Pre-Viking and Viking Age Sweden

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Sweden is a long and rather narrow land stretching more than 1,500 kilometers from Denmark in the south to beyond the Arctic Circle in the north. To the west it borders on Norway along a mountainous ridge; to the east it faces the Baltic Sea. The climate and vegetation of the agriculturally rich area of Skåne (Scania) in the south is similar to that of Denmark—to which this province formerly belonged. The open plain of Skåne lies immediately across a narrow waterway from the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand). The large lakes Vänern, Vättern, Hjälmaren, and Mälaren dominate the middle of Sweden, which is also dotted with thousands of small lakes. The land in the heartland of Sweden is still gradually rising in delayed response to the melt of the weighty ice cap of the Ice Age around 6000 b.c. In areas near the present-day capital Stockholm, the moraine landscape currently rises at a rate of about one-half meter per century, which greatly affects understanding shoreline locations in prehistory. The large islands of Öland and Gotland lie to the east in the Baltic Sea. Their nodal locations have made both islands important trading locations, with Gotland in particular playing an important independent role into the medieval period. Norrland occupies the northern two-thirds of Sweden and is covered by coniferous forests cut by large parallel rivers running from the mountains down to the Gulf of Bothnia. The archaeology of this region has been studied less than the southern parts.


The final phase of European prehistory is the Iron Age, which follows the Stone and Bronze Ages. The Iron Age in Sweden, which begins around 400 b.c., includes the pre-Roman Iron Age (400 b.c.–a.d. 50), the Roman Iron Age (a.d. 50–400), the Migration period (a.d. 400–550), and the Vendel period (a.d. 550–800) and concludes with the Viking Age (a.d. 800–1050). The later Iron Age and thus the pre-Viking phase begins c. a.d. 400 with the Migration period, when it is possible to recognize evidence of a belief system and artistic traditions that continue through the Viking Age. The entire later Iron Age is in fact a transition from prehistory to the historic medieval Christian period, with the only contemporary writing in an indigenous runic script in which memorial stones and other objects are inscribed.

subsistence and building customs

Fishing and hunting of wild animals, including moose, bear, and reindeer as well as small mammals and birds, remained important throughout the Late Iron Age—especially in Norrland—along with agriculture based on raising cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats and growing barley, rye, oats, and flax on arable land as the climate allowed. Skåne, parts of central Sweden, Öland, and Gotland were the most agriculturally rich areas. In the far north, the nomadic Saami reindeer herders moved into the region, though it is unclear whether their arrival was during the later Iron Age or the medieval period.

Characteristic house types were long rectangular houses like those known at Vallhagar near the west coast of Gotland, dating to the sixth century, apparently similar to later Viking Age halls of indigenous longhouse type that are described in saga literature. A northern Swedish farming settlement from the Early Iron Age that has been particularly well studied is that of Gene on the Norrland coast. Iron Age hillforts dot the landscape of central Sweden, the west coast, Gotland, and Öland, and there are a few along the coast of Norrland. In coastal areas, they seem to provide refuge from sea attacks and protect waterways. Stone forts were built on the Baltic Islands, including Torsburgen on Gotland and Ismanstorp and Eketorp on Öland. Hoards of Roman solidi (gold coins) deposited on the Baltic Islands from the late fifth century through the mid-sixth century also reflect unrest in this period.


Burials include both inhumation and cremation during the Late Iron Age, with single mounds gradually replacing mound groups yet with great variation in grave types. At Gamla (Old) Uppsala near present-day Uppsala, two of three prominent, large burial mounds at the end of a chain of mounds excavated in the nineteenth-century were dated to about a.d. 500 and the mid-sixth century by finds of ornamented gold and bronze fragments damaged by the cremation fire. The three mounds are believed to contain the remains of successive generations of Migration period kings. Several important groups of boat burials have been investigated. At Vendel church north of Uppsala, fourteen such burials contained swords, shields, spears, helmets, domestic animals, and horse harnesses all ornamented in the eponymous Vendel style. At Valsgärde in the same region, burials of both men and women, extending in date from the Vendel period through the Viking Age, were discovered; however, while the men were interred in boats, women were cremated. By contrast, at Tuna in Badelunda in Västmanland, located in the center of Sweden, women were buried in boats and men were cremated. At Anundshög, also in Västmanland, a 15-meter-high unexcavated mound lies alongside large ship-shaped arrangements of stones of a type known from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age. Late Viking Age runic memorial stones were also raised at the site. The construction of large burial mounds represents a concentration of power necessary to command large forces of labor. In the pre-Viking Age, eastern and western Sweden formed separate regions that gradually were consolidated, with the eastern Mälaren region eventually gaining control.

