Beyond the Surface: Tracing Viking Lives in Sundbyberg’s Runes

Amidst the Viking relics of Sundbyberg, Sweden, two runestones stand as silent sentinels, their origins dating back to the early 12th century. The earlier of the pair, runestone U77, stands in its original location just north of Ör, near Råsta Gård. This formidable slab of grey granite, weighing several tonnes and standing 1.75 metres tall, bears witness to the craftsmanship of a bygone era. The substantial effort that must have been required to transport and raise it echoes the dedication and skill of those who commissioned it and carved its surface. As we explore this stoic monolith, we unravel not only the physicality of its form but also the vibrant hues that once adorned its surface, portraying a snapshot of Viking life at the heart of Råsta.

Runestone U77 in Råsta Gård. Two brothers, Holmsteinn and Hôsvi, raised the stone in the early 12th century to honour their father and mother.

Runestone U77 is carved in what is known as the “Urnes style” and features entwined serpents called “lindworms”. A lindworm was a mythical creature, usually shown as having two legs but no wings, believed by the Vikings to grant protection to the dead and aid in their later rebirth.

The lindworms loop around the stone and become marvellously tangled with themselves in the centre of the design. Each serpent’s head is seen in profile, with a single slender almond-shaped eye.

The runic inscription written within the largest of the serpents is in the phonetic language known as “Younger Futhark.” It says that the stone was raised by two brothers named Holmsteinn and Hôsvi as a memorial to Jóbjôrn, their father, and to Gyríðr, who we assume was Jóbjôrn’s wife and the boys’ mother.

The brothers did not carve the stone themselves. Instead they would have hired a “runemaster” to carve it for them. In Viking times, rune carving was a well-respected trade, with master artists and their apprentices travelling between farms and settlements, their reputations preceding them. Runemasters carried an extensive set of tools: hardened steel chisels of varying sizes, wooden mallets, sharpening stones, punches, picks, and brushes.

Runemasters would also carry with them the pigments and binders for making paints to colour the runestones. The deep red lines seen on today’s runestones are a modern addition: back in Viking times, stones were brightly coloured in reds made from iron oxide, yellows from ochres, greens from plant materials like knapweed, whites from chalk or lead, and blacks from charcoal. Rarer pigment colours like blue and purple were usually missing from the palette or used in tiny amounts as they were expensive and required importing from abroad. The pigments were ground and mixed with binders like milk protein, egg, and linseed oil. The Vikings liked their colours as bright as possible so a finished runestone might look to our modern eyes more like a garish road sign than an elegant memorial.

The Vikings loved bright colours and had access to a range of pigments. How did the runestone look the day that it was raised? We don’t know, but here is one colourful possibility.

Stylistic analysis attributes the carving on runestone U77 to be most likely by Torgöt Fotsarve, the apprentice and perhaps son of a more-famous runemaster called Fot, who is believed to be the carver of another nearby runestone in Spånga. Both Fot and Torgöt seem to have plied their trade north of Råsta up as far as Uppsala. Together they are responsible for dozens of carvings. But other historians are not so sure. They suggest that the runestone was carved by a runemaster called Olev. Runemasters sometimes signed their work but mostly they did not so historians have to guess who the carver was by looking at their stylistic tics, such as the small appendages they added to their serpent, the way they carved its head, and the way they wrote runic letters. From the stylistic tells, experts in runes estimate that both stones were carved in the first half of the 12th century.

Given that Holmsteinn is listed first on runestone U77, it’s plausible to infer that he was the elder brother, with Hôsvi being the younger. The existence of a second runestone, U78, now exhibited at the Sundbyberg museum on Fredsgatan, indicates that Holmsteinn predeceased Hôsvi. Regrettably, runestone U78 is incomplete, with only two fragments remaining on display. It’s possible that weathering caused it to crack, leading to its fragments being repurposed as building materials for walls or house foundations. The fate of the missing pieces remain uncertain, leaving room for hope that they may be discovered one day and the runestone restored.

