In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on archaeogenetics and the media and popular reception of the Viking Age in contemporary society. This took place in the fabulous historic town of Sigtuna, Sweden.
As well as enjoying the event itself, I took the opportunity to explore the museum as well as the townscape which preserves medieval streets, multiple ruined medieval churches and a plethora of 11th-century Viking-period rune-stones. These all merit the discerning visitor’s attention.
Yet, for this blog-post, I wish to report here on a less-visited rune-stone compared with those in the town itself. One early morning I went for a walk out of town along the lakeside and I sought out one isolated runestone to the north-east near Vibyvägen.
This one particular runestone is not exceptional in any regard, yet its relatively isolated and humble location and its carving on an earthfast boulder helps me to really appreciate how these monuments operated in relation to mobility and social memory in the early medieval landscape.
Let me introduce U412.
This is recorded in the Runor data here.
And its heritage record on Fornsok here
The Runor database translation is:
Sibbi had the runes carved in memory of Órœkja, his father; and Þyrvé in memory of her husbandman.
The inscription on the heritage board reads:
Sibbi had the runes cut in memory of Orökja, his father and Tyrve/Tyre in memory of her husband.
This is nothing particular special – one of hundreds of Uppland rune-stones dating to the 11th century. The simple formula of two family members commemorating their father/husband speaks of the role of these monuments to commemorate the dead and assert claims of inheritance over their land and resources.
What is more interesting is how this earthfast boulder allows us to be confident regarding how the monument had originally been placed, since it remains in its original location. So, let us now turn to the materiality and location of the monument. The heritage interpretation panel helpfully explains that:
‘when the runes were carved the waterfront reaches almost to the boulder and the road from the town of Sigtuna passed it to a landing-stage for ferries to Garnsviken. On the opposite shore the remains of a landing-stage can be seen and from there the road continued eastwards passing the runestones U411 and U410 and continuing towards Märsta where it connected with the main road southwards to Stockholm’.
The modern road – 263 – replaces this historic communication route to the north, crossing Garnsviken on a substantial bridge, but in the Viking Age the inlet was much wider and the water level higher.
The faded red paint of the runestone is obviously modern, to help visitors and locals alike appreciate the carvings which might otherwise be near-invisible. In the Viking Age, it is possible these were carved and painted in a range of striking colours including black, white, blue, yellow, red and green, so if anything they would have been even more visible as public monuments to be encountered by travellers and those going about their daily routines.
The inscription in the boulder is of an encircled serpent tied to itself with the runes carved upon its body: a rather typical and simple design for late Viking middle Sweden. A cross is suspended (and I say suspended since many of the crosses might well emulate portable items hung around the next or from clothing) from the animal’s body. In terms of materiality, what is noticeable about this and so many other 11th-century rune-stones is how the ornamentation is carefully arranged to fit the natural stone-shape.
The location is strikingly simple and connects to the arguments of Dr Ing-Marie Back Danielsson (2015: 68) regarding how these monuments operated in social remembrance. Rune-stones are not only associated with burial grounds and borders, but by both land and water routes. In this instance, we have a rune-stone placed at a key intersection point – both a pinch-point and an embarkation/landing stage between land and water. In her argument, Back Danielsson uses the example of U112 in the parish of Ed, Uppland to emphasise how the design of runestones interacts with particular earthfast rock surfaces and this helps to promote the interaction with those passing by. At that location there are two inscriptions are on opposing faces of a boulder situated on a path beside the edge of a lake. Each inscription she argues is created to fit the boulder and to face the traveller and engage with how they move close to the stone.
This is but one way in which rune-stones have material affect on those moving through the landscape, interaction via multi-media – images and text picked out in stark colours on the rocks and erected stones of the landscape. The choice of a natural boulder is not expedient or incidental, I would contend it enhances the connection between memorial, its subjects of commemoration, and the place where they are commemorated. In this fashion, to move would be to remember – to be prompted to engage with the names of the dead and claims to land and resources by their surviving kin.
Taking this perspective on U412, we can see how its portal-like formation of the vertical stone surface and encircling serpent upon a natural boulder looking downslope over the water, the striking design of snake with runic text upon its body, and the suspended cross as an expression of faith but also of protection, confronts travellers arriving over inlet and moving onwards towards the Viking town. Likewise, those departing over water would have this monument to their backs, strikingly visible when freshly painted across the narrow inlet.
Here is the historic photograph of the rune from the Runar database which further emphasises how, when vividly coloured in red or white or other combinations of colours, this boulder would constitute a striking feature of the routes towards one of middle Sweden’s most important late Viking-Age settlements.
While far from unique, this runestone, preserved in its original location, illustrates the close connection between the orientation and placement of runic inscriptions and their landscape context as integral to how they operated to constitute social memories through connection to routes of movement. Memory was created through mobility in the Viking Age landscape.
And finally we come to the heritage dimension. While no longer a main route of movement through the Swedish landscape, a woodland trail from the nearby residential side-road brought me to the rune-stone with a typical finger-post directing me the way. Given the reflections above, more than just directing heritage tourists, is there a deeper parallel between this signpost and the rune-stone itself? Are they both ways of marking and directing travellers and communicating messages regarding the meanings of landscape and the people who once inhabited it?
Back Danielsson, I-M. 2015. Walking down memory lane: rune-stones as mnemonic agents in the landcapes of late Viking-Age Scandinavia, in H. Williams, J. Kirton & M. Gondek (eds) Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape. Woodbridge: Boydell, pp. 62-86.