Uppsala, Sweden: A University Town With Viking Roots

Uppsala
Uppsala University in Sweden is 535 years old today, having been inaugurated on this date in 1477. As one of the older universities in Europe, it has quite a few sights to see and is located in a town of ancient importance.

The city started as a religious center for the pagan Vikings and the location of their Thing, a general assembly. An ancient temple at Uppsala was said to have had statues to Thor, Odin, and Freyr and the entire building was encircled by a golden chain hanging from the gables. While the old temple has disappeared, there are still some Viking remains in the form of runestones and three large earthen mounds. Legend has it that they’re the barrows (tombs) of the three principal Norse gods, but excavations showed them to be the resting places for three early Norse rulers.

As with many pagan sites across Europe, Uppsala was turned into a center for Christianity and became the site for the country’s first archbishopric in 1164. There’s a little medieval church dating to the 13th century and a much more elegant cathedral from the 15th century. I wish I could describe the interior of the earlier church to you, but on my visit I walked in on a wailing baby getting baptized and had to walk right out! Such are the hazards of travel.

The later house of worship still serves as the cathedral today. Its brick exterior has a warm, homey feel, but when you go inside you find the soaring arches and fine stonework that you’d expect from a European cathedral. Inside you can find the tombs of important Swedes such a King Gustav Vasa (of Vasa ship fame), scientist Carl Linnaeus and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

As for the university itself, such an old center of learning is bound to have some attractions. In good weather visit the Linnaean Garden, a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1655 and reorganized by Carl Linnaeus, who created the taxonomic system still used to categorize plants and animals today. He got in trouble with church authorities for categorizing humans as primates. Above is a view of the gardens courtesy Andreas Trepte, who caught them on one of those warm, sunny days that are so precious this far north. The gardens are an easy stroll from Uppsala Castle, complete with throne room and a rich collection of European art.

%Gallery-167737%The Gustavianum, formerly an operating theater where 17th century medical students could watch dissections, is now a museum showing off the university’s art and archaeological collections. There’s also a cool exhibit of early scientific instruments. The old operating theater still exists if you want to see what it was like to get cut up in public.

Take some time to soak up Uppsala’s atmosphere. Stroll through the narrow medieval lanes and along the riverside where the students like to lounge. Being a northern city, it changes dramatically with the seasons. My first visit was in winter and was in fact my favorite. Standing atop an old Viking barrow and looking out across the snow-covered fields as the church spire rose in the gray distance, I felt like I was seeing Sweden at its best. Sure, we all like sunshine, but biting cold wind and short, overcast days seemed more properly Scandinavian!

Uppsala makes an easy day trip from Stockholm and is one of the top places to see in Sweden. Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) with its pagan remains and early church, is just outside the more modern town.

Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle

Eynhallow
Orkney is an ancient land where prehistoric monuments still dominate the landscape, along with the wide sky and surrounding sea. Plenty of strange stories have grown up about certain places. Some of the strangest have to do with a little island called Eynhallow.

Eynhallow has been deserted since 1851. Considering that it’s a little less than 200 acres of treeless grass and rocky cliffs surrounded by dangerously strong tides, it’s a testament to Orcadian toughness that it was ever inhabited at all.

For a long time, the stories say, it wasn’t inhabited by people, but by the Finfolk. The Finfolk were a race of magical beings who in the summer lived on the island, which was then called Hildaland. This island itself was magical and was usually invisible to mortal eyes.

The Finfolk were evil beings and sometimes abducted people, much like the elves of European folklore before fantasy writers turned them into metrosexuals. One day a Finman abducted the wife of the Goodman of Thorodale, an Orcadian farmer. Thorodale saw a tall, dark figure making off with his screaming wife in a boat. The brave farmer rowed after them and the Finman turned his boat invisible and escaped. Thorodale grieved for his wife until one day he heard her voice singing to him over the waves, telling him to visit a wise woman on the island of Hoy. This woman told him how to get his wife back and kick the Finfolk off Hildaland. The rest of the tale is told here.

Hildaland, after it was rid of its pesky Finfolk, became known as Eynhallow, a corruption of the Norse word for “Holy Island.” Fanciful folktales aside, there may have been a reason for this. Some believe that a monastery once operated on the island and this is why the Vikings called it a Holy Island.

%Gallery-161239%This seems to have been confirmed when a medieval church was discovered on the island. It had been lived in and built around by the last nineteenth-century residents until disease killed many of them and the rest fled. It was only after it was abandoned that scholars realized what it was. The church building may, or may not, have served a monastery. No excavations have yet taken place. But why would a sizable church and perhaps a monastic community have been built on such a small island, only to be ignored by medieval chroniclers and completely forgotten?

