New Picture Stone Found at Stenkyrka


Per Widerström called me today and told me he’d just found a picture stone. This is breaking news, mainstream media not yet alerted. Photographs courtesy of the finder, and I hope to get some shots in horizontal lighting too where the relief scenes will be visible.

Scandinavian 1st Millennium art isn’t very rich in figural scenes, focusing more on abstract or heavily stylised decorative motifs. But the picture stones of Gotland form an exception. Starting in the 5th century and surviving into the 12th, this tradition offers a rare peek into the mythology of eastern Scandinavia, far from the Norwegian coast where the Icelandic literature originated. Lovely, lovely stuff.


Per found the new stone during a watching brief in Stenkyrka churchyard, north of the church, where it lay buried face-down near the surface. There was no sign of any foundation stones. The stone’s a little less than two meters tall and features two (?) Viking ships and a number of human figures. Most likely it dates from the 8th or 9th century, and it is unlikely to have been found in its original location. Most such stones are found re-used either in churchyards or in 11th century late pagan graves (as I have discussed in my dissertation, vol. 2, p. 73).

Per and myself talked a little about how bizarre it is that Swedish churchyards (often going back to the 12th or even 11th century) are not registered ancient monuments. Congregations are allowed to continue digging graves there with impunity, constantly wearing away at valuable archaeological source material. In my opinion, they should be required to fund a proper rescue excavation every time they want to dig a grave, or preferably establish a new cemetery in some nearby field that can be machine-stripped and freed from archaeological remains in advance. Such a reform would probably prove impopular among the locals. But they’re too few to pack a lot of democratic punch, mwahaha. Almost everyone lives in cities these days and are buried in cemeteries established in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Per Widerström, by the way, runs a one-man archaeological consultancy firm. He has my heartfelt recommendations.


Here’s an example of what these picture stones can look like once the figural scenes have been made out.

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  1. #1 andy
    October 17, 2007

    Given the relatively short distance from Gotland to the Estonian islands, has anything similar been found on Saaremaa or Hiiumaa? Or on the mainland, for that matter?

  2. #2 Martin R
    October 17, 2007

    Yeah, three or four of those stones are known to have travelled. One featuring two ducks has been found in a cemetery in Latvia/Lithuania. Another one has been bought/stolen on Gotland and taken to Uppland in the 11th century, where it received a runic inscription informing the reader that the stone was taken from Gotland!

    Then, very rarely, there are other types of picture stones on the mainland, and illustrated rune stones. But they aren’t at all as detailed and finely made as the Gotlandic limestone ones.

  3. #3 andy
    October 17, 2007

    Thanks, Martin. Are there any references for these (doesn’t matter if not in English)?

  4. #4 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    October 17, 2007

    a watching brief in Stenkyrka churchyard

    A what?

  5. #5 Martin R
    October 17, 2007

    Andy, check out Nylen & Lamm’s popular book Bildstenar for the Uppland one. As to the Baltic States one, there’s a Fornvšnnen paper from the early 90s, but I can’t seem to find it right now. I’ll check tomorrow.

    Tegumai, a watching brief is when the County Archaeologist tells a developer that they can start digging at their building site but that they’ll have to pay an archaeologist to stand around the edge of the trench watching, to see if anything interesting turns up.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    October 17, 2007

    Does it hurt the stone to do paper rubbings? I would think that would be a nondestructive way to get a good look at the relief image.

  7. #7 Martin R
    October 17, 2007

    I agree, that is a good method though you need to see the stone to know which lines are artificial in tricky cases. The traditional method is to simply fill the lowered surfaces in with paint under horizontal lighting, but that is seen as too invasive these days.

  8. #8 Pierre
    October 17, 2007

    It would certainly be a very good idea to keep an archaelogical eye on the surroundings of churches. I suspect there is a lot to be found there. A late Viking age/early middle age main farm connected to a nice 12th century stone church would be high on my personal “wanting-list”.

    Nice find by the way!!

  9. #9 Martin R
    October 18, 2007

    They are keeping an eye on the churchyards to some extent, as shown by Per’s watching brief at Stenkyrka. But this is only for construction-related digging. What I’m suggesting is that the County Archaeologist shouldn’t just send people to watch passively as people dig pits and trenches in Medieval churchyards. Nobody should be allowed to even bring a shovel to a churchyard without a permit from the County Council / Lst.

  10. #10 Martin R
    October 18, 2007

    Andy, about the Baltic States picture stone. It was found on a grave mound at Scandy-infested Grobin in Latvia and is published in Fornvšnnen 1991:1. V.P. Petrenko describes the find and interprets the motif as a stylised ship. J.P. Lamm then, in a brief note, explains courteously that in comparison to better-preserved specimens on Gotland, the “ship” must in fact be two geese facing each other with erect necks. (-;

    J.P.L. also mentions two more Gotlandic picture-stones outside of Gotland: both have been found on the nearby island of ÷land. The Uppland one was found at Norrala church.

  11. #11 Miel
    October 24, 2007

    Its gotta be hard trying to restore the stone. Perhaps an installations as a replica beside the stone will help visitor understand its function more. Soluble salts contents from environment might have seaped into any pourous pores within the stone, making restoration work even harder. But a lovely found I must say!

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