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Gotland Picture Stones

This text is originally from a now defunct website from Länsmuseet på Gotland

The Picture Stones at the Historical Museum of Gotland

Historic sources

For well over a millennium and a half, the Gotlanders erected skilfully carved stones that were decorated with symbols of renown, death and resurrection, dramatic scenes and entwined dragons filled with runes. They were probably erected both in memorium and honour of the deceased, and to foster the contemporary cults. Today, these Gotlandic picture stones constitute unique monuments from our prehistory. Together they comprise an important source of knowledge of our ancestors’ world of myths and sagas, simultaneously providing us with valuable information about daily life during prehistory.

The signs and figures on the picture stones illustrate religious conceptions, housing, clothing, domesticated animals and weapons. They provide us with increased knowledge of the design of the contemporary ships and their equipment, wagons and sledges. Male figures wearing helmets without horns and well-groomed beards, women with long, plaited hair both provide a very different picture to that conjured up by many a modern imagination. Scenes of battles and sacrifice reveal an alas far too common occurrence of violence.

Time and place

Over 400 picture stones have been discovered to date. A few remain standing on their original site, others are on exhibition at the Historical Museum of Gotland, the National Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm and the open-air museum at Bunge, northern Gotland. A number of stones have been ‘recycled’ at a later date, having been utilized for building churches, bridges, prehistoric graves and fireplaces.

The earliest picture stones were erected some time during the 5th century and the latest during the 12th century. Dating is based on comparison with adjoining graves and their contents, or on the designs and patterns on the stones. While the earlier stones were placed on the burial sites, although rarely in the actual graves, the later stones were placed – often in groups – beside roads, bridges, sacrificial and assembly places. Their conspicuous position in the Gotlandic landscape probably attracted a great deal of attention.

The picture stones may have had an important function in religious ceremonies, constituting memorials to men who were highly respected in the prehistoric community. Smaller burial cists with small decorated stone slabs are thought to be women’s graves.