Ready to go to the secret island I’ve been teasing you with??? Today we’re going to visit the Vikings!

We wanted to go there on a sunny day to get the most out of it and they promised good weather for that day on the weather forecast. Do you think that it was what we saw when we woke up that day? No! *giggles* …and there were worse clouds just in the directions we were heading.


We decided to go there anyway since it might be the last chance to go there since the autumn is approaching fast here. Only problem was that the boats departure was very early from the city and that was not possible for us to catch. We then read that the boat did a stop out on the islands in north-west of Stockholm much later, which we might be able to catch.

We were starting a bit late though and it turned out to be a little race against the time there. The dark clouds were gathering above us too. You know, my bad weather curse….

At this point we were laughing loud at the fact that we might reach the bridge deck just in time to see the back of the boat leaving! *giggles*

Luckily the boat were arriving a bit later than the timetable. In fact we begun to wondering if we had missed it after all. Butt no, there it comes around the corner!


Björkö and the viking town Birka

We’re going to the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, 30 kilometers West of Stockholm where Birka, Swedens oldest town were situated -the only town on the Scandinavian Peninsula during the viking age, which began around 800 CE.


Lake Mälaren is the third largest lake in Sweden with an area of 1,140 km² and greatest depth of 64 m. The name is from the Old Norse word maelir, found in historical records of the 1320s.

Let’s go to Birca (medieval spelling), where 700 people lived when it was as largest and about 3,000 graves have been found!!!


Today Birka is one of Sweden’s sites on Unesco’s World Heritage List since 1993 and a very popular tourist attraction. Every one have heard of the Scandinavian Vikings, right? At least their plundering… *giggles*

Now, where are the vikings…?


The island Björkö is not a big island and at the viking age, it was even smaller, due to a higher water level. When you visit the island today, there isn’t actually much to see.

There is no town any more since it’s buried under the ground and they haven’t built up any viking village in full scale there – yet – either. There is two house projects going on though, so there is more to come, butt I suspect it will take a long time.

I wouldn’t recommend tourists going there if they’re not really into archeological stuff – or have a very vivid imagination ;-)

The Viking Museum


First stop on the island were the museum, which opened in 1996 with exhibitions and models based on the results of the research into Birka and the viking age, which has been going on since the 1930′s.


The museum shows Birka as a meeting place for trading for people from all corners of Europe. The findings show raw materials for crafts and luxury goods for the king and the most important families.

The language they did speak were old Norse, a Germanic language in use from 800 AD to 1300 AD. from which the Scandinavian languages developed. Norse is also an adjective relating things to Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

I’ve often heard of the vikings described as Norwegians, how come that not the term Swedish vikings are mentioned that much?

I think that’s partly a misunderstanding because when experts say Norsemen, common people think that it’s Norwegian vikings when it really is Scandinavian vikings – and partly because it was a lot of vikings from the Norway area going on voyages to the UK area for example. The vikings from the Sweden area did choose another way – towards east and by Russia.

The Vikings and the christianity

This model in the museum is supposed to show when the Benedictine monk Ansgar from the Catholic headquarter in Bremen came to Birka in the year of 830, to try to convert these Pagan heathes to the Christianity. Many pagans were baptised, but Birka never became Christian.


The vikings did worship the Asa gods. Neck rings of iron with Thor’s hammers were common and powerful objects as a counter-symbol to the Christian cross. Thor was believed to hold the giants and other forces of chaos in check.


Scenes from the viking town Birka

A winter scene from the town just before 900.


The king holds a feast for foreign merchants in the first half of the 10th century in the hall.


The Vikings tradings

From the south came exclusive clothes, glass beakers, jewelery, jugs, wine, among other things. From the area around the Baltic Sea came other important things like honey, beeswax and linen.


Even shining sword blades came from the south. Though I must say that I’m surprised that the sword is so simple looking, not decorated or anything. What do you say?


It also show findings like snails, beetles, flies, various crafts and from activities, butt also what the ate. In the cemetery there were findings like sharp weapons, beakers of transparent glass, gilt ornaments, multicolored glass beads, stones, colorful textiles and silk, possible from the trades with foreign countries.


Trading were done with exchanging of goods or services, none of the Swede kings minted any coins at Birka and the earliest coins in cirkulation were Arabian silver coins, dirhams. They were probably even selling christian captives as slaves.

There was even a new law accepted to apply only to the market town of Birka, which later on were adopted by many other towns. This law was called Bjärköarätt law (the law of Björkö) and it’s oldest written form is the town law of Nidaros (Trondheim of Norway).

The crafts were specialized and the skills kept within a narrow circle. The crafts performed were probably bronze casting, making of combs, beads, textiles, fur’s, shoes, leather work, boat- and housebuilding.


