Choosing between the archaeological sites of Sweden is not done in the blink of an eye – there is hardly a place that doesn’t boast of some remains from the Vikings and their predecessors, or maybe some medieval ruins, a grave mound or two, a runic stone, a Stone Age tomb, or if the worst comes to worst an iron making facility from the early industrial age. But be easy: here are some top sites you should try to see if you’re in the general area.
Let’s start with the visitor to Stockholm, since after all the capital is where most visitors go. Medieval archaeology received a fantastic boost here with the excavations in front of the Parliament House 1978–1983. Foundations of houses back to the 13th century, skeletal remains from a medieval cemetery, 11 ships and the remains of a 17th century pharmacy were unearthed together with and tons of pottery and coins. The planned garage for the people’s representatives never came to be, but instead the Museum of Medieval Stockholm was built on the spot – a top combination of archaeological site and museum.
From much earlier times is the Viking town of Birka on the island Björkö in lake Mälaren, a trading hub established already in the 8th century and drawing visitors from near and far. To go to Birka and the opposite island of Adelsö where the king resided you can choose a boat excursion from Stockholm, complete with entrance fee and guide, or just get on the boat and visit on your own (timetables and excursions on stromma.se). You’ll find a museum in the entrance area, a reconstructed town block with all sorts of Viking crafts and activities going on, a path through the archaeological area with its grave mounds and a monument to Ansgar, the monk who brought Christianity to Sweden.
The university town of Uppsala also tends to feature on the visitor’s list, and a tour to Old Uppsala will get you in touch with its prehistoric times. Old Uppsala is not an “old town” today, but a grave field with three huge grave mounds and hundreds of lesser ones, a very good archaeological museum and a medieval church. The grave mounds predate the Viking era by a few hundred years and were once placed outside a thriving settlement with a royal hall and a heathen temple where the church stands today. There would have been a sacrificial grove and holy wells for other sacrifices – including humans. Hard to believe in the friendly agricultural landscape of today, so you have to use your imagination!
If you’re travelling in the northernmost landscapes of Sweden, the small village of Vuollerim should not be missed. Here you are in Lapland, in the municipality of Jokkmokk (sami for “turning river”) and Sami culture and prehistory are as important as the mainstream Swedish one. Explore 6000 years of history in the archaeological museum and go to the nearby Stone Age settlement of Älvnäset from where most of the exhibits come. Try out shooting with a bow or making up a fire Stone Age fashion, visit the reconstructed hut in the museum area and go to the garden to study the plants and herbs that were used by the people of Älvnäset! And don’t forget that you’re in a vast landscape of untouched forests, mountains and marshes where the Sami tend their reindeer flocks. Try to make time for a visit in a Sami village like Sierri where you’ll get to know modern Sami life and culture (advance booking, see travelapland.com).
A visit to the archaeology of the north also combines well with a hiking experience. The Archaeology path in Jävre near Piteå takes you past the largest Bronze and Iron age burial ground in north Sweden. There are several large stone tumuli and a labyrinth, and what may be an offering place or a dolmen grave. Information about the remains are clearly posted along the trail, and for the less archaeologically minded there are several spots along the 7,5 km long trail that will give you magnificent views of the surrounding landscape!
And what if you’re headed south? Well, then there is even more…About 10 km north of Ödeshög in middle Sweden, you’ll find the small church of Rök, and the Rök runic stone – one of the strangest runic stones there are. Two and a half meters high above ground (and one meter below), it is crowded with runes on all sides, both normal ones and secret runes still waiting to be deciphered. One knows at least that the stone honors the deceased son of the man Varin, with myths and poems interwoven with the saga of his lineage. The god Thor features prominently, perhaps a mythical ancestor of Varin’s family? Nearby in the forest and among fields are lots of petroglyphs, highlighted in their original red color, strange and exciting…kids usually love going on a picture hunt like this!
Petroglyphs in unparalleled numbers can also be found on Sweden’s west coast, in Tanumshede. The tiny village is situated 55 km from Uddevalla and has several protected old buildings worth visiting, as well as a museum by the church outside the village. Here you find explanations and exhibitions concerning the petroglyphs, so visit this before you get out into the field! The pictures you’ll see on the cliffs are from the Bronze Age and feature a variety of things: people, animals, ships, sleighs, trees, weapons and much more. This is the perfect place to gain an understanding of social life, beliefs and rituals in a long gone time.
If you’d like some more substantial and solid prehistory, you had best switch to the east coast, though, and go to Öland, the island connected to the mainland by the huge Öland bridge. Here you’ll find remains of 19 enormous ring-fortresses from the middle of the Iron Age.
What they really were used for divides the researchers: Were they built to house the farmers around them in case of war? Were they the beginnings of a state project for conquering the rest of Sweden that never really took off? Most famous of them all is Eketorp in the south, with houses built inside the encircling walls – almost a small town. There is a visitor’s center with exhibitions and the possibility to follow a guided tour, so Eketorp is the fortress to start out with, before you get on to the less accessible ones.
Oh, and before you leave with the ferry boat to Denmark, don’t miss the nearest thing to Stonehenge that you’ll find in Sweden – the megalithic burial of Ale, a huge grave with the contours of a ship marked out by 59 large sandstone boulders! You’ll find it a few kilometers east of Ystad, lying in splendor on a green hillside just above a picturesque fishing village…