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The Historic Limestone Landscape of Stora Alvaret

The Historic Limestone Landscape of Stora Alvaret

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Stora Alvaret, on the Swedish island of Öland, is an area of great natural beauty with a unique ecology. The many important archaeological sites on the island which date to the Bronze Age has made this a popular tourist destination and its significance is recognized by UNESCO. Measures have been implemented by the Swedish government to protect the biodiversity.

The Landscape of Stora Alvaret, Sweden

This limestone terrace, called an alvar, lies in the south-east section of the island. It was made from the skeletal remains of many millions of prehistoric marine creatures such as coral and was first created approximately 500,000 million years ago. The limestone lay beneath the sea until the last great ice age. The pressure of the retreating ice led to the limestone emerging and the appearance of the island. The area is roughly 100 square miles (260 square km) and it covers a quarter of Öland.

The famous Karlevi Runestone (UllrichG / Adobe Stock)

The famous Karlevi Runestone ( UllrichG / Adobe Stock)

Stora Alvaret is covered by a thin layer of soil, only 2 cm at its deepest, which has created a unique ecosystem. Although many rare plants and moss are found here, much of the area is flat and treeless and in places there is no soil cover at all. There is, however, a remarkable pygmy or elfin forest of miniature trees . As a result of the poor soil and low phosphate levels the forest looks like something out of a fairytale. It is home to several rare species of fauna and at the southern tip of the limestone terrace is a bird sanctuary.

Over several thousand years, mammals and humans migrated across the ice bridge from the mainland and from the Middle Ages on, the land was used as a hunting ground by local nobles and Swedish monarchs.

Prehistoric Remains in Stora Alvaret, Sweden

As this spectacular, rather bleak landscape has been populated by people since the Paleolithic era, there are some fascinating archaeological sites in Stora Alvaret. At Alby, on the eastern side of the limestone terrace, lie traces of wooden structures, the remains of a prehistoric fishing village located on the edge an ancient lagoon. Many archaeological remains and tools have been found.

Gettlinge Gravfeld, an ancient Norse burial ground, lies to the southwest of Öland and consist of several standing stones that represent Viking ships , although some are thought to predate the Viking era. Others were buried in mounds making it the largest burial area on the island. Small windmills, once as many as 2000, grace the island and remains of Viking era villages dot the outskirts of the limestone plain.

The stone ships of Gettlinge Gravfeld (Lars Johansson / Adobe Stock)

The stone ships of Gettlinge Gravfeld ( Lars Johansson / Adobe Stock)

The famous Karlevi Runestone, dating to the late 10 th century, lies just outside the limestone shelf near the Kalmars straight in Karlevi and holds the oldest record of a skaldic verse stanza. The runic inscription is partly in prose, partly in verse, and was possibly raised by warriors in memory of their leader who died in battle.

Fortresses and Ringforts in Stora Alvaret

This area is famous for its many ringforts. As the name suggest, these stone fortress were built in a circle, enabling the warriors within to ward off attacks from any direction.

Eketorp Ringfort, dating to the 4th century AD (Tarabalu / Adobe Stock)

Eketorp Ringfort, dating to the 4 th century AD ( Tarabalu / Adobe Stock)

Eketorp ringfort dates from the Iron Age and was both a religious site and a sanctuary, used by local agricultural communities on the island. There have been thousands of artefacts found in the site by archaeologists since the 19 th century. Sometime in the 7 th century AD, the fort was abandoned and was not used again until the Middle Ages . It was used as a defensive stronghold and it was later used as a barracks for cavalry in the Early Modern period. Outside of the fortress, there are traditional longhouses built of turf and wood.

At least 15 other ringforts have been found on the island and while Eketorp is the best-preserved, they are all worth a visit.

Visiting the Unique Area of Stora Alvaret

The Öland bridge spans the Kalmar Straight , connecting the island to the Swedish mainland. Accommodation is plentiful in the attractive villages dotted across the island. It is possible to explore the limestone plain alone or as part of a group and as the area is quite extensive, it may take more than one day to see it all. Apart from Stora Alvaret, there are a number of other interesting heritage sites on the island.

Top image: The barren limestone plain of Stora Alvaret, Öland    Source: rolf_52 / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Papmehl-Dufay, L. (2003). Stone Age island archaeology . O P I A, 180.
Rejmánek, M., & Rosen, E. (1988). The effects of colonizing shrubs(Juniperus communis and Potentilla fruticosa) on species richness in the grasslands of Stora Alvaret, Oeland(Sweden). Acta phytogeographica suecica . Uppsala, (76), 67-72
Weichert, F. (2018). Remotely sensed estimation of shrub encroachment: a case study on the Great Alvar, Öland, Sweden . Student thesis series INES
Available at:   https://lup.lub.lu.se/student-papers/search/publication/8946828

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