During the time of the Vikings and long after, the only way to travel around Scandinavia was by boat. Thick forests or high mountains made overland travel extremely difficult if not impossible. Thus, Viking Age settlements tended to be around coastal areas. Indeed, the most popularly accepted explanation for the word “Viking”, is that it comes from the Norse word, “vik” which means “bay”. They were people who lived around bays with good access to the sea.
Consider therefore my confusion while I was researching for my coming novel, “For the Want of Silver”, when I discovered that my writing retreat, on Sollerön, 150 kilometres inland from the Swedish coast, was just ten minutes from a Viking graveyard. Further, I learnt from Swedish National Museum archaeologist, Mathias Bäck, that the signs are that adjacent to the graveyard there was a Viking “cult” centre. Cult centres existed in many parts of pre-Christian Sweden, they are identifiable by certain man-made combinations and patterns of rocks. While we know quite a lot about the religious beliefs of the Vikings, we have little idea of exactly what happened in these cult centres.
The exception is that of the most famous cult centre of all – Old Uppsala. Adam of Bremen, an 11th C. German chronicler recorded “The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men.”
The puzzling thing about Sollerön, which is surrounded by Lake Silian, is that there is no easy access to the sea for a ship and this begs the question, “How did the Vikings get there?” The answer is, somewhat obscurely, related to the Ice Age. Fifteen thousand years ago, Scandinavia was covered by a huge sheet of ice, up to 2 kilometres thick. The weight of this ice depressed the land under it. When the ice receded, the land started to rise again. In parts of Scandinavia it is still rising. Estimates say that the land mass around Sollerön has risen ten metres since the Viking Age. This huge movement has caused once navigable waterways to become dry land and thus the routes once used to access the Baltic and other lakes no longer exist.
The graveyard itself has yielded a number of artefacts, most notably three swords. One of them is almost unique, only two other swords of the same design have ever been found, one in southern Sweden and one in Norway. The illustration shows the remarkable craftsmanship of the hilt and pommel. The 11th century sword is 88 cms long and is inlaid with silver. The owner must have been a very wealthy Viking chieftain. This points to the fact that the settlement on Sollerön was a substantial one. Currently, the sword is part of Viking exhibition which is on a world tour.
One theory is that the ancient community on Sollerön became wealthy through the production of iron, and there are archaeological indications of this. Iron was probably exported south using waterways which are no longer on existence.
I count myself lucky as an historical fiction writer to be able to live so close to where the people I write about once lived and are now buried. I sometimes wonder if there is not a ghost looking over my shoulder, just checking ……