”“Gotland found in the beginning a man named Tjelvar. In those days, so bewitched was Gotland that in the day it sank down and in the night rose again” (Beginning of Gutasagan)
The Stone Age (- ca 1800 BC)
The Bronze Age (ca 1800-500 BC)
The Iron Age (500 BC - 800 AD)
The Viking Age (500 f.Kr - 800 BC)
The Stone Age (- ca 1800 BC)
At that time the climate was warm and moist and the winters were mild. The landscape ranged from sparsely covered limestone to verdant forests of deciduous and coniferous trees. People had not yet set up in permanent dwellings but lived mainly along the coasts, where they lived on fish and shellfish and hunted seals, birds and other game.
Many people left the coasts and migrated inland, seeking suitable soils and pastures. The first Gotland farmers depended primarily on livestock. Archaeological digs frequently uncover the bones of domestic animals, mostly pigs, but also cattle, goats, sheep and horses.
Agriculture at this time was still relatively primitive, although it brought with it the ability to make earthenware vessels and specialised tools such as thin-neck flint axes for burning-over and clearing land for crops.
Agriculture and animal husbandry gradually created forest meadows and enclosed
pastures that provided good browsing and feed for the animals – Gotland’s
cultivated landscape was beginning to take shape.
Ceramic finds also tell us something of the crops planted by these early farmers. The most common crop was barley, although wheat, peas and broad beans were also planted during the Neolithic.
With the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, the farmers began living in permanent settlements, which, in turn, led to a whole range of revolutionary social changes.
The settlements appear to have functioned as trading centres as well as farms. At several of them, archaeologists have found flint imported from southern Sweden, arrowheads of slate from central Sweden, and amber beads from the southern Baltic.
The demand for storage vessels now began to increase, since people needed
to gather stores to see them through the winter. This led to the development
The need to gather stores for the winter meant that people now had food and other items they could exchange among themselves. This eventually led to the emergence of what might be termed an early instance of an upper social class.
Graves and grave gifts suggest the existence of several social classes. The graves of the Neolithic range from simple excavated tombs to the mighty dolmens, cists and stone cairns that stand to this day. On Gotland, cists have been found in cairns that were probably raised some time towards the end of the Stone Age.
In the richer graves of this period, ornaments are also found among the grave goods. This suggests that among the upper echelons of society there was now a surplus, whereas previously, when the grave goods usually comprised practical, everyday objects, society had been more equal
The Bronze Age (ca 1800-500 BC)
Notable stone ships:
Gnisvärd in Tofta, Rannarve in Klintehamn, Gålrum in Alskog, Annelund in Visby. Notable cairns:
Kauparveröset in Lärbro, Hauröset in Fleringe, Majsterråir, Digerråir, Uggarde råir in Rone..
On the European mainland, several early Bronze Age cultures sprang up during this period – in Greece, Spain, England and in Central Europe, which was also the principal area of bronze production. Bronze spread to Scandinavia either in the form of finished products or as unworked raw material.
During the Bronze Age, trade increased dramatically across the whole of
Europe. The bronzes found on Gotland include objects imported from most
parts of the European cultural area, mainly from southern Scandinavia.
Although copper and tin were not mined in Scandinavia, the art of working
in bronze was developed to a remarkably sophisticated level.
Social developments in the Nordic countries gradually began to differ from those that were taking place on the European mainland. In both the shapes of objects – and almost certainly in the conceptual world as well – there were at first many southern elements. These were gradually adapted to local conditions and became uniquely “Nordic” in expression.
Agriculture and metals changed the entire social structure. The more collective
Stone Age settlements were replaced by farms governed by great men and
powerful families. The family and ownership of land, slaves, cattle and
ships formed the basis of power and influence. Metals, too, became a symbol
of power, since they were so expensive.
Agriculture and animal husbandry were the mainstays of Bronze Age society. However, there are reasons for believing that a class of specialised craftsmen and traders also began to emerge during this period.
As bronze became more readily available, it became an important item of
exchange across the trading networks that were now becoming more and
more extensive. Utility articles such as skins, wool, beeswax and honey
were exchanged for luxury articles of bronze, such as axe blades, daggers
and bracelets. Bronze came to have a practical function but also imparted
status and an appearance of power.