The combs were made of elk antlers with sometimes inlays of tar or resin, artful decorated following that times fashion. They were important since the hair indicated the persons age status and social affiliation.

They believed that the persons strength were in the hair, so to take away strength from someone, they did saw away pegs on the persons comb. They even were buried with their comb!


The only thing I can say is that those “toothless” combs would suit my none existing hair very well today! *giggles*

The Viking games

So, did the vikings do anything else than plundering, trading and craft things?

Yes! Did you know that they already at the viking age were into games? They’ve found Norse gameboards in several graves there, with only the ironwork and the play pieces left intact, shown by this reconstruction.


I wonder if the losing viking could take to be beaten in the game or if he did get an outburst and started a fight? *giggles*

The Vikings houses and eating habits

Boringly enough, already at the viking age, the household were the women’s responsibility along with the clothes- and textile making, mainly from the wool produced by the surrounding farms in the Mälaren valley, which they washed, carded and spun into yarn and woven into cloth.



The houses in the town were small, 8 by 5 meters and built in rows running up from the shore. Each house had an open hearth in the middle of the floor – which was either planks or hard-stamped clay. There where a hole in the ceiling to lead out the smoke from the hearth.


There they prepared fish, beef, pork, mutton or duck. Smoking and drying were probably most common and maybe salting to if salt were accessible. Porridge were probably more common than bread.

The remaining from the cooking were swept out to the alleys where the pigs, dogs, cats, rats or birds did take care of the left overs.

Can you imagine the smell of all this…? *giggles*

Unusual findings in Birka Viking graves

They had one peculiar habit of burying their dead together with a small loaf or two and they found as many as 64 loaves of bits of bread at Birka, which hadn’t burnt down when the body was cremated. They were baked of several different kind of cereal, oats, barley, rye and of sourdough. The bread belonged to the high classes in the society.

The graves really aren’t much to see today, just some hills barely noticeable in the landscape.


One more unusual and important fact of Birka is that the graves show that it was an unusually high number of people with a high social rank living there and this was the first time we know of that there was people who had a profession as a paid soldier. The vikings were even hired abroad as soldiers, since they really knew how to battle.

Viking navigation at sea

The Vikings nautical achievements were extremely outstanding, their sea distance tables for the voyages were so exact, that they only differ 2-4% from our modern satellite measurements – even on the long distances!!!

That makes me very curious of those old vikings, how intelligent they were and what they were thinking or talking about in their social life.

The only viking vessel we spotted at Birka was this small one. Quite surprising for us!


The Ansgar Cross and Birka town rampart

At the highest point of the island there is an old stone cross erected in 1834 to celebrate the Benedictine monk Ansgar and his first visit to Birka. He came her twice to try to make people to convert to Christianity.


There is the best vantage-point of the island from up there, so it’s understandable that they did choose this place for their town too.


Nearby the cross there has been a fort rampart for the town, very well situated with the excellent view from there, which burnt on at least three occasions. The last one was so powerful that large stone blocks cracked with the heat and it have never been rebuilt again.


The Ansgar Chapel

South-east on the island you can see the Ansgar’s Chapel, surprisingly enough dedicated to the memory of Ansgar as late as in 1930. There was most certainly some kind of simple wooden church at Birka once, but no one knows where exactly. The Chapel is built from local reddish sandstone.


There are paintings in there that tells a bit about the story of Ansgar being sent there.


Most of the furnishings in the chapel are gifts and the oldest item of them is the organ, which is from 1801.


The Björkö village

There is even the very small village of Björkö, which turned out to be only two farms that kept farming the land even later when Birka were deserted.


The End of Birka

Birka was abandoned during the later half of the 10th century, confirmed by the coin finds. The reason for this are disputed and there are no traces of the town being plundered or burnt other than that the fort were destroyed by a fire roughly at this time.

One of the questions is if they moved on to Sigtuna which was founded on the mainland on the road to Old Uppsala about the same time. Though Sigtuna was a christian town right from the beginning and Birka never became christian.

The myths of the market town Birka were told and retold all around the Baltic Sea for many generations.

The Viking Age lasted to the midth 11th century, when the Christianity finally broke through.

I can’t help wondering what would have become of us if that hadn’t happened…? That’s a very interesting thought, isn’t it…?!!!

So, did we manage to avoid the rain? No! It was cloudy and rainy, butt thankfully also hot, so we didn’t have to freeze.

…and the most crucial question: no food for the hungry Captain at Birka????

Well, you know that I’m a very honest person, so I’ll have to tell you the truth. There was a cafe/restaurant there, butt it got totally rejected by me. That’s NOT one place I recommend. Very few things to eat, looking no good and with too high prices for that…. Ehrr.. crap food!!!

So guess how hungry this monster stomach was….???? Terrible!!!!

