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 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.
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.
Similarly to rune stones, the picture stones were erected between the 6th and 12th centuries.
The stones are of varying size, with the tallest ones being over 3m high, while some of the shortest ones only a foot tall.
Some picture stones were positioned at places with high footfall, for example near bridges or on roads.
The stones have provided historians with valuable knowledge about the clothing, weapons and ships of the Gotland Vikings.
Most picture stones have pre-Christian motifs such as sun dials, dragons and images of Norse deities.
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.
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.