gamla uppsala - excavation

People have been buried in Gamla Uppsala for almost 2000 years. Before this place became a royal graveyard, a farm cemetery for the deceased peasant was located here. The dead men needed to be buried at home, so they could watch over the farms. In total, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 burial mounds. Only few of them survived, including the most significant ones: the kings mounds.


The destruction began in the Middle Ages, as burial grounds were turned into fields; many of them were simply robbed. In the 17th century academics came along, starting to look inside them, not necessarily to look for treasure, but for the answers. It was a special century in Sweden’s history. After the participation in the Thirty Years War, which was followed by political and martial successes, broad flood of money streamed North. The basic needs of the country were financially secured, so universities and the academics could focus on something different from state’s bureaucracy or war strategies. One of the most distinguished professors of his time, Olof Rudbeck the Elder, gained interest in Gamla Uppsala. Rudbeck was professor of medicine and vice-chancellor of Uppsala University, but to be frank, there was no discipline to which he has not devoted time. In the 1670s he came up with a theory that Uppsala was the seat of the gods and Sweden was the cradle of Western culture. In 1679 Rudbeck published a work called Atlantica, where he claimed that the capital of the legendary island of Atlantis was situation nowhere else but in Gamla Uppsala. He measured the distances, claimed to investigate  12,370 burial mounds and, what was the most crucial, found traces of the pagan temple in the church. In his conclusion he stated that the lower section of the tower was part of the pagan temple which served as a model for Roman architecture. Gamla Uppsala was older than the Roman Empire, therefore it had to be the centre of the world.


Bror Emil Hildebrand

Bror Emil Hildebrand

No work corroborating Rudbeck’s thesis (or creating new ones) has been conducted until the 19th century. The Custodian of National Antiquities Bror Emil Hildebrand (1806-1884) supervised the excavation of the East, Middle and West Mound, named respectively Odin’s, Frey’s and Thor’s Mound. The first one took place in 1846/47, when the first two were explored.

Odin’s Mound rises 9 metres above the ridge, its diameter ranger from 75 to 55 metres. It is the biggest of the three mounds and has a simple structure, mostly built of sand. Construction required three months of work of 10,000 men. The ridge has been dug out from the sides. Earth and gravel have been shovelled up into a mound with a flat top. An oval platform made of clay was created on the bottom, 30 centimetres thick. The burial chamber was built on it and then a log building with a floor space of 5 by 10 metres. The corpse was carried into the chamber, alongside with the grave goods, arranged around the body. The pyre was lit. After it cooled down, cremated bones and artefacts were placed in the funerary urn, although the majority of the remains from the pyre were taken away. The platform was cleaned, a pit was dug and the urn placed in it. Over it an oval cairn of large stones was constructed with diameter of 15 metres and 2-3 metres high. The urn was located not in the centre, but little to the side. In and around the urn human and animal bones, fragments of combs, bronze ornaments, lumps of melted metal, glass, stone objects, iron rivets, gold and silver objects, drinking vessels and game pieces have been found. From the animal bones a horse, dog, sheep, pig and bird were identified. Finally, the mound was built over it to cover the grave.

Carl Georg Brunius

Carl Georg Brunius

Around the same time, the Frey’s Mound was partially excavated, so its construction, similar to the Odin’s Mound, is known, but no information about the actual grave was collected. Its diameter ranges from 75 to 50 metres and it rises 7 metres above the ridge.

In order to get inside of the mound, a tunnel was created, shaped like mine gallery. Today it is marked by three stones. The excavation run into serious difficulties. The further into the mound the workers dug, the more gravel and stones collapsed on them. The slides were stopped with the aid of posts and planks. In June 1847 they reached the actual burial, where they found a 24 cm high funerary urn of slightly burnt earthenware standing in a circle of large boulders. Around it were bones and animals and humans, fragments of combs and bronze ornaments. When the excavation was finished, the urn and the majority of the cremated bones were buried in the mound again. At the beginning, the tunnel was kept open. People could drink mead and look inside. Carl Georg Brunius, a student and a professor at Uppsala university, left a description of his visit in the dark, damp passage in the 1849, which leaves comfortable room for one to walk, to look at the contents of the grave, an earthenware urn with ashes. A locked door closed off the entrance, so that both the gallery structure and the cinerary urn are protected from mischief. The tunnel was closed for good in 1859, because the risk of collapse became too great.