So we had to continue this excursion out on another island, to get something to eat, butt that is another post…


As soon as the boat did leave the not so secret island any more, the sun began to shine and there were some blue sky over us. So darn typical!!!! *giggles*

If you’re really interested in the vikings, you can see a film from the model of Birka village built up in the museum, which took 6-8 months to complete!

We also have some more photos at Flickr:
Lifecruiser Birka photos in large
Lifecruiser Birka photos as a slideshow

Captain Norse of course Lifecruiser

30 Comments on “Secret Island Viking Town Birka”

    Gattina said:

    Very interesting post I loved it !!! Was worthwhile to wait ! It’s a pity that they didn’t built up a copy of an ancient Viking village, (I watched the videos) that would at least be nice for a tourist attraction. The Vikings have always intrigued me they have the reputation of having been dirty and barbares but apparently that wasn’t true at all (see the combs) ! And not even a decent Viking restaurant on the island, what a shame, lol !
    You know that Mr. Gattino calls me “Wikinga” sometimes especially when I have an opinion and he has another !
    Congratulations for this good work !

    TorAa said:

    This was a surprise of a secret islands. Well, I did learn about Birka at school, but not as much as in this post.
    Interesting that the Vikings and Norse by so many are considered Norwegians only. That might have something to do with Leif Eirikson and Vinland, or the fact The Norwegian went to England, Ireland and Isle of Man, where they still have a yearly Viking Festival. (Why do you think we have Manx-cats? *giggles* – their tails were cut off by the Vikings).

    Fifteen years ago, we went to the imposing “Les Vikings” exhibit in Paris. There they stressed the Vikings where not that cruel and brutal as claimed. It was more or less the priests and bishops that spread the rumour of these non-christian barbarians. In fact – the Vikings settled in Normandie as clever farmers. These Vikings were most probably from Denmark. Even to day we find pale brunettes in the area. LOL.

    And the Swedish Vikings, as you wrote, went east and south all the way to Myklagard on the rivers of Russia, Belarus and Ukrain. Impressing.

    Thanks for sharing all this knowledge

    Sara said:

    I love Viking history so really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing.
    Sara from farmingfriends

    Tenders said:

    I love the Viking history and have lived in the North East of the UK for some time – a place which has a history of Viking conquest. I think that it is wonderful to preserve the history and to educate people about them. Unfortunately the Hollywood angle has ingrained an image of the Vikings that is not ultimately as true as reality, but then that’s what happens with many things.

    Interesting blog post. Was a good read

    mar said:

    That’s why you kept us waiting, you were not only writing a post, it’s like “all you wanted to know about the Vikings but were afraid to ask”…
    Wonderfully described and most interesting details and information. A new lesson learned . Thanks, captain!

    Deborah said:

    I’ve been intrigued by the Vikings since I was a kid myself. Thanks for all the wonderful and detailed information!

    I had no idea they were so far spread. It’s surprising that their swords were so ordinary. I’d have thought they’d be like a prized possession for weapons and ornately decorated.

    Well worth the wait to finally arrive! Did anyone remember to bring the Dom with them?

    Maribeth said:

    Wonderful! Hubby has said many time he thinks I am part Viking. I have a love of the sea and of conquering new places! LOL

    Hootin' Anni said:

    Oh ——– so fabulous! I can now understand why you called the venture “to the SECRET Island!”….it no longer exists! What a great historic and valuable, learning trip you’ve taken us on.

    I’m now trying to catch up on what I’ve missed in the Land of Blog….
    Happy Monday Captain.

    Louiss said:

    yeah wonderful place!! Among the places i love The Björkö village you have mentioned :D

    RennyBA said:

    wooow, Captain; this is not only just another post – Its a historical and very readable book – very impressive.

    Like Tor; I’ve learned about Birka at school, but didn’t know it was the only town at that time.

    We Scandinavians share a lot in history of the Vikings and reading your story, I’m actually proud thinking of how long time it is ago and how much they achieved.

    The eagerness of Christianity is an interesting part. A lot of our traditional celebrations like Christmas Eve, Easter and Mid Summer was originally Viking Ceremonies you know. They where probably to wild and outgoing for the civilized world though :-)

    Sword Girl » Boats on Monday said:

    [...] secret island by Mrs. Lifecruiser! ~“May your pigs always be in the pink; May they fly very high Like birds in the sky; May they [...]

    Caledonia said:

    I have to admit I’ve been very guilty of thinking Norsemen are Norwegian Vikings so at least I’ve learned something new today. We have a few Viking centres in the UK as well and of course a proud heritage in the islands.

    I speak to people from Orkney on the telephone occasionally and they have a very unusual accent: more Scandinavian than Scottish. I think some of thing consider themselves Scandinavian too.