I visited on an annual trip hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, a friendly group of professional and amateur archaeologists who love the land and its past. They wanted to explore the mysterious church building. This wasn’t a simple outing to an uninhabited island. Two visitors supposedly disappeared on a trip there in 1990. Some say the ferrymen bringing the group there and back simply miscounted; others say it may have been vengeful Finfolk.

Orcadian folklore hints that the island is still magic. It’s said that if you cut grain there after sundown, it will bleed, and a horse tethered to the ground will always be found running loose after dark.

We set out across the chilly gray water at 7:30 p.m., which in the Orkney summer means it’s still bright enough to read outside. We passed between the islands of Mainland and Rousay and one of the group members pointed out several medieval brochs on either shore.

After about 20 minutes, Eynhallow appeared before us as a green hump in the sea. There’s no pier on Eynhallow, so the ferry ground to a halt on a rocky beach, upsetting hundreds of terns that flapped and squawked at us. Soon we were tromping down the beach. The ferry had some other runs to make so it pulled away with a scrape of steel on stone and chugged off. We were temporarily marooned on an island inhabited only by malevolent spirits. I love my job.

After we left the angry terns behind, all we could hear was the wind. We headed inland across thick grass and wildflowers to reach the mysterious church. It’s a strange building and I can see why the archaeologists are puzzled by it. Parts are skillfully made, while others looked slapped together, probably by the later farmers. A staircase leads up to nowhere and debris and lumps in the earth suggest a series of outbuilding that may have been the monastery. From what can be seen, it certainly looks like a planned community built at once, with the later farmers’ additions put on every which way.

It’s a lonely place now. Grass and nettles have overgrown the site and birds have built nests in holes in the walls. As we explored, one of the group, a singer at a local church, stood in the nave and sang in Latin in a deep, resonant voice. The effect was eerily beautiful.

After puzzling over the church, we headed out to circumnavigate the island. Now, it was about 9 but this far north it meant we had a good two hours of twilight left. The increasing gloom only enriched the colors – the deep green of the grass sparkled with lighter shades of wildflowers, the pale blue of the sky, the endless gray of the ocean. The shore had brighter hues. Red cliffs studded with tufts of wildflowers housed nests for raucous birds. Fulmars, cormorants and puffins were everywhere. Angry mothers guarded their chicks by flapping their wings and squawking at us. They must have been warned by the terns.

The natural beauty continued all around the island. Waves lashed against the jagged rocks and birds studied us from sheer cliffs. As we made our way around we came across several cairns. Some were guide markers for fishermen, while others may have been ancient. A flock of sheep came out of nowhere and passed on by with barely a look at us intruders. We rounded a bend and humped over a hill and there ahead of us shone the lights of the ferry. It had come back for us.

I almost felt sorry.

For more on Eynhallow, check out Orkneyjar’s excellent collection of Eynhallow pages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney!”

Prehistoric Tombs And Viking Graffiti In Orkney, Scotland


There’s something about death.

Graveyards, war memorials, mummified monks, Purgatory Museums … if there’s dead people involved, I’m there. That’s why my 6-year-old son found himself crawling through prehistoric tombs with his dad on remote Scottish islands for his summer vacation.

He loved it, of course. He still has that wonderful sense of adventure children should keep into adulthood. Plus he wasn’t scared in the least. It’s hard to fear death when you assume it doesn’t apply to you. My wife is a bit claustrophobic and so is less into this sort of thing. She prefers stone circles, although she gamely explored the tombs with her crazy husband and son.

What appealed to him, and me, was the spooky, silent darkness of these prehistoric tombs and the strange texture of the stones. That’s why I love this photo by Paddy Patterson. It shows the Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay just off the north coast of Scotland. This image highlights the almost fleshy texture of the rock and the dank, dark interior.

Orkney is full of Neolithic tombs. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, Orkney was home to a flourishing Stone Age culture 5,000 years ago. These people buried their dead in large subterranean tombs with several side chambers that were reused over several generations. The Tomb of the Eagles was one of the biggest and gets its name from the many eagle bones found inside.

Our visit started at the museum nearby, where a docent passed around artifacts found at the site and showed us the skulls of the people buried there. Life was hard back then and those who survived childhood rarely made it past their 30s. One woman’s skull showed an abscess the size of marble. Strangely, it never got infected. Her teeth showed signs of wear consistent with chewing on leather, a crude but effective way of softening it up for use. Since the traditional method of curing leather required soaking it in urine, and urine is a natural disinfectant, perhaps her abscess never got infected because she was chewing on urine-soaked leather all day. The good old days? I think not.