craft working and artistic traditions

Ornamental metalwork is often found in burials but also comes from hoards and bog finds. At the beginning of the Migration period, votive deposits were most often made in watery places—as at Skedemosse on Öland, where gold rings were discovered—whereas deposits of the later centuries were more often made on dry land. Metalwork preserves the characteristically Nordic style of animal ornamentation studied by the Swedish scholar Bernhard Salin, who described Scandinavian Styles I–III, with Style I current in the fifth century, Style II in the sixth and seventh centuries, and Style III from the eighth century into the Early Viking Age.

Migration period ornamentation is usually of gold, made from melted down late Roman solidi, which have been discovered in great numbers on the Baltic Islands. Besides the coins, the gold is found in the form of thin, disk-shaped pendants stamped on one side (known as bracteates), sword pommels, scabbard mounts, and large, extravagantly decorated collars with applied decoration. These spectacular objects, particularly from Norway and western Sweden, display the emergence of Nordic animal ornament called Salin's Style I. Style II is mainly an eastern phenomenon, found in particular on weapons and horse harnesses at sites such as Valsgärde and Vendel in Uppland, with the style often referred to as the Vendel style. Style III is a pan-Scandinavian style, manifested in wood from the Oseberg ship burial in Norway but also in gilt bronze harness mounts from Broa in Halla on Gotland as well as brooches from sites across all of Scandinavia. After the Migration period, the import of Roman gold solidi disappeared and was gradually replaced by silver from melted down Arabic dirhams reaching Scandinavia from an eastern route through Russia. The subsequent Viking styles of ornamentation have been named after the type-sites of Borre in Norway, Jelling and then Mammen in Denmark, and finally Ringerike and Urnes in Norway; however, examples of each of these formal styles are also found in Sweden.

Animal ornamentation dominates artistic production, but there are exceptional examples of figurative art. Large (as high as 2.5 meters), mushroom-shaped raised stones of the Early Viking Age on Gotland (known as picture stones) display narrative scenes of ships, battles, and heroic figures that seem to represent stories known from later saga literature and reflect Continental influence. Gold bracteate pendant amulets of the Migration period also display figures based on Roman emperor portraits that become transformed into images that may represent Nordic deities, and tiny stamped rectangles of gold called guldgubber (gold old men), such as from Uppåkra in Skåne, show male and female couples in greatly simplified form. On the whole, however, animal ornamentation decorates surfaces of metal brooches, buckles, and horse harnesses throughout the later Iron Age.

commerce and the development of towns

Trading and craft-working sites developed during the later Iron Age, and by the Viking Age, some could actually be called towns. Early market and harbor sites include Åhus and Löddeköpinge in Skåne and Paviken and Fröjel on Gotland. (More sites are found along the coast every year.) Shipping technology was advanced, with the introduction of the sail before the Viking Age. Transportation along waterways of the coast and interior lakes and rivers became more important with increased long-distance trade and exploitation of resources, such as iron and furs, from the mountainous north. Luxury trade from continental Europe and from Asia is evident at some sites, particularly Helgö and Birka, both in Uppland.

Helgö is located on an island in Lake Mälaren west of Stockholm. Excavations of several groups of structures dating from the fifth through eleventh centuries were first directed by Wilhelm Holmqvist and carried out for almost thirty years after the discovery of the site in 1950. Objects of foreign origin include late Roman solidi, a Coptic bronze ladle, a western European Christian crosier, and most remarkably, a sixth-century Buddha statuette from northern India. Bronze-casting workshops in structures on terraces were revealed through the discovery of crucible fragments and ninety thousand mold fragments, particularly for Migration period jewelry types. Debate still centers around the scale and size of the site. Some believe that it was a proto-urban site for trade and manufacture, while others think that it was an exceptional economic site attached to the royal estate of Hundhamra, located on the opposite side of a narrow waterway. The florescence of Helgö occurred before the Viking Age, although it continued as an agricultural site into the eleventh century.

