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There are stones everywhere. Wherever you go in Gotland they are scattered on the beach and by the road, in fields and in forests. They must have provided plentiful building material for the ancient labyrinths around the coast. And, as I discovered, these stones were also used for a quite different purpose. They were an essential part of the Bronze Age burial sites of Gotland.

Boat shaped grave at Gnisvärd, Gotland

The impressive and mysterious boat shaped grave at Gnisvärd

Bronze Age Burial Sites of Gotland

Burial site at Gålrum

Gålrum is one of the largest of the burial sites of Gotland

It is clear from the number of burial sites that Gotland was extensively settled during the Bronze Age (from about 1700 BC). People seem to have lived in small coastal settlements and on isolated farms. However it is probable that Gotland was already part of an important trading route, exposing the local population to outside influences. Excavations of the graves show that there was a clear social structure, and there is evidence of collective religious beliefs.

One of the biggest burial places is at Gålrum, with over 100 graves spanning a period of more than 1500 years. The earliest (and largest) is a massive cairn, dating back to 1800 BC. Social divisions are apparent: the structures vary from large individual tombs to shallow collective graves.

There are Bronze Age graveyards all around Gotland. And there is no excuse for not seeing at least one of them, as one of the largest (although admittedly not the most impressive) is right by the entrance to Visby Airport.

Boat Shaped Graves of Gotland

Boat shaped grave at Gannarve, Gotland

Boat shaped grave at Gannarve

The most impressive tombs are the boat shaped graves. There were around 350 of these on Gotland, huge structures with granite standing stones arranged in the shape of a ship. Each contained the cremated remains of just one person, obviously of high standing. Many of these graves also included items such as bronze tweezers that would be useful to the deceased person in the afterlife.

The shape of the graves is an indication of the importance of ships to the early economy of Gotland. It is also thought that ships had some mythological significance. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the boat shaped graves all tended to face in the same direction. Possibly they were intended to convey the dead to the next world.

Burial Sites from Different Ages

Rune stone, Gnisvärd, Gotland

Viking rune stone – a tombstone from a later age

Some of the boat shaped graves were in gravefields: there are several at Gålrum. Others stand on their own, like the magnificent 29m long ship at Gannarve. But to my mind the most interesting burial site is at Gnisvärd. Here two boat shaped graves sit at the edge of the forest and beyond them are several other graves and two small stone circles. Across the road from here is a dolmen, a Stone Age burial chamber.

Stone circle, Gnisvärd, Gotland

A small stone circle at Gnisvärd

A little way along the road at Gnisvärd is a third, even larger, boat shaped grave. And beside it is a rune stone, a Christian memorial slab from the Viking era. I was left to guess why a rune stone should have been placed at such a site.  Perhaps these burial grounds still retained their power and significance a thousand years later.

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