Archeologists at the once-powerful Swedish village of Gamla Uppsala think that their dig has simply yielded an old well and cellar. But as they shovel further into the ground, they strike something else. It’s an eerie discovery – and something that they haven’t seen on Swedish soil for decades.
It wasn’t a coincidence that archeologists would flock to Gamla Uppsala for an excavation. The now-quiet village once served as an important center for culture and religion. It had an ornate temple for believers in the Norse religion – pagans who believed in mythological beings and took part in ritualistic sacrifice.
As time has gone on, Gamla Uppsala’s importance waned as it lost access to navigable waters. But while its influence and population has dwindled, many ancient burial grounds remain. Furthermore, archeologists found something beyond an age-old barrow on their dig and published their results in 2019. And what they found represented a creepy reminder of the village’s strange past.
With its green, grass-covered mounds and outline of trees, Gamla Uppsala may not look like anything particularly significant. But it once had a prime geographical location, and for two millennia it rose high enough from the water to become a popular burial site. It also held serious political and religious importance, too.
Gamla Uppsala started to grow in influence between the third and fourth centuries and held its standing until Christianity arrived on the shores of Sweden. The rolling hill-covered village had strong ties to the Norse religion before that point. For reference, this faith saw people worship a slew of different Germanic deities including Thor and Odin.
Along with their main gods, Norse worshippers believed in mythological creatures such as elves, giants and dwarves. Believers shared many of these stories and traditions through word of mouth – thus relying on retellings instead of religious texts. They also gathered for rituals led by their kings and sometimes conducted public sacrifices.
The Temple at Uppsala once sat at the center of Gamla Uppsala. The structure no longer stands, but archeological digs have revealed both log lines and wooden components. These elements didn’t have to do with the building itself, but rather with the sacrifices that took place on site. Descriptions do exist to paint a picture of the temple, though.
In the 11th century Adam of Bremen described the Temple at Uppsala in a historical treatise. The text is called Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum – which means “Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg” in medieval Latin. He said that the holy space had been “adorned with gold,” and the most powerful gods – Thor, Odin and Freyr – sat on decorative thrones.
Bremen wrote his description of the Temple at Uppsala during a late renaissance in the Norse religion, when the structure served as a center for the pagan believers. And among them were the Vikings. Indeed, another name for the famed group of Scandinavian sailors was Norsemen – pointing to their religion.
The Viking Age – which spanned from 793 to 1066 AD – coincided with the high point of Gamla Uppsala’s influence. And, although the people alive during this time are often referred to as Vikings, not many of them participated in the activities that made the group well-known around the world.
Of course, the Vikings’ reputation has been inflated and fictionalized in popular culture for years – since the 18th century, to be exact. People initially described them as savages, and that image has pervaded fictional and film. Vikings then took on a more violent-yet-practical persona; however, this too is a cliché.
Even the Vikings’ most famous accessory, the horned hat, comes from a fictional representation of the Scandinavians. Namely, an actor playing a Viking in a Wagnerian opera wore a similar cap as part of a costume. But no evidence exists to prove that the group dressed this way in real life.
What is known about the Vikings comes from archeological remnants – some of which exist at Gamla Uppsala. The site has long been a final resting place for the dead. That’s because the land has remained above surrounding waters while they have risen and fallen over a 2,000-year stretch.
Three of the most famous burials at Gamla Uppsala are tied to the Norse beliefs. A trio of large mounds rise over the landscape, and religious folklore has the perfect explanation. Thor, Oden and Freyr – ancient Norse gods – were supposed to be laid to rest beneath them. However, different theories arose regarding what remained in the trio of rolling hills.
By the 1800s, some believed that the mounds at Gamla Uppsala actually contained the bodies of three kings from the House of Ynglings. The trio of leaders – Aun, Adil and Egil – came from Scandinavia’s oldest-known dynasty and reigned between 300 and 568 AD.
But by the 1830s some scholars had become skeptical of these supposed barrows. They wondered if the Gamla Uppsala mounds had formed naturally – rather than as a massive gravesite. So to prove this theory wrong, future King Karl XV called for an archeological dig into the rolling hills to figure out who – or what – was inside.
Excavator Bror Emil Hildebrand started with the Eastern Mound in 1846 and assumed he would find the grave of an ancient king. But rather than digging into the supposed grave, he built a tunnel straight into the middle of the mound. And soon enough, he found evidence that the hill had, indeed, served as a final resting place.
Hildebrand found a clay pot filled with the burned remains of someone, although it was impossible to determine to whom the charred bones belonged. The burial site also contained burned gifts to the deceased. All of this made for a lackluster reveal – people following the story had hoped for a clear explanation as to who was buried in the mound.
Nearly 30 years later, Hildebrand led another dig; however, this time he went into the West Mound at Gamla Uppsala. He followed the same tunnel-building method and found similar remains after reaching the center of the barrow. Another set of charred remains and gifts left Hildebrand disenchanted with the mounds – he didn’t think they contained the remains of royals anymore.
Nowadays, experts believe that the East Mound contained the remains of a woman who likely had royal ties. In fact, she may have been a queen – considering her noteworthy burial site. The West Mount, meanwhile, served as a man’s final resting place; he appeared to be a bygone warrior, as he had been buried with his equipment.