The late Bronze Age saw the manufacture of functional, everyday items of bronze, although by that time the harder, cheaper and more practical iron had been introduced.
The landscape became more open as the forest was felled to make way for new agricultural land. Round the farms lay enclosed fields. Pigs and chickens roamed close to the buildings, while sheep, goats, cattle and horses grazed the pastures a little further off.
Most of our information on the early Bronze Age comes from sacrificial finds and hoards. Sacrifices were central to the ritual and ceremony of the Bronze Age. Sacrificial gifts were probably offered in an attempt to contact the higher powers and ask the gods for help and strength. Some early Bronze Age objects have been uncovered that are almost certainly religious in nature, such as ritual axes and statues and figures of gods.
Burial customs point to ever greater class distinctions. The tumuli of
the mainland were put up between about 1500 BC and 1100 BC and are equivalent
to the cairns, or råir, that dominated the Gotland landscape.
There are about 400 known cairns on Gotland. Many were erected in lines close to the shore and probably served as local landmarks. Cairns were put up as grave monuments for a chief or his family. The deceased and his personal belongings were laid in a cist or in a stone chamber that was then covered with stones and earth.
New burial customs began to appear during the late Bronze Age. The so-called stone ships date from this period. There are about 350 known stone ships on Gotland. Certain individuals were buried in or close by these boat-shaped formations of stone, which are sometimes of monumental proportions. The stone ships were perhaps intended to symbolise the journey to the land of the dead.
The Iron Age (500 BC – 800 AD)
There are interesting remains of Iron Age farms at Vallhagar in Fröjel,
Solsänge in Levide and Visnar meadows in Alskog. Notable grave
fields dating from the Age of Migrations and Vendel Era can be found at:
Barshaldar grave field, Grötlingbo, Trullhalsar in Anga, Broa and Högbro in Halla,
The Iron Age really got going in the fourth century BC, when the Roman Empire started to expand, and lasted until about 800 AD.
During this period, the climate in the Nordic area grew colder. Rainy summers and harsher winters led to lower yields from crops and farm animals. When iron came to the North in about 500 BC, it brought with it considerable changes. Unlike bronze, iron was an inexpensive metal that could be used in everyday life – for tools, weapons and many other things.
Ironworking became an important craft, and the smiths made many items that
the merchants could sell.
The Roman Empire was at its height during the second century AD. Its border with the Germanic tribes followed the courses of the Rhine and Danube. Many of the archaeological finds unearthed on Gotland show that there was extensive trade with the Roman Empire and Germanic tribes.
At the many trading centres along the Baltic, furs, skins, salt, glass, wine and other commodities were eagerly exchanged. Increased trade eventually led to increased prosperity. New farms sprang up on Gotland, and the first longhouses began to appear; they were built on solid stone foundations and had high roofs. Today we know of about 1,500 dwelling foundations of this sort, some of them over 50 metres long. In days gone by they were called kämpagravar – giants’ graves.
The period of the Iron Age known as the Age of Migration (ca. 400-550
AD) was a time of unrest both on the European mainland and in the North.
Mass migrations and conflicts led to the foundation of new realms, and totally
a new Europe began to emerge.
it was during this period that Gotland’s 100 or so prehistoric forts were erected; many of them remained in use for long periods. The best known of them is Torsburgen, the largest defensive works in the Nordic countries, which, with its area of about 1.15 km2 , is twice as large as Visby’s inner city!
Although this was a period of civic unrest, large quantities of luxury
items, especially of gold, found their way up into the North. Accordingly,
this period is sometimes known as the Golden Age of the Nordic Countries,
although the prosperity it brought with it did not last particularly long.
In the 6th century, Gotland went into economic decline; as trade became more difficult, violence and plundering became more common. Perhaps this is the reason that many farms were abandoned and burned, many fortunes were buried, and the great defensive forts were built.
During this period, the dead were buried in large grave fields. Superficially, the grave fields appear to be very modest affairs, but they often contain rich assemblages of weapons, jewellery, coins and glass.
The Vendel Era (550-800 AD) derives its name from the extraordinarily rich ship burials uncovered at Vendel and Valsgärde in Uppland. The items recovered from the burials are indicative of status, power and wealth, probably derived from trade.
