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  • Writer's pictureVendela Ahlström

This month's feature: I went to Birka

This was the September newsletter's feature. Be sure to sign up the newsletter by clicking the little envelope at the top of this page, to get posts like this early and straight into your inbox.

I have mentioned Birka as the home town of my Main Character Saga in several posts on Instagram, but I’ve never spoken much about the town itself. Until about a month ago I didn’t know that much about the Viking town, where part of my WIP takes place. However, in the beginning of August I finally had the chance to visit the island where the town once stood.

Birka, was a town on the island Björkö in the Swedish Archipelago, about a two hour boat trip from the inner city of Stockholm. In order to visit Birka you have to buy tickets beforehand which include the boat trip. You can go there with your own boat, but the boat trip also included some guided bits along the way, so you get the general history and an idea of Birka and how it stood in relation to Scandinavia at the time. On the boat trip we also passed other islands that have played big parts in Viking history.

Once we arrived on Björkö we had 3 hours and 30 minutes to explore the island, the museum and attend a guided tour. There was an incredible Norse decorated restaurant that served traditional Swedish food, with a rustic feel, a indoor museum and gift shop, a small village of a few houses built up to look like it would have back during the Vikings, and, a small clearing by the water with Viking style ships.

I took the guided tour in English, because my boyfriend is English and the group was much smaller than the Swedish group. Thumbs up for the tour guide, who’s name I cannot remember. He was incredibly knowledgable and could answer all of our questions and he was incredibly enthusiastic about the subject, that much was clear.

He took us up the burial grounds, the old fort that now holds a monument in remembrance of Ansgar, one of the Christian monks that travelled to Birka during the Vikings in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. He even showed us where Birka as a city once stood. Today it is basically just grass and fields. Quite anticlimactic to be fair, but I learnt some pretty cool things nevertheless.

Here are some fun facts about the Viking town:

  1. The royal family didn’t actually live on the island Björkö. They lived in a place called Hovgården (the courtyard) on the neighbouring island Adelsö (Noble Island) that could be viewed from the town, along with the warriors that protected them. This was safer and made them seem more important as any travellers who came to see them would arrive in Birka first and would then have to await permission and passage to continue to an audience with the King.

  2. About 1000-1500 people would’ve lived in Birka at the time. Which was a lot during the Viking Era.

  3. Birka was one of the greatest trading hub of Scandinavia (I mean, I knew that, but I thought I’d put that in here for those of you who are curious as to why I’ve picked this destination as a main setting for my WIP).

  4. The one and only Björn Ironside (if you’ve watched Vikings, you’ll know who) is buried on the neighbouring island Ekerö. I hate to break it to you, but he’s not Norwegian. They say he was a Dane, yet he was a King of Sweden and he's buried in the Swedish Archipelago.

  5. A grave was found in Birka that is believed to have belonged to a high standing female trader/warrior. It contained a number of interesting items, including a board game with pieces (a sort of predecessor to chess) which suggests that she might have been a battle leader that led warriors into battle as the board game supposedly represents strategic thinking.

  6. The land on Björkö today is full of grass, but at the time the ground would have been much colder. The land would have been much more like the environment on Iceland.

  7. Birka has been as good as untouched since the Viking Era which means that archeologists have been able to find archeological and historic finds just 10 cm under the surface. That’s insane! In a city, where it’s been built on top and on top of for centuries, you’d have to dig deep to find anything of archaeological value. Imagine 10 cm! There is even a place, supposedly, where one can see where arrow heads landed in the ground around the shape of a body.

  8. The sea levels were 5 meters higher back then so the island would have been smaller than it is today. The restaurant that stands there now would have been under water.

  9. Because the whole city was basically built on wood everything either burnt to the ground or just deteriorated over time which means the actual town, apart from the artefacts, is completely gone.

  10. There are about 3000 visible graves on Birka in the shape of burial mounds. This a very bumpy kind of hill which looks absolutely phenomenal.

As a writer of historical fantasy, who has set her WIP in a historic city I find it incredibly important to visit the sites in question. Especially since I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to. If you’re ever in Sweden during the summer season I highly recommend a trip to Birka. I learnt a whole lot more on this field trip and more blog posts on this will slowly pop up on the blog!

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