This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects.
I didn’t realise there was an International Viking Day – until Facebook told me there was one. Apparently it falls on 8 May each year since 2013. It is a time to ‘get off the bedstraws, polish the swords and prepare the ships to visit friends and enemies near and far’, according to the Destination Viking Scandinavian tourism website at least.
Luckily, I was doing my bit for International Viking Day, roaming the Swedish island of Gotland researching Viking Age picture stones and ship stone arrangements.
The island of Gotland — Sweden’s largest — is about 3 hours by (very large) car ferry from Stockholm, bang in the middle of the Baltic Sea, quite a strategic location. By the mid-900s it replaced the towns of Birka and Sigtuna in Lake Mälaren as a major trading centre in the region, well placed for the Russian-Byzantine trade. By the 12th century the main township on Gotland, Visby, became the centre of the Hanseatic League of merchants in the Baltic up to the 14th century.
Visby is now a World Heritage Listed town, with an amazing collection of buildings from a walled medieval port town. Its 13th-century ramparts and more than 200 warehouses and wealthy merchants’ dwellings from the same period make it the best-preserved fortified commercial city in northern Europe. It is also known for the infamous Battle of Visby in 1361, where the town locked its gates to its soldiers and watched as their peasant army was massacred by Danish forces in front of the town wall. Nowadays, a much quieter Visby is a favourite with tourists in summer and a new pier is being built for the large cruise ships whose passengers frequent the rustic town’s shops, bars and historic sites.
Gotland is famous for such Viking Age finds as the Spillings Hoard of silver coins (the largest find of silver coins, mostly Arabic) and the Mastermyr Chest (which contained the largest number of Viking Age tools ever found). It is also well known for its large number of picture stones. Over 400 have been found on the island, some from earlier periods but many from the Viking Age (about 750 to 1100).
The picture stones — distinct from runestones in that they mainly tell a message in picture form rather than text — are made from the abundant limestone on the island. They were carved and painted with mythological scenes, and seem to have mainly been memorial stones, dedicated to individuals and placed in prominent locations.
Some of the stones are understandably quite worn with age and the images very hard to see, let alone decipher. In the 1940s archaeologist Sune Lindqvist surveyed and interpreted the Gotlandic monuments, using an electric lamp and then paint to enhance the grooves. New technologies such as macro-photography and 3D-scanning have offered new opportunities. Recently, Sigmund Oehrl of the Institut für Nordische Philologie in Munich, Germany, has taken Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to the Gotland stones with some surprising results. Oehrl has a forthcoming book on the Gotland picture stones.
I was particularly interested in the images of ships on many of the Gotland stones. These images have added historical information on Viking Age boats to the archaeological record and aided in reconstructions such as the Draken Harald Hårfagre – currently on a voyage from Norway to Canada and the US. For example, sails are commonly depicted on the stones as chequered, not striped.
But ships have also been found to be important elements of symbolism in the Viking Age (and earlier). Boats were sunk in bogs, small ‘model’ boats were constructed, houses were built in the shape of upturned boats, images of boats appear in artefact decoration and boats and ships are shown in Stone Age and Bronze Age stone engravings. Archaeologists agree they played an important role in various rituals, including burial practices. On the Gotland picture stones, the images of ships were likely showing the voyages of the dead – symbolically transporting the body to the burial place and then to the land of the dead.
Ships were important to cultures in Scandinavia long before the Viking Age. They have been part of funerary practices in Bronze and Iron Age cultures. While my research into the significance of funeral practices involving ships and boats across different cultures continues, at least I was doing something appropriate on International Viking Day 2016.
Dr Stephen Gapps – ANMM Curator
Ole Crumlin-Pedersen & Birgitte Munch Thye (eds), The Ship as Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia, Publications from the National Museum, Copenhagen 1995
Sigmund Oehrl, ‘Horned ship-guide – an unnoticed picture stone fragment from Stora Valle in Rute, Gotland’, Forn Vännen Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research, 2016/1, pp 53-55
Sigmund Oehrl, Gotland’s Picture Stones: Bearers of an Enigmatic Legacy, Gotlands Museum, 2012
Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 2002