At its peak Birka had around 700 inhabitants, a community where both pagan and Christian people lived side by side in an arrangement of streets. Today, although the streets can’t be seen, the ramparts that surrounded the old town are still visible as are the cemeteries where the dead Vikings were laid to rest. From the on-going excavation work archaeologists have discovered much about the social structure of Birka, and the international trading that took place on the island.
At the Birka Museum you’ll be able to see some of the items that archaeologists have removed from the ground on the island. There are also a number of models that depict life as it must have been for the people living on the island around the 9th century. The museum and its model reconstructions are the only physical signs of Viking life you’ll see at Birka however. This isn’t a theme park where costumed staff usher you onto simulated Viking longboats, but rather an island where current archaeology techniques are being used piece together the story of how people lived centuries ago.
One of the best things about Birka, apart from the atmosphere and sense of place you get when standing on the land where warriors and traders once traded with people from the middle east, is the commute from Stockholm! It takes about 1.5 hours on the ferry to get to the island and this is through a beautiful internal archipelago on Lake Maleran. Once on the island, make sure you take a tour (offered in Swedish and English!) given by one of the island’s guides. They will help you make sense of what you see and put the history into perspective.
A World Heritage Site Birka maintains a strict control over the amount of people it allows on the island, and ensures that everyone leaves the island at night, so don’t expect to camp there next to the graves of the Viking dead! Instead, enjoy the cruise back to Stockholm and experience in some of the local nightlife in the Swedish capital.
Photo acknowledgement: Bengt A. Lundberg