A coastguard interrogation, a Bronze Age murder, and an anti-monument

“Let’s find a nice sheltered anchorage and chill out for a couple of days”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “The weather forecast for the next week is for high pressure with lots of sunshine and weak southerly winds, so it should be relaxing.”

“Good idea”, I says. “I’ll see if I can find somewhere in the online Harbour Guide out in the archipelago that is protected from southerly winds.”

“Storön looks nice”, says the First Mate, looking over my shoulder. “Why don’t we try that one?”

We leave Vaxholm and sail northwards back where we came the day before with Joanne and Peter. We eventually reach the tree-covered island of Storön, where there is a small bay on the northern side. With only one other boat there, there is plenty of room for us. We drop anchor, make lunch, and relax in the sunshine.

Anchored in Storön.

“Have you seen those huge cruise ships going past out in the fairway?”, says the First Mate. “They are obviously coming from Stockholm, but I wonder where they are heading for?”

“It looks like we are at a bit of a junction”, I say, consulting the charts. “The ones that turn northwards seem to be heading for Finland. The ones that go straight on might be heading for Gotland or even further south.”

“They certainly create quite a bit of swell”, she says, as we see a wave travelling towards us. “Even though they must be a good half-a mile away.”

Ruby Tuesday rocks violently as the wash reaches us. A few seconds later it reaches the shore and tosses the other small boat up and down mercilessly. The owners leap up from their sunbathing towels and run to protect it from being dashed on the rocks. Luckily it subsides quickly and calm is restored.

Cruise ship on the fairway.

In the morning I take the dinghy and row ashore. I tie up to one of the rocks and follow a small path into the forest. I had half thought that it might lead to the other side of the island, but before long it peters out. I sit on a lichen-covered rock and relax, absorbing my surroundings. It is quiet, hardly a sound. I close my eyes and listen. Deeper down there are other sounds – a slight breeze, the rustle of leaves, the crack of a pine-cone in the heat, the trickle of water over rocks. I try to imagine the trees themselves breathing in and out, providing oxygen for the rest of us to use. I smell the mustiness of the mulch of the forest floor, teeming with bacterial and fungal life. An ant runs over my foot, taking a short cut to her destination, disturbing my reverie. I contemplate flicking her off, but decide against it. In a few seconds she is gone, back into the dry leaves underfoot. On the fallen tree in front of me, two black beetles scurry into holes in the rotten wood. Overhead a bird calls, but then there is quiet again. It could be the dawn of time. Life was here before humans came. Life will continue after they have gone.

Lichen patterns on rock.
Forest tranquillity.

My peace is disturbed by the throb of a motorboat engine. Reluctantly, I stand up and retrace my steps through the forest. Day-trippers have arrived in the bay and are tying up to the rocks. I untie the dinghy and row back to the boat. Such forest interludes are restorative.

The days pass in a bliss of reading, writing and relaxing. The three R’s?

“I think that we should start making our way to Stockholm”, I say one evening. “We can have a few days in the city centre seeing things that we haven’t seen before, then head into Lake Mälaren to where there is a potential winter storage marina. We can see if it is suitable for us.”

“Good idea”, says the First Mate. “We could then spend a bit of time exploring Lake Mälaren itself. It is supposed to be very beautiful.”

We weigh anchor the next morning, join the fairway again, and sail towards Stockholm. The wind is still from the south, but at 14 knots there is enough now to make some progress. We sail on a comfortable beam reach for several miles.

“Why are you slowing down here?”, asks the First Mate, as we pass an island.

“I’m not doing it on purpose”, I say. “The wind has dropped right off behind this island. The topography interferes and makes it very difficult to predict which direction the wind will come from. But I am sure it will pick up again soon.”

Sure enough, the wind picks up after a short period of drifting in the current, but this time from the opposite direction, having circled around the island. We trim the sails and carry on. Eventually we see the building cranes on the skyline of central Stockholm. We furl the mainsail and let the genoa take us slowly into the centre of Stockholm.

Approaching Stockholm city centre.

Suddenly, a Coastguard vessel appears and passes us. Spotting our flag, it circles around and comes up behind us, only a few metres separating the two boats. Two officers ask us where we are from.

“Scotland”, we say, pointing to our flag.

“And the boat?”, they ask.

“She’s registered in the United Kingdom”, we say. “But is classified as European goods.”

“Where are you staying?”

“We are planning to stay in Vasahamnen for a few days”, we answer.

Seemingly satisfied, they pull back and then pass us, heading for the city centre. We see them later in Vasahamnen. We half-expect them to visit us to examine our documents, but they show no further interest in us.