Parts of runestone U78, currently exhibited in Sundbyberg Museum. It was broken up and moved from Råsta some time in the 17th century. No one knows where the missing pieces are today.

Despite its incomplete state, we have a 17th-century sketch of runestone U78 and its runes, created by Martin Aschaneus. This sketch reveals that runestone U78 was erected in memory of Holmsteinn by his brother Hôsvi and his sisters Sigrid and Kättilö. This suggests a small family tree, consisting of parents Jóbjôrn and Gyríðr, two sons Holmsteinn and Hôsvi, and two daughters Sigrid and Kättilö. All of them presumably resided and worked at Råsta, likely on the family farm.

Råsta was a good location for a farm as it had plentiful freshwater nearby. In the present day, we have the lakes of Lötsjön and Råstasjön, but in very early Viking times, when the land was some metres lower, those lakes were joined with one another and with Brunnsviken in a wide inlet called Fröfjärden. In early Viking times, Fröfjäden passed between what is now Duvbo and Hästhagen along Dalsänkan into the Bällsta River, thus joining the Baltic Sea with Lake Mälaren and providing an important sea route. In the later Viking era, when Jóbjôrn’s family lived and worked, the waters of Fröfjärden would have retreated somewhat, leaving behind a rich fertile foreshore for growing crops and raising livestock.

Approximate sea levels in the early Viking era showing Fröfjärden connecting the Bällsta River and Lake Mälaren on the left with Brunnsviken and the Baltic Sea on the right.

The farm at Råsta would have raised and traded a variety of crops and animals. Sheep were highly prized by the Vikings, not only for their succulent meat but also for their wool, which played a crucial role in textile production. A variety of animals, including cows, pigs, goats, and horses, were typically found on their farms. Cats, admired for their prowess in pest control, were an integral part of the Viking household. Dogs, on the other hand, were utilised for their protective instincts as guards and valued as hunting companions.

Viking farms were known for their extensive cultivation of barley and oats, with hay also being a prevalent crop. Beyond farming, the Vikings of Råsta supplemented their livelihood with a variety of activities. They fished in the neighbouring lakes, hunted deer and hare in the Ursvik forests, and seasonally gathered apples, wild berries, and mushrooms.

It was not uncommon for Vikings to drink beer every day. Beer was made from barley and was consumed in large quantities because water could be dangerous to drink in the Viking period. Both weak and strong beer were produced, with the weak beer being consumed by children as well as adults. Beer was a necessary component of feasts and various religious gatherings. It was used to build and maintain friendships between groups, raise spirits during hard times, and show off wealth. Upon arriving at the farm, respected travellers like our runemaster would be offered bread, meat, onions, milk, and plenty of beer.

The Viking graveyard east of Råsta.

While runestone U77 lacks any Christian symbols, runestone U78 prominently features a cross. It’s recognized that during this era, many Vikings had converted to Christianity. However, it’s crucial to understand that these runestones were not gravestones. Rather, they functioned as memorials for the deceased. It’s probable that Jóbjôrn and Holmsteinn were interred at a local burial site east of Råsta, their personal belongings accompanying them in line with Viking tradition.

Contemplating the legacy encapsulated in runestones U77 and U78, Råsta unfolds as a testament to the industrious family of Jóbjôrn. The landscape, now punctuated by lakes Lötsjön and Råstasjön, provides a window into the farm’s flourishing past—cultivating crops, herding livestock, and navigating the trade waters. Beyond the stones, the rhythm of Viking life is revealed—the brewing of barley-based beer, reliance on loyal animals, and the familial bonds woven into daily routines. The Christian cross on U78 signals changing winds, yet the absence of Christian references on U77 reaffirms the Viking tradition of memorialising lives rather than simply marking graves. Thus, in the shadows of Råsta, we find a historical tapestry woven with everyday hues and the enduring legacy of a Viking family.

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