Near Helgö, the site of Birka on the island of Björkö appears to have taken over some of the functions of Helgö in the Viking Age. Birka became a more extensive town and trading site and is associated with the royal manor of Adelsö across a narrow strait. Unlike the other sites discussed, Birka is attested to in a contemporary document, the Vita Anskarii, an account of the life of Ansgar, who became bishop of Hamburg and Bremen and whose biography was written by Rimbert, his successor, around a.d. 870. Ansgar was sent in a.d. 820 and again a.d. 851–852 to a place called Birka, which was identified by the seventeenth-century antiquarian Johan Hadorf with the island of Björkö, as known from medieval times. The important complex of finds at Birka has led to its designation as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The occupation layers at Birka are extremely thick and dark—the site has thus been dubbed the "Black Earth"—and the island is dotted with cemeteries including more than two thousand cremations under mounds and one thousand inhumations. Beginning in the 1870s, the island became the focus of numerous excavations, first by Hjalmar Stolpe, who dug in the settlement area and then in the cemeteries, excavating eleven hundred inhumation and cremation graves by standards that were modern for the time. His finds from the cemeteries were not published until a hundred years later and reveal an indigenous population of farmers as well as a number of foreigners, probably merchants and craft workers. Some graves include luxuries and articles of Eastern character. Glass from the Rhineland, Slavic ceramics, Byzantine or Chinese silk, and Arabic dirham coins reflect far-flung contacts. Excavations directed by Björn Ambrosiani in the settlement area during 1990s have led to reassessment of the dating of Birka and the beginning of the Viking Age. Finds of a jetty and workshop dating from about a.d. 750 onward demonstrate that the Viking Age did not begin suddenly in the year a.d. 800. The workshop debris included thousands of mold fragments from bronze jewelry casting, antler scrap from comb making, and glass residue from bead making. These products apparently were made for local markets. Other evidence, namely bones of feet of furbearing animals from the north and iron debris worked from northern bog ore, points to the use of Birka as a center for redistribution of goods for long-range trade. Birka was a bustling trading center into the tenth century but gradually lost its importance as a harbor as the land rose and Lake Mälaren changed from an inlet of the Baltic Sea to an inland lake. The functions of Birka seem to have been taken over largely by the town of Sigtuna, located north of Birka on the Fyris River, during the Late Viking Age.

expansion eastward and the coming of christianity

Trade goods found in both Sweden and Russia reveal Swedish Viking contacts eastward across the Baltic to Russia and beyond. While western Vikings from Norway and Denmark were reviled for their raids in England and elsewhere, the eastern Vikings seem to have concentrated more on trade and colonization. In reality, most Scandinavians of the Viking Age were farmers who stayed at home. Swedish Vikings known as the Rus were instrumental in the formation of the Russian state and in the foundation of Novgorod and Kiev. They voyaged as far east as Constantinople (modern Istanbul), leaving Norse runic inscriptions as evidence of their travels. Late Viking Age rune stones with Christian crosses and prayers also reveal that many Vikings were becoming Christian during the eleventh century. Although Ansgar's mission to Birka in the ninth century failed to convert the population, contacts with the rest of Christian Europe probably made conversion inevitable. Power shifts from royal manors to ecclesiastical centers of power, such as Uppsala, not far from Sigtuna, and Sweden, become solidly linked with Christian medieval Europe as merchants and clerics move within the European core.

See alsoPre-Roman Iron Age Scandinavia (vol. 2, part6); Viking Harbors and Trading Sites (vol. 2, part 7); Rus (vol. 2, part 7); Saami (vol. 2, part 7); Pre-Viking and Viking Age Norway (vol. 2, part 7);Pre-Viking and Viking Age Denmark (vol. 2, part 7).


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Nancy L. Wicker