Gotland's picture stones - an overlooked part of our cultural heritage

Picture stones Gotland

The messages carved in stone are a unique part of the Swedish cultural heritage. In Tanum, the unimaginable wealth of rock carvings has been declared a World Heritage Site and no other country is as rich in rune stones as Sweden. Gotland is home to another, lesser-known part of ancient Norse stone art: the picture stones.

Over 400 pictured stones have been found on Gotland. Almost all of them are carved in limestone rocks and made during the Late Iron Age (ca. 400-1100 AD). They were originally erected along roads or in burial grounds. In some cases they bear runic inscriptions and may have been painted with bright colours in the past. They appear to have served as memorials, tombstones, territorial markers and illustrations of legends passed down through oral tradition. From all appearances, they have had a central role in Gotland society.

In general, the image stones consist of free-standing blocks of stone, which have been given a smooth surface for image production. Sometimes they are shaped to give a particular contour. The high quality and detail of the decorations make them invaluable sources of information on clothing, weapons, ships and rites. For example, it is thanks to the image stones that we know the chequered sails of Viking ships. In many cases, the stones are decorated with motifs from pre-Christian religion, such as sun wheels, dragons and images of gods. The edges are often marked with intricate braiding patterns.

We don't know much about the artists who made the image stones. However, the high quality of their craftsmanship suggests that they were specialised practitioners. We do not know whether they were itinerant or practised their profession in permanent workshops. There are clear similarities in the production of the sculptures and the techniques used, which suggests that the sculptors worked in groups and learned from each other. Sometimes templates were used, so that the same figures were repeated on several stones. See, for example, the eight-legged Sleipner, the horseman and the surrounding braid ornamentation on these two stones:

Today, some of the image stones remain in their original places, while others have long been walled in. Some have been moved to museums, protecting them from rain, wind and moss. A number of carvings can be seen at Gotland Museum in Visby and the Historical Museum in Stockholm. They are well worth seeking out and studying. The fact that the content can often be traced back to stories from Norse mythology makes the interpretation exciting. Well-known motifs include the Valkyrians welcoming fallen warriors to Valhall, the ravens Hugin and Munin and the blacksmith Völund's escape from captivity. It is a rare experience to discover that it is possible to understand the stories and figures depicted in images carved a thousand years ago. If Icelandic fairy tale literature is the written record of Norse mythology, then these are the illustrations.

The Gotland carvings are a priceless cultural treasure that deserve more attention than they have received. Having said that, I would like to send a little hint to our politicians in the Ministry of Culture: Sweden is already a country rich in World Heritage Sites, but if you are looking for another cultural phenomenon worthy of a World Heritage designation, then the Gotland Picture Stones are my tip. Their cultural value must be said to be enormous and should be both considered and protected. They should have been nominated to UNESCO a long time ago, but it is not too late yet.

Footnote: The top image is taken from Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Bengt A. Lundberg / Riksantikvarieämbetet / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

Other images are private.

Print sources:

Baehrendtz, Nils Erik and Ohlmarks, Åke (1993), Swedish cultural history. The Swedish Chronicle, Forum

Erikson, Bo G. and Löfman, Carl O. (1985), The story of Sweden, Nature and Culture

Herlin Karnell, Maria (ed. 2012), Gotland's image stones: the enigmatic messengers of the Iron Age, Fornsalens publishing house

Sandström, Sven (ed. 1991), Art in Sweden from ancient times to 1800, Norstedts

Unprinted sources:

https://www.gotlandsmuseum.se/fornsalen/bildstenshallen/

https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildsten

Information has also been gathered from visits to the Historical Museum in Stockholm.

First published on Cultural memory.

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