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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.