Gotland Picture Stones

Per Widerström and Johan Norderäng
he ‘Picture Stones’ from the Baltic island of Gotland are in many ways unique; some would suggest that they are the most thrilling heritage surviving from Viking Scandinavia. Yet they are not as well known as they deserve, and the tales carved into the Gotlandic limestone remain largely uninterpreted. The history of these stones dates to the 5th century AD, and perhaps even slightly earlier, when a new form of artistic expression emerged. The carvings set into large stones on Gotland represented sun figures, fighting stallions, and ships - all symbols of power. The earliest stones are large, some more than 3m high, and are shaped like an axe (Fig 2). Another striking fact is that the oldest stones seem to be of the greater artistic quality. The tradition continued during the 6th century, before a new style emerged with smaller and simplified decoration. The pictures still show some stallions, but are mainly of ships and ducks (or duck-like birds). These axe-shaped stones are smaller versions of those dating a century earlier (Fig 3). During the early Viking Age (beginning AD 793), or some time before, the


Fig 1. Map showing the location of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Courtesy of Dan Carlsson.

Fig 2 (below left). The first kind of Picture Stone to appear on Gotland. Over 3m high. Photo: Per Widerström.

Fig 3 (below middle). An example of the successor to the stone form in Fig 2. This class is significantly smaller. 6th century AD. Photo: Johan Norderäng.

Fig 4 (below right). The Hunninge Stone from Klinte Parish. A Viking age stone with symbols from the sagas, showing life in Valhalla; AD 793 to 1066. Photo: Johan Norderäng.

stones once again increased in magnitude, also changing in shape to become more like what most people today interpret as phallus-shaped (Figs 4-5). These stones were popular research subjects during the first half of the 20th century, when romantic ideology about the Swedish nation was strong. In this phase of development the stones show tales in pictures, many of them recognisable from the Icelandic sagas. The Hunninge Stone from Klinte Parish A fine example of this type of stone is one from Klinte Parish (Fig 4), which seems to read from bottom to top. The

narrative begins with an attack on a farm. Above is a picture frame possibly showing Gunnar in the snake pit, while his sister watches beside him, maybe a symbol of a treacherous act. This subject is from a well-known tale of the Völsungasaga, a saga whose subject matter is found on rune stones, on a cart from the Norwegian Oseberg ship, and on a cross slab from the Isle of Man. Above this, a ship transfers the dead person to Valhalla, the home of the gods and the highest position one could achieve after death: a true war-