%Gallery-161068%While the museum was great, I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the tomb itself. It was unprofessionally excavated by a local farmer who tore off the entire roof to get inside. Now it’s been covered with a concrete cap that reduces the whole effect. Hopefully someone will provide the funds to restore the roof someday.

A much smaller but almost perfectly preserved tomb is Cuween Hill on Orkney Mainland. Overlooking the road between Kirkwall and Finstown, it has a central chamber and four side chambers. My son and I had to crawl inside through a tiny entrance passage. When we got there, we found someone had lit candles at the entrances to each of the side chambers.

“Why did they do that?” my son asked.

“Because they’re respecting the ancestors,” I replied. “Leave them alone. We’re going to respect their respect.”

“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t burn yourself when you crawl over them.”

My son knows me well enough to know that a little bit of fire won’t stop me from exploring an ancient tomb.

What struck me about this tomb was how well it was made. There was no mortar; it was simply made from rectangular slabs of rock cleverly stacked atop one another to form arches, doorways and passages. A lot of care went into their final resting place.

Besides human remains, archaeologists discovered 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill, prompting witty locals to call it the “Tomb of the Beagles.” Another tomb had otter bones. Perhaps each group had their own communal tomb and totem animal.

Orkney’s most famous Neolithic tomb is Maeshowe. Built around 2700 B.C. within sight of two stone circles and at least two major settlements, it appeared as a massive artificial hill 30 meters (100 feet) around and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It was surrounded by a ditch and earthen embankment, something also found around many stone circles.

Entering through a long, low passageway, we soon were able to stand and admire a central chamber fashioned much the same way as Cuween Hill but on a much grander scale. The passageway was acted as more than an entrance. For a few days around the midwinter solstice, the setting sun shines through the passage and onto the back wall. If you don’t want to brave the Orkney winter, you can watch it on a webcam.

Maeshowe’s walls are covered in Viking graffiti. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, on Christmas Day 1153, a group of Vikings were making their way to a nearby port in order to sail off to the Crusades. A sudden storm blew up and the Vikings broke into the tomb to find shelter. To pass the time, they wrote runes on the walls. Most of these are prosaic, like “Tryggr carved these runes.” One fellow showed off by writing in two rare styles of Runic. Those who could read it were rewarded with the boast, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”

Another hints at a buried treasure: “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound,” signed “Simon Sirith.”

For a complete listing of the graffiti, check this link.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island!”

The Viking Ship Museum In Oslo, Norway

Viking ship, Oseberg ship
Norway is famous for its breathtaking fjords and Viking heritage. A hundred years ago at the Oseberg fjord, archaeologists discovered a Viking ship burial containing the bodies of two women. The ship was so well preserved that it could be entirely reconstructed. Now it’s the centerpiece of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum and one of the country’s most popular attractions.

The Oseberg ship is 21.58 meters (70.8 feet) long and 5.1 meters (16.73 feet) wide. It had a single square sail and fifteen pairs of oars for when the wind wasn’t favorable. Researchers estimate it could achieve a speed of up to 10 knots and was built in the first decades of the ninth century A.D. Its prow and stern are elaborately carved and have graced the covers of many books on the Vikings. Check out the photo gallery for some close-up shots.

The identities of the two women found with the ship are a mystery. One was 60-70 years old when she died, the other about 25-30. Some researchers believe the old woman was a Viking queen or other noblewoman, and the young woman was her slave, sacrificed to accompany her into the afterlife. Others say they were female shamans. One outfit included silk imported all the way from China. Buried with them were household items, a cart and agricultural tools.

%Gallery-157476%The Viking Ship Museum has two other ships. The Gokstad ship is 23.24 meters (76.2 feet) long and 5.20 meters (17.1 feet) wide. It had 16 pairs of oars and a single square sail. Archaeologists estimate up to seventy people could sail in it. Like the Oseberg ship, it was a burial and contained the remains of an elderly man. It’s almost as well preserved as the Oseberg ship and only a little younger, having been made around 890 A.D. Some adventurous Norwegians made a replica of the Gokstad ship and sailed it across the Atlantic to visit the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The Tune Viking ship, dating to about 900 A.D., is also housed at the museum. Although only about half of it survives, it’s still impressive to see.

Besides the ships, the museum houses many of the artifacts found with them, including weapons, clothing, gold and silver, and furniture.

Now curators are worried because they have found the preservative used by the archaeologists who first worked on the Oseberg ship is slowly deteriorating the wood fibers. The race is on to save this precious survival from the early Middle Ages.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]