Exploration of the West Mound took place in the 1874, led once again Hildebrand, this time with assistance of lieutenant Hagdahl and 20 other workers. This time they decided not to dig a tunnel. Instead, they created an open passage to the centre of the mound. There, a small cairn with bones and charcoal was found. The grave was opened for few weeks, then filled in again and closed.

The mound is oval, with a diameter ranging from 67 to 51 metres. It rises 10 metres above the ridge. It was constructed in similar way to the Odin’s Mound, however the measurements and materials were different. Thor’s mound is mostly made of heavy clay. Here the clay floor was thinner (5 centimetres) and the platform smaller (3 metres of diameter). The burial chamber was built with a long tree trunk, walls were sealed with clay and this time, the cairn was exactly at the centre of the mound.

Since the body had been cremated together with the grave goods, all that remained in the West Mound is a small quantity of bone, ashes and molten objects, part of combs, whetstones, game pieces of ivory, bits of glass beakers. Nevertheless, the archaeologists were sure that they have found the traces of a king. For example, bones of a goshawk were discovered. It was a bird of the elite, used mostly for hunting. Moreover, camoes of onyx or sardonyx were placed in the grave. Cameo is a method of carving gems, jewellery and vessels, popular in the Middle East and in Roman Empire. They were antique and valuable objects already in the time of creation of the mounds. Among the motifs one can distinguish a reclining bull and a cupid blowing a horn. Piece of bone with animal ornament is another special object, reserved only for few selected people. It might have been a shaft of a large knife, possible a ritual one and kings of Uppsala led the sacrificial slaughter. And lastly, the hilt of Rhineland sword with inlaid garnets was found. Known under different names – Rhineland swords, Viking swords, Merovingian swords – were special swords, created to be buried with the deceased king. For example Childeric, king of Franks, was buried with one, as well as the person from the West Mound.


Researchers in the 19th century struggled with establishing the sex and the age of the people buried in Gamla Uppsala, especially in Odin’s mound. The artefacts did not give any clear answers. Hildebrand thought that the mound was the tomb of a man from the most distinguished line of kings. It was reasonable to think that, at least in the sense that this magnificent burial would not have been given to a peasant or a warrior. Hildebrand changed his mind after the excavation of the West Mound, thirty years later. Objects found there suggested that the deceased had to be a king – a man. Therefore, if the Odin’s Mound did not contain any weapons, person buried there had to be a woman. Scholars from the beginning of the 20th century mixed things up even more. They claimed that semi-legendary kings: Aun, Egils and Adils were buried in the mounds. In the 1980s it was believed that a young boy, probably with a woman, was buried in the East Mound. The latest research confirms Hildebrand’s last theory: in the Odin’s Mound a woman was buried, aged 20-30, and a man, aged 20-40 in the Thor’s Mound. He was a powerful and important person, a chieftain, maybe even a king. Odin’s Mound inhabitant is more mysterious. It is beyond doubt that this woman was a member of a royal dynasty. She might have even been a ruler, regent or a king. It wouldn’t be so surprising, because many women from other Scandinavian royal families were given magnificent burial mounds and richly equipped boat graves. For example in Denmark Queen Thyra was buried in a mound in Jelling, although the most famous female royal grave was in Norway. A woman was buried in a large Viking in a mound in Oseberg. It is believed that she was Queen Åsa, who was related to the Ynglingar in Uppsala.

Conducting excavations in Gamla Uppsala is a highly costly performance. Uppsala municipality and the Swedish state decided that the preservation of this cultural heritage comes first. It would not be so surprising if not the fact that Sweden was the first country in the world with a document protecting antiquities. Act concerning Ancient Monuments and Finds was implemented already in 1666.  


