Five kilometres to the north of Uppsala, three huge royal burial mounds dating back to the sixth century mark the original site of the town, Gamla Uppsala. According to legend, they are the final resting places of three ancient kings – Aun, Egil and Adlis. Though the site developed into an important trading and administrative centre, it was originally established as a pagan settlement and a place of ancient sacrificial rites by the Svear tribe. In the eleventh century, the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, described the cult of the æsir (the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyr) practised in Uppsala: every ninth year, the deaths of nine people would be demanded at the festival of Fröblot, the victims left hanging from a nearby tree until their corpses rotted. Two centuries later, the great medieval storyteller, Snorri Sturluson of Iceland, depicted Uppsala as the true home of the Ynglinga dynasty (the original royal family in Scandinavia who also worshipped Freyr), a place where grand sacrificial festivals were held in honour of their god.
Gamla Uppsala kyrka
The pagan temple where Uppsala’s bloody sacrifices took place is now marked by the Christian Gamla Uppsala kyrka, which was built over pagan remains when the Swedish kings first took baptism in the new faith. Built predominantly of stone yet characterized by its rear nave wall of stepped red-brick gabling, this is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful churches in Sweden, with an understated simplicity at the very heart of its appeal. Although what survives of the church today is only a remnant of the original cathedral, the relics inside more than compensate for the downscaling. In the porch are two impressive collecting chests, one made from an oak log and fitted with iron locks, which dates from the earliest days of the church. Entering the nave, look out for the cabinet on the left containing a superb collection of church silver, including a fourteenth-century chalice and a censer from the 1200s. Nearby, in the nave wall, a stone memorial to Anders Celsius, inventor of the temperature scale that bears his name, is a worthy tribute. Outside, if you haven’t yet set eyes on a genuine rune stone in Sweden, look carefully in the church walls at the back to find a perfectly preserved example from the eleventh century.
The burial mounds
Southeast of the church, the tinghög or parliament hill (the only burial mound not fenced in) was once the site of the local ting where, until the sixteenth century, a Viking parliament was held to deliberate on all matters affecting Uppsala. Immediately west of here, a path leads around the three main mounds, the first of which, östhögen – the east mound – dates from around 550. Following the 1846–47 excavations of Gamla Uppsala, this hill yielded the site’s most astonishing artefacts: the cremated remains of a woman – possibly a priestess of the god Freyr – buried in magnificent wool, linen and silk clothing, as well as a necklace bearing a powerful image of a Valkyrie. The adjacent central mound, mitthögen, is thought to be around fifty years older than its neighbour but has still to be excavated. Finally, the western västhögen has been dated from the late sixth century, and following excavations in 1874 revealed male bone fragments and jewellery commensurate with high status.
The finds are proudly displayed at the entrance to the new and enjoyable Gamla Uppsala Historical Centre, a brave and successful attempt to portray early Swedish history in a wider non-Viking context. You can gawp at an archeologist’s dream – gold fragments, ancient pieces of glass and precious ivory game pieces – as well as amble through exhibitions illustrating the origin of local myths. There’s also a full account of Uppsala’s golden period, which ended in the thirteenth century.