Mjollnir during a wedding ceremony, seated with the customary Icelandic cross-shaped hammer between his knees.
Items recovered from Viking Age settlements show the lifestyle and intricate artisan work of jewellery makers from the Viking Age. The square-shaped box brooches worn by women to pin dresses, various designs for cloak pins, silver earrings and pendants plus beaded necklaces.
The weapons recovered from archaeological excavations in Iceland were from the Viking Age with weapons including long swords made from iron, spear heads, arrow head and shield boss, and a range of battle axe heads also made from iron. The two Viking Age battle swords are placed diagonally across the display and were recovered from graves in South Iceland.
A Viking Age sword blade with sword hilt inlaid with bronze recovered from excavations along with several spear heads.
A 19th century sword and several Viking Age axe heads, the larger two are 10th century battle axe heads recovered from South Iceland.
The items recovered from archaeological excavations from south Iceland in the Pjorsa Valley, where settlements were buried beneath constant pumice and ash fall after volcanic eruptions and depopulation of the entire was expected to have occurred. The archaeological evidence reveals the Pjorsa Valley was continually inhabited despite volcanic activity with the presence of settlements indicating it remained a key trading route connecting North and South Iceland from settlement until the 17th century. Archaeological finds recovered included trade goods, weapons, jewellery and household items.
The horse was incredibly important to Icelandic culture and archaeological excavations have recovered decorated bronze stirrups, elaborate cheek pieces for horse bridles, bits and items of harness.
An example of a bronze stirrup from a Viking Age saddle and an accurate replica showing the detailed engraving and metalwork.
A burial of a Viking Age warrior from Iceland buried on horseback with a battle long sword across his back, the remnants of wooden scabbard still covering the blade. The burial also includes an axe-head, shield boss, arrows, coins and stones. The requirements of any man travelling into the unknown. The burial is continued into next image which includes the remains the warrior’s horse.
The burial of the mounted warrior was impossible to capture in a single image. The horse burial indicates that this was an Icelandic horse, the same breed as the only native horse in Iceland today. Connections between of the burial and the importance of the horse in Viking Age culture are obvious, everyday life relied on horses for battle, transport and labour. There are also reminders between a warrior’s death in battle and the female spirits of Norse myth, the Valkyries, who collected the worthy dead on the battlefield to feast with Odin in Valhalla.
Another of the burials in the Museum is this one possibly of a missionary with numerous grave items including the clam shells common among religious missionaries and monks that travelled throughout Europe and into Iceland.
One of the strongest themes in Viking lifestyle was the connection of each man and woman to the Fate laid out by the gods. Of course, the gods were answerable to their own pre-determined fate and the Norns were the beings responsible for weaving the futures of men and gods alike. The classic description of the Norns weaving is the loom where entrails are used instead of yarn and the scissors that cut the red thread from the weaving are cutting life from the tapestry. The weavers, the three Norns are the mysterious and revered figures that tend for Yggdrasil and seem answerable to none but themselves.
Weaving was an important part of common Viking Age liftsyle with the necessity to keep protected from the harsh climate and landscape encouraging the herding and shearing of the flocks of sheep. These sheep eventually became native to Iceland like the horse and their sturdy forms provided meat, dairy and wool for the Vikings. It allowed products such as mittens and wool-lined boots to be created on the looms.
The traditional farm and household implements from Viking Age settlements were simple equipment not much different from Iron Age settlements with tools for ploughing fields, constructing turf houses, various grinding stones for preparing grain before baking, bronze house keys and cooking implements.
The classic image of Vikings displays them as uncouth and unclean but there are many examples of the importance good personal appearance and cleanliness had for Viking culture. The stories of the uncivilised Vikings was obviously a matter of perspective from the opposing side and probably also a good deal propaganda. Skilled craftsmanship is clear is the elaborately carved bone drinking horns.
Viking Age bone hair combs, beaded bracelets and arm bands.
Viking Age culture includes the adaptation of many technologies recovered from Viking raids. The influences of the Irish Celtic culture on Iceland are several such indicators where papar appears in connection with the Irish monasteries. Dozens of copies remain of The Old Covenant, a legal document detailing how Iceland was subject to Norwegian rule, the Norwegian Logretta would administer justice for disputes giving its rulings on a regular basis.
