Of groves and grave mounds

“Gotland was first discovered by a man called Thielvar. At this time Gotland was bewitched so that it sank by day and [only] surfaced at night. But that man brought fire to the land for the first time, and after that it never sank.” –  The Gotlandic Saga, 13th Century Gotland

Though Gotland is largely known for the extensive presence of medieval churches and cathedral ruins, the landscape is also peppered with the remains of pre-historic sites, presenting a complex layering of history. I came here looking for Viking-age sites, for which I thought I had developed a keen eye for, only to be deceived by these millennia-old stones, graves and hill forts.

Tjelvar’s grave is a ship-shaped stone setting found close the eastern coast of the island. I had seen stone settings like this in Denmark, which dated to the early Viking-age. Yet most of these ship-shaped graves in Gotland date back to the Bronze Age, over a thousand years before the Vikings. Despite the historic discrepancy, it is interesting how the Vikings resurrected the ancient practice, though it is certainly not aesthetically surprising.

Tjelvar’s Grave was probably not constructed in Tjelvar’s time, as it is said that he was the first man to set foot on Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Furthermore, the practice of imitating the past continues today. On the west coast of the island, I found another ship-shaped stone setting, only to be told by archeologist Dan Carlsson that it is a replica, constructed by an amateur within the last few years. Dan was kind enough to take me around the island and we discussed among many other ideas, the process of archeology and of reading the landscape.

This replica stone setting is about 1km away from an authentic bronze age setting at Gnisvärd in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Besides the approximately 4-page Guta Saga (History of Gotland), there are no other sagas of Gotland, and since there are no Viking-age sagas to work from, archeologists can only look to the landscape to tell the story. Ironically, in Iceland where they have the sagas that point to specific sites, very few artifacts are found in the ground. In Gotland, the landscape contains a treasure-trove of artifacts. When archeologists dig in the right places, they are likely to find silver hoards and coins in addition to bones and housewares.

Some Viking-age coins in an exhibition case in the Bro Parish in Gotland. The coins were minted in Visby, Gotland and are stamped with the symbol W (for Wisby). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Of course, any amateur archeologists that dig for coins and other treasures in Gotland would be prosecuted. But I asked Dan if it was okay to walk over burial mounds and he said it was perfectly fine, even if I was to put my tripod on a grave. When Christianity arrived, the idea that walking over the dead became problematic, but before this there were traditions that involved walking over burial sites, especially those of your ancestors.

Archeologist Dan Carlsson and I ponder the form and contents of this bronze age cairn. Photo by Jessica Auer.

As a photographer, I cannot actually dig in the ground and search for truth, but the mere practice of reading the landscape allows me to create my own interpretation of this place.

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