A Viking trading centre, a mistaken identity, and the early Russians

“Come and see the most amazing sunset”, the First Mate calls from the front deck. “It’s stunning.”

I stop typing the blog and haul myself out of the cabin. She’s right, it is stunning. The small island at the entrance to the bay is silhouetted against the reds and yellows of the sun going down. Picture postcard stuff.

Sunset at Rastaholm.

We are in the small harbour of Rastaholm, on our way to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Birka, the Viking town on the island of Björkö. With about three weeks until the scheduled lift-out of Ruby Tuesday, we had decided to sail further and explore the inner reaches of Lake Mälaren. Rastaholm is on the western side of Ekerö, the same island we had caught the ferry to in the last episode, with about an hour to sail to Birka.

Tied up at Rastaholm marina.

“I told you this was a beautiful place to stop”, says the First Mate. “Let’s get some wine and watch the sun go down.”

“It’s a pity that the restaurant isn’t open”, I say. “It would have been amazing having dinner there overlooking the lake with Björkö in the background. But it seems that last week it closed for the winter. I don’t know why they don’t extend the season to the end of September at least, what with all this beautiful weather we’ve been having.”

Rastaholm restaurant closed for the season.

“I heard from our neighbours over there that the harbourmaster here has had to go in to hospital for a serious operation”, says the First Mate. “Perhaps that is the reason why the restaurant is closed. At least it explains why no-one answered the phone when I rang. I was trying for about three days to see if there was space for us.”

In the morning, I fill the front water tank with water before we leave. As I do so, our neighbour comes over. We start chatting.

“We’ve just got back from a trip to the Caribbean a couple of days ago”, he tells me. “We’ve been away for six months, and are still unpacking. But we found it all quite stressful. I think what you are doing going round Europe is much more relaxing. You can go as far or as little as you like each day and find nice places like here to stay for however long you like. I think we’ll do something like that next. We’ve had enough of these long-distance voyages.”

“Nevertheless, it’s a great achievement to travel cross the Atlantic and back”, I say. “I’ve been following the blog of some of your compatriots on YouTube, RAN Sailing. They’ve been out to the Caribbean too.”

“Ah yes”, he says. “We met them when we were out there. In fact, we are in one of their videos for a few moments. But they’ve sold their boat now and have come back to Sweden as they had some family matters to attend to. And they plan to build their own boat in the meantime.”

“A very ambitious project”, I say, as I screw the water tank lid back on. “I wonder how long that will take? It’ll be interesting to see if they ever get it finished.”

“I agree”, he says. “Time will tell.”

We cast off. There is a light wind, and we arrive at Birka and tie up to the small pontoon that protrudes out into the bay. One other sailing boat is already there. The guided tour starts at 1215 after the tourist boat from Stockholm arrives, and we have enough time for a cup of tea before then.

Tied up in Birka harbour.

“Look, I can see the tourist boat coming”, says the First Mate. “We should go and buy our tickets for the tour before it gets here. It looks pretty full. We don’t want to get stuck in the queue.”

Sure enough, a boat full of tourists is rounding the point. It has come from Stockholm bringing people out on a package tour to the Viking island. The museum and restaurant open specially for it, and close again after they leave. During the off season, the boat, museum and restaurant are only open at weekends.

A group starts to form around a bearded, Viking-looking individual. We join it, making sure that our little stickers are displayed prominently so they know that we have paid.

“Good morning everyone”, says the Viking. “Welcome to Birka. My name is Björn, and I am your guide for the day. I am an archaeologist by training. The tour will take about an hour, then you can have lunch at the restaurant or look through the museum, or both. The boat will leave at 1500. Now if you will just follow me.”

Björn the Viking introduces himself.

We follow him along a track, and past a small cluster of thatched huts. A Viking boat lies tied up to a small jetty at the water’s edge.

“These are just reconstructions to give you an idea of what a Viking village would have looked like”, says Björn the Viking.

Reconstructed Viking village.

We reach a fork in the track where the ground begins to rise.

“The first thing to appreciate is that the coastline has changed considerably since Viking times”, says Björn the Viking. “I have been careful to stand where the land was, but where you are standing now would have all been under water at that time. The land has been rising since the end of the Ice Ages, when the weight of the ice sheets disappeared. It’s called isostatic uplift.”

Björn the Viking explains all about sea levels.

“Let me tell you something of the history of Birka”, he continues. “It was founded around 750 AD, and was Sweden’s first real town. The King at the time wanted to control and benefit from the trade of furs, skins, iron and slaves in return for luxury goods such as gold, silver, glass, silk, wine, and weapons that was starting. At first it was mainly trade around the Baltic Sea, but eventually it extended down the Russian rivers as far as the Islamic world and the Byzantine Christian capital Constantinople, which the Vikings called Miklagård. It also included the west to Dublin, Iceland and the Faroes. It was a vast trading network, and people from all over Europe and Asia came here to trade. It would have been a hive of activity with large merchant houses and smaller craftsmen’s quarters along the water front, boats coming and going in the harbour. Then around 975 AD it all collapsed. No-one really knows why, but it might have been due to the rise of competing trading centres elsewhere on Lake Mälaren, such as the Christian settlement of Sigtuna.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking town of Birka.

We walk up the hill to where there are numerous mounds covered in grass.

Viking burial mounds on Birka.