A sheet of restored parchment from a copy of Jonsbok, the first written legal code for Iceland dated prior to the 14th century. The code includes segments of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth approved in 1241 and the includes Iceland falling beneath the Norwegian Logretta, the rule and judgement of the law courts and king of Norway.
A copy of the Book of Icelanders dated to 1681. The original was first written by Ari the Wise in 1130 AD and provided the first written history of the Iceland from discovery to settlement.
Trade was an essential part of Viking culture and the Icelanders were no different. The early settlements of Iceland were founded on trade between different settlements and when required, warfare between them. The hoarding of silver and gold was common in times of war or uncertainty to protect valuables from being stolen by the opposing force. The silver hoard includes gold coins and in the upper section of the display, an example of the scales used in trade to price valuable objects against pre-defined weights that many Vikings carried with them.
An example of different small carvings from the Viking Age on the upper left and right images which may have also been used as game pieces.
In 1000 AD King Olaf of Norway began pressuring those settlements under the control of Norway to become Christian. In response, Iceland did so without bloodshed through a meeting of the Alþingi, a gathering of Icelandic chieftains which is recognised today as Icelandic Parliament. The Alþingi decided to adopt Christianity and despite the formal declaration to worship as Christians, only a few Icelandic Chieftains were actually baptised. Many ornaments, jewellery and artwork indicate a combination of pagan and Christian beliefs were retained well into the 18th century in Iceland. The silver 10th century cruciform pendants indicate the blending of Christian and pagan motifs.
Viking Age traders used pre-defined weights to determine the value of trading items. Goods were priced according to weight and these stones with bronze inlay indicate a set of specific weights for trading purposes.
An example of 17th to 18th century crupper bosses from horse harness which were engraved with prayers and charms to protect the horse during battle.
In early September 2019, I travelled to Iceland and visited Eldhestar Icelandic horse trekking company located less than 30 minutes drive southeast from the capital Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Viking settlers. You can read about about Icelandic Viking history and the history of Reykjavik here. There are also a series of posts on iconic southeastern Icelandic waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes and iconic Icelandic landscape.
Eldhestar translates to “volcano horses” in Icelandic and aptly named Eldhestar riding stables are located in the valley beneath the volcano Hengill, a region populated by natural hot springs, geysers and rivers. The nearby town of Hveragerði has a thriving horticulture industry using extensive greenhouses where heating and electricity is supplied by geothermal power from the nearby active Hengill volcano.
The Icelandic horse is native to Iceland, being brought to the island with the Viking settlers and isolated from other horse breeds throughout much of history. For this reason, Icelandic horses have not been exposed to other equine viruses if horses leave Iceland, they cannot be re-introduced but most be left in mainland Europe. There are also no other horse breeds allowed in Iceland but nearly every farm, hamlet or paddock contains Icelandic horses which outnumber the human population according to a public census several years ago! Icelandic horses are also semi-domesticated and, for the most part, are not stabled and even spend the harsh winter months foraging for feed in the snow drifts. This hardy character and the endurance of the breed to travel extensive distances over the volcanic rock and challenging terrain makes the horses beloved by many Icelanders.
I was interested in the Icelandic horse for several reasons. First, I had to see these legendarily tough horses for myself. They are certainly smaller than I’d expected but not in a noticeable way. When moving, they can cover huge amounts of ground with a very large stride, which includes the unique tolt, a gait that occurs naturally in most Icelandic horses. This trot, is uniquely fast and a longer-stride which is surprisingly comfortable.
My guide with Eldhestar was wonderful and the Icelandic horse I was riding (Freya) was enthusiastic and free-willed (a trait that I admire and seems expected in a breed that needn’t rely on human assistance). The Eldhestar riding tours can be as large as a month-long trek across the island, where an entire support team of horses are required, riding horses swapped each day for fresh mounts. In true Icelandic fashion, the 3-4 horses for each rider follow the riding line in a free-moving herd.
Apologies in advance for some jerky and imperfect video of a herd of Icelandic horses, the amazing landscape in the fertile floodplains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.