Meanwhile. Stones are also known from larger monuments. These Christian ‘picture stones’ are thought to have been painted with bright colours. but the message is marked by pagan belief. God help his soul’. Every morning he reappears. If this is the case. and he himself owned the whole Täby. maybe in ritual contexts. although the cross demonstrates a Christian context. A major problem is that buildings contemporary with the stones are hard to find because the Vikings built in wood. the early stones seem to reflect a belief in elements with the sun-wheel. However. Christian Stones The following and final phase of the Picture Stones evolution can be equated with the introduction of Christianity. not a typical Christian thought. Archaeological fieldwork conducted in relation to the picture stones is limited. In the final phase of the tradition we can observe the introduction of Christianity with runic inscriptions and carved crosses. Later settlements are easier to detect because of their stone foundations. Historical Value Thanks to the study of the Gotland picture stone tradition we have gained substantial knowledge about the Viking period. suggesting the existence of an ancestor cult. The message is clear . Photo: Johan Norderäng. They have also been interpreted as symbolic keyholes. Rune stones from the Swedish mainland are in shape more amorphous than their Gotlandic counterparts. Most serious research has concentrated on the motifs. Photo: Johan Norderäng. Some of these are not even complete stones. an apparent pattern in the geographical positions of the stones in the landscape is that they are placed along roads or by bridges: locations where they were certain to be seen. even though the mainland rune stones are younger and largely a Christian phenomenon. where it is conceivable that they were used in groups at sacred sites. The knowledge from this work has in large been imposed onto the Gotland material. A Gotlandic Rune stone with the typical shape of the older examples. had been used in a stone bridge (perhaps a successor of a Viking Age wooden bridge) with at least one picture stone. The main problem is the reuse of picture stones in later buildings such as churches or bridges. while the latest just seem to be grave memory stones. There is also sometimes information about where a person lived and died. This leads us to believe that they were placed to be seen with a farm in sight. From the words and a cross on one stone from the parish of Sjonhem (Fig 5) it is clear that the stone is Christian. The picture stone tradition on Gotland had already been ongoing for hundreds of years when rune stones first appeared. the earlier picture stones of Gotland contain no information about who made them and why. could the people passing it read the stone? Did everyone understand the stories depicted? In comparison to rune stones. May God betray those who betrayed him’. for example. and was already 500 years old by the time they became common. Boats and sails are probably Fig 5. The inscription refers to a man from Täby outside Stockholm: ‘Jarlabanke had this stone raised for himself while he was living. This might be a good example of the reality of how Christianity was fused with an enduring local traditional religion. First. but just the base. ‘Rodvisl and Rodälv had these stones raised in memory of their three sons. MINERVA 27 . This stone in memory of Rodfos. A religious change has been discussed for large parts of Scandinavia during the 4th or 5th centuries AD. In the top field the fallen hero is welcomed by a woman bringing him mead. Archaeology shows that the Viking-period picture stones of Gotland are found in the outskirts of abandoned settlements that are 200 or 300 years older than the stones themselves. Stones are rarely found in original contexts. The placing of the stones could be within farms’ domains as a kind of territorial marker. If that is the case. God help Rodfos’ soul. other scholars propose that the stones are monuments of people who had passed on to the next world. The text mentions the desire for revenge. Here people may have met to read stories from the stones. and he made this bridge for his soul. but early researchers established this name for this category as well. the boar Särimner is being slaughtered for the evening feast. In that hypothesis they make a transition point between life and afterlife. The earliest stones seem to be grave markers. He was betrayed by the Wallachians on an expedition. just to be slaughtered again for the feast the following night. On the Swedish mainland we know of many rune stones (Fig 6). which sits uncomfortably with the stone’s Christian background. The most recent find. On rare occasions traces of colour survives. Evolutionary Function One interpretation for the emergence of the picture stone tradition on Gotland is that it denotes the introduction of a new religion. so passers-by would know who had a stone made. largely due to their characteristic shape. By definition they should not be called picture stones. Inscriptions contain typical Viking-period stanzas detailing who made the stone and for whom. Next featured is the pagan Viking faith with the worship of the Aesir. In fact. The ring is probably the symbol of good faith. and all of them are of the Viking age variety. One stone out of a monument of three reads.Gotland Picture Stones rior’s paradise. These feature runic inscriptions. perhaps we can distinguish between three different such changes on Gotland. usually red from iron oxide and black from charcoal. Fig 6. ‘Brightly coloured was this stone raised…’. but no pictures apart from crosses and trails for the runic inscriptions. This shape is typical of Gotland and is not found elsewhere amongst the Swedish rune stone material. A rune stone from Boge on east Gotland even reads. the original context is known for only 16 examples.revenge. And so life in Valhalla continued. which have been the subject of many years of research.

Gotland Picture Stones the most discussed subjects based on the stones. how the inhabitants dressed. and who was intended to see these mortuary sentinels. we would like to compare symbols and research results with other standing stone traditions. Many symbols are today borrowed from these stones. whether the stones travelled or were once distributed all over the island? If so. for example those of the Picts and Romans. In a way the tradition lives on because new gravestones also still carry the distinct shape of the picture stones of Gotland. national road signs Per Widerström and Johan Norderäng are directors of the Gotland Picture Stone Project. but they inform us about houses. MINERVA 28 . Similarly. Almost every book covering the Viking Age uses pictures from these Gotlandic stones. part of which will be published as a catalogue. The local County Museum of Gotland uses an image of the Klinte Stone as their logo. of course. Following the completion of this initial step. A recently initiated project now aims to synthesise knowledge about this class of material culture. several key questions will be addressed about the origin of the picture stones and the people who made them. and about the use of carts and sleighs. is it possible to distinguish a distribution pattern? Other important questions concern dating. religion. informing motorists of places of special interest. Hopefully. some answers are well within reach. placement in the landscape. The Museum of National Antiquities has picked their logo from yet another. Local companies also try to integrate the past with the present by using ancient symbols. Other themes revealed include gender and. The first phase is to create a database of images and information. have borrowed an image from a picture stone. To fuel the discussion. seen all over Sweden.

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