Not only archaeologists were interested in Gamla Uppsala in the 19th century. It became a part of political and ideological play. The first example of it happened on June 3rd 1834, when king Karl XIV Johan visited the mounds. He was a French marshal from Napoleonic wars and worked hard to present himself as a member of the Swedish nation. By paying a visit in Gamla Uppsala, he wanted to be associated with Nordic past. Signing, speeches and drinking mead horn took place. He met with students, received a tribute from the people and climbed Odin’s mound. He was 71 years old by then.

The 19th century was time of many changes, political, sociological and cultural. People, inspired by the ideas of Romanticism, set off on revolutions, demanding independence and/or democracy. One of the largest group, influenced strongly by the desire of freedom, were students. Those in Scandinavian countries did not need to fight for independence like for example they Polish peers, but they started a movement towards union of all the North students. They wanted to be heard as a new, growing group in the society. Every couple of years, hundreds of students were travelling to a chosen university to celebrate. In 1856 the meeting took place in Uppsala. Danes, Norwegians and Swedes assembled in Gamla Uppsala. The chairman of the student union hailed the band of Vikings, who had come to the ancient home of kings, the place of the ancestral mounds and sacrificial halls. Speeches were delivered from the mound of the assembly. This was a symbol of what was believed to have been the ancient rule of democracy. The idea of Nordic Union was acclaimed. In the morning the procession of students had set off from Odinslund in Uppsala. To the accompaniment of music and singing, they marched the five kilometres out to Gamla Uppsala. On reaching the king’s mounds, the participant were served with mead in drinking horn and silver tankards. They looked at the church and the gallery leading into the East Mound.


Artists were inspired by the Norse mythology and mounds of Gamla Uppsala as well. It is a theme for another text, but here I cannot miss Carl Larsson and Sacrifice at the Winter Solstice. A naked man is portrayed on sledge, being pulled and pushed by four men in total. One-eyed priest is rising Thor’s hammer. A person in red cloak and bowed head, turned back at the spectator, is the executioner of the ceremony. He is holding a dagger with which he is going to kill the naked man. Larsson presented his vision of a sacrificial feast, based on Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. The scene takes place in the pagan temple in Gamla Uppsala and the naked man is king Domaldi. He was sacrificed in order to save his people from famine after years of crop failure.

Larsson’s painting received a lot of criticism. The colours were described as “too gaudy”, the motif was “too brutal”, it was historically incorrect and the idea was nationalistic. Especially the last criticism seems odd, because Larsson created the painting for the National Museum in Stockholm. At the entrance to the building, there was one wall left to be filled. On one side artist already had one of his paintings: Gustav Vasa enters Stockholm 1523. The Father of the Nation entered the capital of June, month of midsummer. Larsson thought that it would be a great opposition to hang Sacrifice on the other side. Both painting presented a king, devoting himself to the nation. The artist did not wait for a competition and came forward with his Sacrifice in 1911. At his own cost, he created a painting in full scale, 6,5 metres by 13,5 metres. The painting was hung in the National Museum in 1915. A year later it was taken down due to criticism mentioned above. After Larsson’s death in 1919, Sacrifice was transported to the Sketches Museum in Lund and kept there for 40 years. It came back to Stockholm 1983 and after an exhibition at Museum of National Antiquities, artist’s descendants sold it to a private collector. Four years later it was sold again. In 1992 the painting was shown again in the Museum, because it was celebrating 200 years anniversary. Sacrifice needed to wait five more year to come back to Stockholm for good after long negotiations and enormous support from private donors. Now it is hanging again at the wall that Larsson intended for it.

Carl Larsson had more ideas for Gamla Uppsala. In the magazine Ord och Bild from 1908 he presented the idea for Temple of Memory. He wanted to erect it on one of the king’s mounds. The temple would contain sculptures of Odin, Thor and Balder, crucified Jesus, heart of Gustav II Adolph and finds from Vendel burials. This would make Swedes believe in the primeval nobility and loftiness of our race. For me, and presumably for you too, this place is still sacred.