The island of Björkö (the name means “island of birches”), in Lake Mälaren, is the site of Sweden’s oldest town, BIRKA, which was founded around 750AD and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. For over two centuries, Birka was the most important Viking trading centre in the northern countries, benefiting from its strategic location near the mouth of Lake Mälaren on the portage route to Russia and the Byzantine Empire. Today, a visit here is not only an opportunity to get to grips with Sweden’s stirring Viking heritage, thanks to the site’s excellent museum, but it’s also a chance to explore the tranquil waters of Lake Mälaren – should you choose to take the boat here, which is by far the best means of getting to Birka.
After Birka was founded in the mid-eighth century, tradesmen and merchants were quick to take advantage of the prosperous and rapidly expanding village, and the population soon grew to around one thousand. The future patron saint of Scandinavia, Ansgar, came here in 830 as a missionary at the instruction of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis I, and established a church in an attempt to Christianize the heathen Swedes. They showed little interest and the Frankish monk preached on the island for just over a year before being recalled. Birka reached its height during the tenth century before sliding into decline: falling water levels in Lake Mälaren, the superior location of the Baltic island of Gotland for handling Russian-Byzantine trade and the emergence of nearby rival Sigtuna all led to its gradual disappearance after 975.
Major excavations began on the island in 1990 and the Birka museum (open in connection with boat arrivals and departures) now recounts the village’s history in superb detail. Exhibitions explain how, during Viking times, Björkö was actually two separate islands, with the main settlement located in the northwest corner of the northernmost island. As the land rose after the last Ice Age, the narrow channel between the two islands vanished, resulting in today’s single kidney-shaped island; remains of jetties have been found where the channel would have been, as well as a rampart which acted as an outer wall for the settlement. Displays of historical artefacts as well as scale models of the harbour and craftsmen’s quarters are also available for persual – the developed nature of Viking society is evident from the finds: scissors, pottery and even keys have all been excavated.
Among the remains of Viking-age life, the most striking is Birka’s graveyard, which is the largest Viking-age burial ground in Scandinavia with around four hundred burial mounds, some accompanied by standing stones. Totally surrounding the site of the former village, the graveyard can be found outside the rampart by turning right from where the boat arrives.