“These are some of the burial mounds of Birka”, Björn the Viking tells us. “Don’t be squeamish about standing on them. The Vikings had no problems about people standing on their graves – they actually quite liked it and saw it as a mark of respect that you were interacting with them. Many of them were excavated by one of our famous archaeologists, Hjalmar Stolpe, in the late 1800s. There’s a whole lot more of them on that ridge over there.”

He points to a rocky ridge on the north side of a fertile area with grazing cows.

“Who did the graves belong to?”, asks a woman.

“We don’t really know”, says Björn the Viking. “There are around 2300 of them. We assume they must have belonged to influential people of the town or wealthy merchants, as quite a bit of effort has gone in to building them. Someone would have to pay for them. But if you look in the museum later, you will see that they have tried to recreate the lives of some of them from the grave goods that were found lying with them. You can use your own imagination too.”

“Now if you look down there where the cows are grazing”, he continues. “That is where the town itself was located. All the waste was just left to rot where it fell, and over time the soil became very black in colour. It’s very fertile. That’s why the current farmer is grazing his cows there. The archaeologists have also found it a treasure trove of every day objects. Now, come with me. I want to show you perhaps the most interesting grave on the whole island.”

The Black Earth area where Birka town once stood.

We follow him along a small path and climb up to near the wall of the hillfort ruins. We gather round four white stones laid in a rectangle on the grass.

Björn the Viking tells us of the Unknown Warrior’s grave.

“When Hjalmar Stolpe first excavated this grave”, Björn the Viking tells us, “he found a body that had been sitting upright, a sword, spear, axe, fighting knife, arrows, battle knife, two shields, and two horses – a stallion and a mare. Now, if you were an archaeologist, who do you think might have been buried there?”

“A warrior of royal blood?”, says one of the women tourists. “A fighting man.”

“And so did Hjalmar Stolpe, and generations of archaeologists after that”, says Björn the Viking. “So you would be in good company. And you would be partly right. But let me tell you a little story.”

He pauses for effect.

“In the 1970s, one of the archaeologists working on the site, a woman, was examining the warrior’s skeleton, and thought that the pelvic bone looked like it might have come from a woman rather than a man”, he continues. “Of course, that idea didn’t go down too well with the archaeological establishment, mainly male. The controversy raged for several years, but most people believed it to be a male. After all, it’s men who do the fighting, and the woman looks after the babies, right?”

There are several sharp intakes of breath.

“Anyway, when DNA testing came along, they decided to test the DNA in the bones, and lo-and-behold, it turned out to be a woman”, he says with a smile, relishing the moment. “It was quite a shock in the archaeological world, but eventually most people accepted the idea when they saw the evidence. But there are still a few die-hards, including my own professor¸ who refuse to believe it and are searching for alternative explanations. So far they have been totally unsuccessful. So what we have is a female warrior of high status, possibly a commander. She was probably around 35-40 years old when she died. And isotope analysis showed that she was from southern Sweden and moved around a lot.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking Warrior Woman.

“You men are all the same”, whispers the First Mate in my ear. “You can’t accept that women can do the same things as men. Anyway, I find it absolutely amazing how they can work all that out just from her bones. I wonder what they will think if they analyse my bones in a thousand years’ time?”

“They’ll find so much salt in them, they’ll conclude you were a great sailor”, I say.

“What’s that cross up there”, asks one of the tourists, pointing up the hill behind us.

“That cross?”, responds Björn the Viking. “Well, it was built in the 18th century to commemorate St Ansgar who introduced Christianity to Birka in 830 AD. He was from Germany, but was invited by the King of the Swedes to come and preach. He built a church here, but overall wasn’t very successful. A few of the townspeople converted to Christianity, but most stayed with their old gods, the Æsir.”

St Ansgar’s Cross.

The tour is over. We walk back down the track towards the museum.

“I found that really interesting”, says the First Mate. “He did a good job of bringing it alive.”

“As much as you can with burial mounds”, I say. “Let’s go and have some lunch on the boat. Then we can have a look through the museum. There may be less people around then.”

Most of the archaeological finds from Birka are in the National History Museum in Stockholm, with only replicas on display in the small museum here. I had visited the National History Museum when we were in Stockholm, but much to my regret had not had enough time to see the Viking Room.

Nevertheless, we spend an interesting hour looking at the models of what the town might have looked like during Viking times, the lives of some of the people who lived there, and learning of the impacts of the Viking trading networks on Eastern Europe.

Model of Birka harbour in Viking times.

“Fascinating”, says the First Mate afterwards. “I never realised before that the Vikings were the ancestors of the Russians.”

“Well, sort of”, I say, trying to remember what I had read. “Although they were more hybrids. At first the Vikings went up and down the Dneiper and Volga rivers trading, but many of them also settled down, particularly in Kyiv, in modern day Ukraine. Because of their warrior prowess, they ended up as the elite there, ruling over the local Slav population. They became known as the Rus’, which derives from the Viking word for ‘rowers’, referring to their rowing their long-ships along the rivers. Over time they intermarried with the Slavs, and also with the Finns and Baltic people, and adopted the common language of Old Slavic. Their name Rus’ gave rise to the names of both Russia and Belarus. The Ukrainians are also descended from them.”

Viking trade routes and the origins of the Rus’ (from Wikimedia Commons)

“So that is what Putin means when he says his war is to reunite the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”, she says. “Seems a strange way to go about it though, by carrying out a brutal war against his so-called brothers.”

“Perhaps there was something lost in the translation of his copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People”, I say.

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