Stockholm’s Rune Kingdom
Writer Wailana Kalama spends a day in Stockholm’s Rune Kingdom on the trail of Viking history.
“Rune stones are a time capsule of the Viking Age,” said Angus Carlsson, my guide through antiquity, in his measured speech.
I met Angus by Nils Ericson’s statue at Central Station. A certified tour guide and amateur historian, Angus is well-steeped in Viking history and archaeology. I joined him on a tour of Viking heritage in Vallentuna, just north of Stockholm, through Runriket—Sweden’s Rune Kingdom.
Angus and his business partner Jonathan had established Time Travel Tours thanks to a mutual passion for history. As expected with a two-man operation, their tours are small groups with a sense of intimacy you might not expect from your average bus tour.
With each stop, Angus—a 5th-generation Vallentuna local—painted a colorful picture of Viking men and women, and the landscape they inhabited. On our trip through the Rune Kingdom, we would see rune stones, rune-carved churches, and pagan graves—and more than a few radiant personalities would shine out through the centuries.
Our first stop was in rural Broby, about 30-minutes’ drive from central Stockholm. There we climbed up onto a sloped hill to a Viking graveyard. Dozens of graves, some marked with mounds, others with upright stones, peppered the hillock. Pagan graves lay beside Christian ones. “The bigger the mound, the more important the man,” Angus told me. Since Vikings were buried alongside their belongings, the size of the mound hinted at the earthen treasures below. As for the standing stones, they indicated where a man was buried, while the woman’s grave could be noticed by a bowl-like boulder that enveloped her plot like a womb.
Down the hill, we spotted three tall stones carved with Viking runes and Christian crosses. Runestones held many roles in 11th century Sweden: some were proclamations of Christian faith, others were declarations of power and inheritance rights. These three spoke of a wealthy family, Estrid and Östen, and their son Gag. Once painted richly in black, red, blue and yellow, the only hint of their former grandeur was a thin scarlet line illuminating the runes. “Estrid erected these stones for Östen, who went to Jerusalem and died away in Greece.”
Next, we drove over to Täby, where the county had spruced up the fading remnants of an old Viking roadway into a clean, walkable path. On each side of the entrance were large and impressive runestones. These were commissioned by Jarlabanke, a chieftain and a boastful one at that: “Jarlabanke had these stones made after himself while he was alive. He made this bridge for his soul. He alone owned all of Täby.”
Runestones were traditionally designed to catch the eye: painted extravagantly and displayed on the side of the road. Placed strategically, they were a proclamation of power to all travelers and newcomers to the region.
Arkil’s Viking Council
Our next stop was the banks of Lake Vallentuna, where a square of stones marks the 11th-century Arkils tingstad, or Arkil’s assembly. Here important local men would gather and make laws, discuss taxes and tactics, plan out road-building and delve out punishment. Viking assemblies were often set up near ancestral mounds, lending credence to the proceedings; there’s more legitimacy in words if ghosts listen. “There’s a story of one man who spoke ill of his ancestors at an assembly,” Angus said forebodingly. “The moment he spoke the words, he died on the spot!”
In the middle of the stone-circle stands a small boulder, known locally as the Tjuvsten or thief-stone. No one really knows the purpose of the thief-stone; some hypothesize that it was for the law-speaker, others that it was where thieves were punished. The assembly was also a place of execution: hanging for common criminals, and honorable decapitation for nobility.
Two huge rune stones huddled by the path closer to the water—both with reddish tint and small faded crosses in the middle. The runes spoke of three brothers who established the assembly beside the lake. “One thousand years ago, you could row to Stockholm by boat from here,” Angus added, drawing his finger on the horizon.
Then it was a short detour into post-Viking times, to the lovely Vallentuna Church. Built in 1190, it used to house Sweden’s oldest book, the Liber ecclesiæ Valletunensis, now housed in the Swedish History Museum. Most prominent however are the rune carvings on the side of church, bearing the stone-cutter’s name Andor. We also spied yet another runestone bearing the boastful markings of Jarlabanke.
The Vada Mounds
The last stop was the most impressive, but also the most understated. If you were walking through the countryside, oblivious to history, you wouldn’t recognize the large Vada mounds for what they were. From afar, they were simply grassy hills in the middle of nowhere, with clumps of purple flowers sprouting on their slopes. But each is a massive grave of an important man or woman.
The Vada mounds dominate the landscape like sunken meteorites, with the largest stretching to 30m in diameter and 4m in height. They date back at least to the Vendel age (500-800 c.e.), the iron age in Sweden, when tradesmen, craftsmen and farmers thrived in this area.
Unfortunately, none of these ancient barrows have been excavated, as the land is protected by the state. Who knows when, if ever, we’ll have the chance to see the treasures hidden underneath.
Time Travel Tours runs several durations from one- to five-hour tours. Tours also run to Sigtuna and Birka. Discounts for children available. Max 16 people. Book on their website: www.timetraveltours.se.
Editor’s note: Our author was invited to try out a complimentary tour. However, all opinions and thoughts are solely the author’s.