The Coastguard interrogate us.

“Imagine being able to sail right to the centre of Stockholm in our boat”, says the First Mate that evening as we sip our glasses of wine in the cockpit. “Look, the Vasa Museum is just over there. Do you remember visiting it after our cycle ride with Joanne and Peter that time? At least we don’t need to see it now.”

We had done a week-long cycle trip with Joanne and Peter five years ago, starting and ending in Stockholm. The last day we had spent exploring some of the sights of the city.

The Vasa warship (photo taken in 2017).

In the morning, we unload the bikes and ride into town for lunch. It is the last day of the Stockholm Culture Festival, and music is being played wherever we go. We decide to have lunch at an outdoor café in the Kungsträdgården and listen to an impromptu group of musicians playing traditional Swedish folk music.

“They really love what they are doing, don’t they?”, says the First Mate. “Look at their faces. The whole atmosphere is great.”

Music-makers in Kungsträdgården.

After lunch, we cycle over the Strömbron bridge to the southern cliffs overlooking the Saltsjön, the body of water stretching from the archipelago to the city centre that we had come in on the day before.

“Look, there’s our marina, just beyond the funfair”, I say. “If you look hard enough, you can see Ruby Tuesday. And that’s where the Coastguard intercepted us down there.”

Looking over the Saltsjön towards Vasahamnen.

We cycle back the way we came.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate on the way back. “There’s the OceanBus. I read about it in the guidebook. It takes tourists both on the land and on the water. You can see the sights of the city from both perspectives.”

The OceanBus waiting to depart.

We follow it and watch it drive into the water at the Djurgårdsbrunnsviken near the British Embassy.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “But no need for us to do it. We have our own means of water transport.”

Seeing Stockholm from the water..


The man paddles his boat slowly amongst the reeds growing in the shallow water at the shoreline of the Great Lake. Ducks beat a retreat from this sudden disturbance to their quiet world. He lies his paddle athwart the gunwales of his boat for a moment and rubs his jaw, trying to relieve the aching pain of several months now, but it makes little difference. He grimaces, and picks up the paddle once more, using it to propel his boat around the reeds until the flat rocky landing area comes into view. It has been two weeks now since he left the familiarity of his home in the rich farming lands of Skåne to the south, and travelled north to sell some of his leather goods at the market in Köping. Already he is missing the succulent meat and creamy milk that his kinsmen produce.

He had made the journey several times now, and knew the way. There were stories of pirates on the Great Lake who would stop at nothing to rob and kill unwary travellers, but they were more to the east where the lake joined the sea. In any case, he had never met or seen any on his previous trips.

The craftsman beaches his small boat, takes the bag with his meagre belongings in it – his leather goods that he hopes to sell, his trusty flint skin scraper, his bronze awl, his cane, and his sandstone tool sharpener – and steps ashore. He pushes the boat into the reeds at the side of the rocks so that it can’t be seen. It will be safe there until he returns in a few days’ time.

There is a rustle from the trees beyond the flat rock. The craftsman turns quickly, fear in his eyes. Two roughly dressed men in animal skins and carrying bronze axes appear and clamber over the grassy bank. Pirates! He looks around, but there is no escape. Taking his shield and drawing his sword, he faces them. The men circle him, one on each side, and shout to him to drop his sword.

The craftsman says nothing. They come closer, the rancid smell of their skins searing his nostrils. One makes a rush, brandishing his axe above his head. The craftsman raises his shield to parry the attack. The stroke is deflected, but still cuts a glancing blow through the shield and into his arm. As the axeman struggles to regain his balance, the craftsman thrusts with his sword, piercing the skins and penetrating the chest of his assailant. As he tries to pull his sword out of the pirate’s body, he senses the approach of his companion, and turns. It is too late. The second pirate swings his axe from above – for a brief moment the craftsman is aware of acute pain on one side of his face, his vision clouds red momentarily, then there is nothing ….

The victor rifles though the craftsman’s bag, removes the leatherware goods for himself, and throws the bag into the lake. He then stoops to pick up the bodies one by one and drops them into the water.

Ursäkta mig, har du något emot att jag tar ett foto av mannens huvud?”, a voice says next to me. Excuse me, do you mind if I take a photo of the man’s head?”

Reconstruction of the head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar.

I am standing in front of the reconstructed head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar, one of the exhibits in the Prehistories section of the Swedish History Museum, trying to imagine the circumstances of his death around 825 BC. I am alone – the First Mate had decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art on Skepperholmen instead – so I had lost myself in a fascinating exposition of Swedish history from prehistoric to modern times. I had sympathised with the Woman of Barum, who had died in 7000 BC sitting upright in her grave; I had wondered at the relationship between the Man and Child of Skateholm from 5000-6000 years ago; and I had admired the Man and Woman of Gårdlösa in their Roman-inspired clothes. And now the Man from Granhammar. All real lives from the past.

