The Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala, Ancient Pagan Site of Sweden
The 11th century writer and historian, Adam of Bremen described Gamla Uppsala (meaning ‘Old Uppsala’) in Sweden as a pagan site where a temple dedicated to Thor, Odin and Freyr stood. Adam wrote descriptively, if not always accurately, of the rituals performed there and of the temple itself.
The temple, adorned with a golden chain, was said to be a place where “heathens” would perform animal and human sacrifices, specifically in the sacred grove next to the temple. The trees were “considered to be divine”, and sacrifices —animal and man alike— were said to have been hanged from trees and left to rot, and elaborate ritual songs were sung.
With the coming of Christianity, any temple that might have existed was destroyed, and a church was built over it. Gamla Uppsala eventually became an archbishopric in the 12th century. Still, remnants of its pagan past continued to exist in the landscape of Gamla Uppsala. The ‘Royal Mounds’ endure to this day as a national symbol of Sweden.
A woodcut depicting the Temple at Uppsala as described by Adam of Bremen, including the golden chain around the temple, the well and the tree, from Olaus Magnus' Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). Public Domain
The ‘Royal Mounds’ consist of three massive hills measuring between 9 and 10 meters (29 and 32 feet) high. According to some, these mounds belonged to the gods worshipped at the temple of Gamla Uppsala – Thor, Odin and Freyr. Others, however, believed that these mounds held the remains of three Ynglinga kings, who belonged to the earliest known Scandinavian dynasty. In the Ynglinga Saga, the kings Aun, Egil and Adils were buried in Gamla Uppsala. As the kings were thought to have been buried in these mounds, they came to be known as a ‘Royal’ place.
The Burial Mounds of Old Uppsala, Sweden. Ulf Bodin/Flickr [“Gamla Uppsala is an area rich in archaeological remains: seen from the grave field whose larger mounds (left part) are close to the royal mounds. The building beyond the mounds is the church and to its right is the low Ting-mound and then the museum.”
By the 19th century, however, some scholars began doubting the old legends, and speculated that these mounds were naturally formed features, and not the work of human beings. To the future Swedish king, Karl XV, this was an insult to Swedish national pride not to be tolerated. Rather than severely punishing these scholars, he commissioned an excavation to prove once and for all that the ‘Royal Mounds’ at Gamla Uppsala did contain the remains of the Ynglinga kings.
Etching depicting Yngvi-Freyr building the Uppsala temple (1830). Public Domain
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In 1847, the East Mound, which is the largest of the three mounds, was excavated. This was followed by the excavation of the West Mound in 1874. The Middle Mound, though partially investigated, has never been excavated. The results of the excavations proved that the mounds were man-made, and contained human burials, though the identities of those buried in the mounds have never been firmly established.
At the base of the East Mound, the excavators discovered a burial urn filled with burnt bone that was covered by a stone cairn. This pattern of cremation and re-internment was also visible in the West Mound.
According to the Ynglinga Saga, this mortuary practice was established by Odin himself: “Thus he (Odin) established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth.”
The saga then goes on to record that “For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory”. The West Mound demonstrates this, as found bones and grave goods indicate that the person buried was an adult male. The East Mound, however, does not fit the saga, as it seems that there were two individuals buried there – a young boy (between the age of 10 and 14) and a woman.
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Another aspect of Scandinavian life that can be seen from the ‘Royal Mounds’ is the extensive trade networks that were established by the people of the north. This is visible particularly in some of the grave goods from the West Mound. For instance, several ivory gaming pieces, possibly of late Roman origin, were found in the mound. In addition, there were three small cameos with various motifs, likely to have been from the Near East, and dating to the fourth century A.D.
As of today, excavations are being carried out in the wider landscape of Gamla Uppsala ancient religious center. Although the ‘Royal Mounds’ are the most conspicuous structures in the terrain, archaeologists today understand the importance of investigating not only such prominent features, but also the surrounding landscape. It has been estimated that there have been thousands of burials in Gamla Uppsala, though many have been destroyed over the centuries by farming and quarrying.
Furthermore, there was a densely populated settlement in Gamla Uppsala as early as the seventh century A.D.
By placing the ‘Royal Mounds’ within its wider landscape, we will be able to have a broader view and a better understanding of the society of Gamla Uppsala during that period of its history.
Painting of the Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala. Circa 1850. Public Domain
Featured image: ‘Oleg being mourned by his warriors’, an 1899 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. This burial rite, with the funerary kurgan or mound, is typical in Scandinavian and Eurasian nomadic customs. Public Domain
Jorybu, 2013. Vikings: Gamla Uppsala. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/10/20/1248988/-Vikings-Gamla-Uppsala#
Sturluson, S., ca. 1230. Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway: The Ynglinga Saga, or The Story of the Yngling Family from Odin to Halfdan the Black. [Online]
Available at: http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/ynglinga.html
treeswithknees, 2015. Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/royal-mounds-of-gamla-uppsala
www.germanicmythology.com, 2015. The Temple at Old Uppsala and the Royal Burial Mounds. [Online]
Available at: http://www.germanicmythology.com/works/uppsalatemple.html
www.sacred-destinations.com, 2015. Gamla Uppsala. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/sweden/gamla-uppsala