    A. said:

    We finally get there! And well worth the wait because that is a fascinating post. We do hear about Vikings in British history of course and I suppose many of us have Viking blood as a result of their “attentions” :)

    When I was a student, all those years ago, one of my friends studied Old Norse, which I thought was a bizarre choice at the time but now of course I wish I’d paid more attention.

    PS You said you would be interested to see my experiences in Amsterdam – fairly briefly here but more (and larger) pictures tagged Amsterdam on Flickr if you click through from the post.

    Melli said:

    YAY! YAAAAAAAAYYYYYY! WOW What a birthday I’m having! Spain, France, Italian Riviera… WOW! And now the magical fantasy mystery island of BIRKA! And I’m left wondering ONE thing… is THIS where Birkenstocks come from??? hehehe…

    This was WONDERFUL Captain! So nice of you to choose to finally make the visit on MY birthday! Thank you!!!

    RennyBA said:

    Hello again Captain! I just had to check if you had Melli’s birthday on your tip list. Your always a great Captain so I knew you would!

    Again: Happy Birthday Melli!!!!


    Woot! We finally arrive at the secret island. I’m perking up despite being sea-sick.

    Whoa! That was an interesting post on the history of the Vikings! I was hoping to see a Viking.


    Wow, what a magical time in history. Sorry you didn’t get anything to eat though. Not good at all. Thanks for the wonderful tour. :)

    kaykayzowie said:

    OMG! That was so awesome! I didn’t know the Vikings played such a big part in history.

    Toni said:

    Thanks, that was one informative post. I didn’t know so much about the Vikings till yet. That was one secret island worth talking about! Too bad though you have to leave it with an empty stomach :(

    Kuanyin said:

    You do an incredible travel blog—and since I love to be an armchair traveler, I felt I went there with you! Too bad the restaurant didn’t measure up and the sky was cloudy, but at least everyone got to see the Secret Island through your words and photos!

    I’ve been doing a bit of traveling myself, and now I’m back for a few days before heading off to the Mainland for several weeks. If I can get to a computer to comment I will, but I know for sure there will be a period of time when I’ll be in the ‘woods’ with my friends, so I’ll be out of computer range. I hope you’ll excuse my not being a diligent swabee during September, and I’ll be extra good in October, ok? :-)

    Mark said:

    Hi Captain,
    Should you be thinking about Vikings with the state of your back, I mean you could do some serious damage…..
    Great post though and apart from the expensive food looks like a really interesting place.

    Hows your stomach now????

    claudie said:

    Just one word ! Beautiful! Yes a beautiful trip on Secret Island wich has no secret for us now! Nice to discover the Vikings treasures! you’ve resist a long time to christians religion! Good! here in south of Europe we were under their power earlier! And now we are still! It doesn’t disturb me but I like always to learn more about the “paganisme”! When people believed in so many gods and goddesses! But the mysterious trip isn’t finish!!! Where will cruise now?

    Sword Girl said:

    Thanks for sharing all of the Viking knowledge. It was very interesting! That is so amazing how they could measure their distances so accurately out to sea. They definitely sound like very smart people. You definitely raise some good questions!

    Sword Girl said:

    I think it just ate my comment. Testing just in case. :-)

    Kasia said:

    Wow! What a nice post! How come you know so much? I mean I kown you are from Scandinavia but how many books did read before writing this? Your knowledge is really impressive. :)
    I felt a strong need to visit this place! It was like a call or something? Witchcraft? :) ))))

    Sueblimely said:

    I did not realize it was just the Norwegian Vikings that headed to Britain. They have always interested me as I came from NE England and a lot of our town names are of Viking origin as well as some of our distinctly northern words.

    Sanni said:

    Aaaaaah… finally! I´ve been to the secret island secretly with you… and enjoyed it LOTS – thanks to google reader on my mobile. Visiting secret island in secret… while sitting in the doc´s waiting room.

    Waiting was so worthwhile. Not for the doc, for secret island of course *LOL*

    Stuart 'Erlingr' said:

    Very enjoyable!! I’m a viking reenactor and need to make my way to Birka sometime, I must say this has swung me to it all the more!

    Shame about the food though, best to go on feast days ;) Is a day trip enough? or a couple days to take the whole thing in? Have friends in Sweden so can crash with them.

    Once again, exceelent.,Thanks for posting this.


    I think Birka will be even more enjoyable now than it was back when I did write this post in 2007. They were building up a village there and probably they have come further today with that – and might even have improved the food ;-)

    A day trip would be enough even for a Viking reenactor it is not a big place. The boat trip to get there could be very nice too.

    Stuart 'Erlingr' said:

    Boat trip sounds nice; a friend has built a replica of a longship so if they allow i’d row it in costume again. Need to sweet talk the trust into letting me live in the village haha :D

    I sense a group invasion is in order ;) renewing my passport this month so a trip will not be far off.

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