Meanwhile, trade along the Baltic coasts remained brisk. The men of Gotland
sailed to the cities of Grobin and Apuole in present-day Latvia and Lithuania.
Archaeological material recovered from the great grave fields suggests that
some Gotlanders also settled in the area.
On Gotland itself, a harbour and trading centre was established at Paviken, in Västergarn. This was to play a central role in the trade of the coming few centuries.
The picture stones are a type of carved, ornamental memorial stone found
only on Gotland. They appear to have been produced during two main periods – the
fifth and eighth centuries AD.
The earliest stones could be up to three metres high, were skilfully carved and were shaped like the blade of an axe. They were raised on grave fields and were decorated with vortexes and images of ships, people and animals framed with festoons and other ornaments. The motifs, which reflect the influence of the Roman cultural sphere, were probably important ingredients in the religious ritual of the day.
During the sixth and seventh centuries, the monumental, elegantly carved stones of the previous century were replaced by more diminutive stones that were not so skilfully carved.
The eighth century saw the reappearance of tall picture stones, often raised in groups by roads, bridges and meeting-places. The motifs were now different and represent scenes from tales of Norse gods and warriors. The images carved on these unique memorials not only give us a fascinating insight into Iron Age beliefs and mythology but provide important information on clothing and hair styles, how the ships were rigged, and much more.
The Viking Age (800 – 1050 AD)
The Viking finds are amazingly rich and show that Gotland was an important
Baltic trading hub, with far-flung contacts to the north, south, east and
Imported items from the European mainland and the Arabian Caliphate, and, not least, the world-famous hoards of silver, suggest the vast extent of Gotland’s trading routes.
However, despite its contacts with distant lands, Gotland remained true to its own traditions and developed its own unique forms of artistic expression, as is evident from its jewellery and personal ornaments and – above all, perhaps – from its picture stones.
During the Viking Age, the population was made up of farmers who lived
in what were known as solitary, or isolated, farms, which meant that Gotland
had no villages of the type found in other parts of southern Scandinavia.
The buildings were usually timber-framed and rested on wooden poles sunk
into the ground. The material used for the walls depended on what was locally
Most Viking farms lay close to cultivated land and old Iron Age farms. They would have consisted of a number of buildings of varying size and function, such as dwelling houses, cookhouses and outhouses. .
There are few physical remains of Viking buildings, since almost all were
built of wood. Instead, the grave fields, the numerous hoards of silver
and other finds suggest where the buildings may have stood.
During the Viking Age, burial ritual gradually shifted from pagan to Christian. Pagan burials varied considerably, both regionally and socially.
On Gotland, the dead were both cremated and interred, until finally, towards the end of the Viking Age, the influence of Christianity had become so strong that interment became the only form of burial. The outer forms of the graves also vary; they may be round or rectangular assemblies of stone above a stratum or pit of burnt material, or they may contain an intact skeleton.
By the first half of the 11th century, Christianity had gained a firm foothold on the island, although pagan traditions were still very much alive.
The long period of transition can be seen in that the pagan grave fields remained in use until well into the 12th century, at about the time when the stave churches and their cemeteries began to appear.
Trade between Gotland and the outside world was brisk during the Viking Age and was mainly directed at the Eastern European and Oriental markets. Northern merchants were drawn to the luxuries of the East, above all by silver. In exchange they offered iron, tar, wool and slaves.During the 11th century, a church was erected in Novgorod in honour of Olaf the Holy, the patron saint of Gotland. During the 12th century, the Gotland Trading Company, Gutagård, was also established in Novgorod.
The silver hoards, almost always consisting of Arabic, German or English
coins and unworked silver, suggest that the islanders’ trading enterprise
created a considerable surplus. So far, about 700 hoards have been found
on Gotland. In comparison to Gotland’s size, this is more than anywhere
else in the world.
The coins found in the older hoards originate mainly from the Caliphate. From the mid-10th century, the proportion of Western European coins becomes ever higher.
During the late Iron Age, there were numerous ports and harbours all round the coast. These ranged from tiny fishing villages to important ports and trading centres, such as Paviken, Fröjel, Bogeviken and Bandlundeviken.