A Bronze Age Burial Steeped in Legend: What Makes the Ship-Shaped Tjelvar's Grave Unique?
Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, is home to medieval churches, cathedral ruins, as well as numerous pre-historic sites. The archaeological and historical sites that pepper this land make up a timeline of Gotland’s past. One such site is known as Tjelvar’s grave. It is a ship-shaped stone setting found on the eastern coast of the island. Sites of this type can be found all over Scandinavia, they are typically dated to the early Viking Age, circa the late 8th century AD. However, Tjelvar’s grave can be dated all the way back to the Bronze Age, predating the other sites by nearly 2000 years. From the Bronze Age to the Viking Age, to our present age, this style has been resurrected and replicas continue to be built around Gotland and Scandinavia.
Front view of Tjelvar burial site, Island of Gotland, Sweden. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Ship’s Setting at Tjelvar’s Grave
Dated to circa 1100-500 BC, Tjelvar’s Grave is one of the best-preserved ship-shaped stone settings in Gotland. The grave is 18 meters (59.06 ft.) long and 5 meters (16.40 ft.) wide. The height of the gunwale stones diminishes towards the center of the ship, which has also been filled with stones to form a boat-deck. A plundered stone-slab coffin, containing cremated bones and a few potsherds, was uncovered in an excavation in the 1930s.
The earliest skeleton found on Gotland so far has been dated to 8000 years ago, but this was before the ship-shaped burials were popular. These types of sites replaced the cairn style grave site, which was made from a rough pile of stones. The stone ship, or ship setting, was an early burial custom in Scandinavia. The grave or cremation burial was surrounded by tightly or loose fit slabs or stones in the outline of a ship. Scholars have suggested that the stone ship developed out of the desire to allow the dead to pass into the afterlife with all their mortal belongings. Alternatively, the ship was specifically associated with the journey to Hel, or where the dead arrived in order to enter the afterlife in Scandinavian mythology.
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The Legend of Tjelvar
Tjelvar’s grave is one of the most popular and well known of these ship grave sites because the legend of Tjelvar has been interwoven with the existence of this Bronze Age ship burial site over the millennia. There is only one known source explaining the legend of Tjelvar as he relates to the founding of Gotland, but he also appears in the Prose Edda.
The Gutasaga is a saga about the history of Gotland before its Christianization. It was recorded in the 13th century AD and survives only in a single manuscript, The Codex Holm, B. 64. It was written in the native language of the land, Old Gotnish, a dialect of Old Norse. The saga begins with Gotland being discovered by a man named Tjelvar. In this legend, Gotland is under a spell which plunges the island into the sea during the day, and brings it out of the water at night. This spell is broken when Tjelvar brings fire to the island. Tjelvar’s grandsons would divide Gotland into three parts, or Tredingar, and this division remained legal until 1747. It remains within the church, which still retains this division into three Deaneries.
According to legend, Tjelvar brought fire to Gotland Island, stopping it from sinking. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tjelvar’s son, Havde, took a wife, Vitastjerna, who dreamt of three snakes entwined in her bosom. This was interpreted as a symbol that all things were connected in circles and that they would have three sons, the sons that would grow to divide Gotland. This subject is depicted on some of the picture stones in Gotland. However, another interpretation of the presence of these round symbols on the picture stones is that they represent the fire brought to Gotland by Tjelvar himself.
Moreover, the round symbols are said to represent the relationship between land and sea, as well as the spell that forced Gotland in and out of the water. In bringing fire to Gotland, Tjelvar stopped this cycle, but other cycles replaced it. Similarly, in bringing fire to Gotland, Tjelvar has been compared to Tjalfi, the trickster companion of Thor, as well as Prometheus of Greek mythology, who brought fire to the Greeks.
Vitastjerna's dream with the three entwined snakes symbolizing Graip, Gute, and Gunfjaun, with her at the bottom of a picture stone from Smiss in När, Gotland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: Tjelvar’s Grave – Ship-shaped stone setting burial site, Gotland (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Spotting History (2017) ‘Tjelvar’s Grave.’ Available at: https://www.spottinghistory.com/view/1008/tjelvars-grave/
The Megalithic Portal (2013) ‘Tjelvars grav - Stone Circle in Sweden in Gotland’ Available at: http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=16870
Viking Explorer (2012) ‘Of groves and grave mounds’ Available at: https://vikingexplorer.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/of-groves-and-grave-mounds/