The Viking Rune Stones of Gotland | History Hit

The Viking Rune Stones of Gotland

Teet Ottin

01 Aug 2022
Picture stones standing next to each other. The Gotland Museum
Image Credit: Teet Ottin

The Viking age has proven time and time again to be one of the most fascinating, but also misunderstood periods of European history. Stories of longboats, Norse gods or Viking raids and distant explorations have enthralled adults and children alike for generations.

One way in which we can learn more about this period is through Viking picture stones, which help provide a unique self-portrait of Viking life. There are only couple hundred of Viking picture stones in the world, and most belong to the Swedish Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

The Gotland Museum, located in the city of Visby, houses one of the most impressive collection of these highly decorative examples of early medieval Scandinavian art.

Here is a gallery highlighting just some of these unique Viking rune stones.

Picture stone, depiction indecipherable, 7th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Picture stones are in many ways similar to normal runestones, but with one key difference – instead of runes, these limestone survivors of a bygone era utilise images to convey a message.

Picture stone decorated with a whirling disc and animals. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

The purpose of the picture stones was mostly to commemorate fallen compatriots, though the lack of runes on most of them makes it difficult to accurately interpret the meaning. Some were also used as territorial markers and illustrations of legends.

Part of a picture stone with a whirling disc, serpents, horsemen and runes. Between the 5th to the 7th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Similarly to rune stones, the picture stones were erected between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Picture stone with a sailing ship, 8th to the 9th century

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

The stones are of varying size, with the tallest ones being over 3m high, while some of the shortest ones only a foot tall.

Picture stone with narrative scenes within defined panels, 8th to the 9th century

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Some picture stones were positioned at places with high footfall, for example near bridges or on roads.

Tomb of four stone slabs, bearing depictions of warriors and horses, 7th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

The stones have provided historians with valuable knowledge about the clothing, weapons and ships of the Gotland Vikings.

Stone slab from burial cist with a hunting scene, 8th to the 9th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Most picture stones have pre-Christian motifs such as sun dials, dragons and images of Norse deities.

Picture stone with scenes in defined panels, including a sailing ship, a procession headed by a woman carrying a serpent, 8th to the 9th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Little is known about the artists who created these examples of Viking art, though it seems that the sculptors worked in groups, learning from each other.

Part of a picture stone decorated with a whirling disc and rosette, 5th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

A large number of picture stones can be found in the Gotland Museum, located in the city of Visby. Others are kept in the Historical Museum in Stockholm, while some are still in their original place after over 1,000 years.

Picture stone with a quatrefoil loop known as a Bowen knot (present-day road sign, designating places of cultural interest), 5th to the 7th century. The Gotland Museum

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

 

Teet Ottin

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