No one has ever excavated the Central Mound – although it’s safe to guess that a grave also lies beneath it. All three barrows have been dated back to 475 to 580 AD. And, because it’s likely that they do not contain the Ynglings kings as once imagined, they now go by their geographical names.
Although Gamla Uppsala’s three main mounds get most of the attention, they hardly represent everyone buried on-site. Because the lands remained above sea level for centuries, they became a go-to burial site. As a result, the village once played host to between 2,000 and 3,000 burial mounds. And while most have disappeared to give way to farms or quarries, about 250 still stand.
On top of its barrows, Gamla Uppsala is replete with archeological remains as well. Again, there are more than 1,000 pieces known today, but agricultural pursuits have stripped the land of many of its ancient treasures. Some salvaged bits of splintered stone revealed that the area had been settled as far back as the Nordic Bronze Age – which began in 1700 BC.
The majority of Gamla Uppsala’s remnants come from later, though. Namely, the grave fields date back to the Iron Age and into the Viking Age – making some of them more than 1,000 years old. And this includes unburned Viking burial sites which archeologists have already excavated.
Archeologists have also discovered more than just Viking bodies. For example, in October 2013 a group of excavators trekked to Gamla Uppsala before construction for a new railway line began. And their pre-emptive dig proved fruitful; they found a remnant of Viking industry near the Eastern, Middle and Western barrows.
The excavation uncovered a major construction project from roughly the fifth century. The setup featured wooden pillars left in two rows – one that stretched more than 3,000 feet, while the other was half as long. Along with the natural materials, the site also contained spaces dug out for post holes.
Archeologist Lena Beronius-Jorpeland spoke to the website Viking Archaeology and described the findings at Gamla Uppsala. She said, “It is a completely straight line and they have dug post holes every 20 feet. They have had an idea of exactly where this line is going and where to build it. It is a fairly modern way of thinking and we don’t have many traces of these sorts of constructions from that time.”
Unsurprisingly, the site also contained animal bones within some of the post holes. The archeologists said that they may have come from ritual sacrifices. And Beronius-Jorpeland promised at the time that digs in the area would continue. Not only was she right, but the discoveries continued, too.
In July 2019 Swedish authorities told the world of a startling new discovery they had made at Gamla Uppsala – just by the ancient village’s vicarage. Firstly, they happened upon both a well and a cellar. Once excavated, experts dated both remnants back to the Middle Ages, which is also known as the medieval period.
But that wasn’t all that the Gamla Uppsala vicarage dig revealed. Beneath the cellar and well lay two stunning older remnants of the infamous Viking era. Specifically, excavators found a pair of Viking boat graves – the first such discovery in Sweden for more than half a century.
The interred boats represent a common funeral practise for the Vikings. During the Viking Age, many bodies were laid to rest by way of cremation. But some, likely of a higher social standing, received a boat burial. And it’s just as it sounds; their bodies went inside of a ship which was then dug into the ground.
The surviving Vikings didn’t just place bodies in the boats, though. They often filled the vessels with weapons, jewelry and the bodies of animals and slaves. Legend has it that they did so to make the voyage from death into the afterlife a simpler trek for the deceased.
This method had benefits for both the dead and the archeologists who would study them years later. Because the boats and all their contents remained underground for hundreds of years, they often emerge with very well-preserved remnants of the era. However, only about ten such sites have been uncovered in all of Sweden.
Anton Seiler, employee of the The Archaeologists group at Sweden’s National Historical Museums spoke about the rarity of a boat burial. He told Arkeologerna, “It is a small group of people who were buried in this way. You can suspect that they were distinguished people in the society of the time since burial ships in general are very rare.”
So, finding two at once was an extraordinary discovery for the archeologists at Gamla Uppsala. One of the buried boats had been damaged over time – specifically by the construction of the cellar that excavators found first. Apparently, it had been dug into the ground in approximately the 16th century and had disrupted the vessel interred below.
However, the other boat burial remained completely intact. Archeologists found the skeletal remains of a Viking-era man inside. He also had a shield, spear and sword with him, as well as an intricately decorated comb. Beneath the ship laid two more bodies – a horse and a dog, which, according to Arkeologerna, likely “accompanied him in death.”
Archeologists also discovered remnants of the vessel which contained the Viking-era skeleton. They pocketed nails hewn from iron, as well as pieces of wood. Altogether, this discovery presented a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the excavators, who typically uncover graves that have already been found – and plundered.
This time, though, experts had the chance to crack open a grave left untouched since it went underground during the Viking Era. As such, the team could closely study the period’s burial traditions. They could also combine their findings with modern methods of scientific analysis – helping them to understand and chronicle their discovery.
Such methods hadn’t been used to analyze any previous Viking burial sites of this type. For Seiler and the rest of the team, this fact – and the future potential – made them thrilled for what they had discovered. He told Arkeologerna, “It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated.”
Seiler concluded, “We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers. We will also put the boat burials in relation to the very special area that is [Gamla] Uppsala and the excavations done here before.” Then, the rest of the world would have a chance to understand – and see – their findings.
The Gamla Uppsala excavation crew promised to put parts of what they found on display at both the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm and the Gamla Uppsala Museum. With that, the world could experience the true history of the Vikings, and the rich stories that stem from this corner of Sweden.