The Woman of Barum, died c. 7000 BC

I move through to the Gotland Massacre room. I had never heard of this massacre before, but I learn that back in 1361, King Valdemar IV of Denmark decided that he wanted to add the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea to his Danish Empire. He sent his army to invade the island, but the farmers there weren’t keen on being ruled by the Danish. They put up a fierce resistance by luring the Danes to a marshy area, but the latter won that battle decisively. The Gotlanders retreated to the island’s capital, Visby, where they put up a spirited last stand, but unfortunately, again were soundly beaten.

The marshlands preserved the bodies of many of the soldiers who fought in the battle, along with their equipment.

Gotlander killed in the Gotland massacre by the Danish Army, 1361 AD.

In the basement of the museum, blasted out of the rock, I find the Gold Room, which holds 3000 gold objects from Sweden’s past. Symbols of power and wealth, most were found in large hordes buried by their owners in times of danger and never returned to. The earliest date as far back as 1500 BC, but the majority were made during Sweden’s Gold Age from 400-550 AD.

Gold bracelets and hair spirals.

These gold collars were made in the 5th century AD. No-one quite know what they were for, but possibly they were used to adorn wooden images of gods, or were worn by important political or religious leaders.

Gold collar made in the 5th century AD.

Reflecting its success as a Baltic trading centre, a large number of these objects were found on Gotland, treasure troves accumulated over several centuries and buried for safekeeping at the time of the Gotland Massacre.

Gold goblet and plate.

It’s time to go. I still haven’t seen the Vikings exhibition, but I’ll have to leave it for another day.

“How did you get on?”, I ask the First Mate when we meet up again.

“Well, I took the ferry across to Skepperholmen”, she says. “The Museum of Modern Art is not far from the ferry landing. The first thing you see are the huge sculptures produced by the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar based on Picasso’s cardboard mockups, which in turn are based on the original painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by the French painter Edouard Manet. Picasso, however, had both the men and the woman naked rather than just the woman, apparently to symbolise the shedding of their bourgeois conventions.”

Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe according to Picasso/Nesjar.

“I am not surprised”, I say. “The Scandinavians are pretty relaxed about nudity.”

“Inside there was an exhibition by Jeppe Hein, a Danish artist based in Berlin”, the First Mate continues. “Its purpose was to help you explore ‘Who are you really?’ in unconventional ways. It didn’t really do anything for me, but I liked the step-in water fountain he created just at the entrance. If you chose the right moment, you could step into the fountain and stay dry.”

Hein’s Fountain.

“There was lots of interesting contemporary art from Swedish and international artists, such as Sirgrid Hjertén, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg and Henrik Kinski. I also enjoyed the sculptures, such as the colourful Fantastic Paradise from Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely, and the ‘anti-monument’ by Björn Lövin called Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917, in which he uses a block of granite with an X painted onto it to represent Lenin’s visit to Stockholm without commemorating Lenin himself. The aim apparently was to challenge the power structures that determine who and what is commemorated. I found that quite an interesting concept at least, even if it does look rather drab.”

Anti-monument: Lövin’s Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917.

“I can see why it is called an anti-monument, at least”, I say.

“But what about yourself?”, she asks. “How was the History Museum?”

I tell her of my adventures there.

“What I found interesting was that at the end of the Prehistories section, there were a series of questions challenging our worldviews”, I say. “Questions like were their concept of families the same then as now, how large was their world compared to ours now, and who controlled their world then compared to now? You take it for granted that people then thought in much the same way as we do now, but it really made me wonder how true that is. Did you know, for example, that the concept of a nuclear family only dates from 1940s America?”

“No, I didn’t”, says the First Mate. “But thinking about it, our ancestors did tend to live in extended families, so I am not really surprised.”

“Then at the end, they made the point that history itself is a human construction, often with a political agenda in mind”, I continue. “Histories can change over time. One example is a bronze and iron helmet from 550-800 AD that was found in Uppland In the 19th century – it was taken as evidence of tall noble knights of the mythical kingdom of Svea that was supposed to be the forerunner of modern Sweden.”

Iron and bronze helmet used to construct the Svean kingdom myth.

“It makes you wonder what histories you are being told now that will be scoffed at as propaganda in a hundred years’ time or so”, chips in Spencer from the bimini. “Is anything really true, or is it all just a human construct?”

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