Birka, located on Björkö Island, 30 kilometers west of Stockholm, is said to be the first-ever Swedish city. It was one of the largest trading posts in the Viking Age, with goods passing through from all parts of Scandinavia, mainland Europe, and beyond.

Together with Hovgården, situated on a neighboring island, Birka has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and is one of the world's richest and most valuable Viking archeological sites.

Björkö Island is also a permanent home to a grand total of 11 people. 

The Viking Herald speaks to one of them, Veronica Björkman, destination manager of the Birka Museum, about tattoo festivals, international visitors, and what might be the oldest Christian church in Sweden.

Sailing in

All visitors to Birka arrive by boat, many of them on a cruise from Stockholm that takes in the stunning sights of the Swedish waterways and the splendid Lake Mälaren. 

You disembark on the tiny island of Björkö, which may be just a few square miles in size but was once home to approximately 500 to 1,000 Norse residents and a bustling center of trade. 

Hovgården, from which kings and chieftains are thought to have ruled the local area, is just to the north on the island of Adelsö.

Arrivals at Birka can look forward to an immersive historical experience, as Veronica explains.

"In the main complex, we have a museum that contains objects from the archeological excavations and detailed models of the settlement during the Viking Age. There is a guided tour, and you can also visit full-scale reconstructed Viking houses and boats."

The museum at Birka features full-scale reconstructed Viking houses and boats, allowing you to walk through history and witness the craftsmanship of the era. Photo: Aastels / Shutterstock

The warrior woman

Just like the Danish trading post at Hedeby, the location of Birka was lost for hundreds of years before it was finally rediscovered in the 19th century. 

Excavation work at Birka began in the 1870s when archeologist and ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe explored the first burial chamber.

Stolpe uncovered the skeleton of a wealthy Viking noble, who was assumed to be a male chieftain for over a century. 

Osteological and DNA analysis, however, has recently demonstrated it to be a female figure of high standing, something that could prove to be a significant step in our understanding of the role of women in Norse society. 

You can even meet a model of the "Warrior Woman" in a special exhibition at the museum, Buried at Birka.

The grave "Bj581" in Birka challenged conventional beliefs as it was identified as the final resting place of a high-status female individual, shedding new light on the roles of women in Viking society. Illustration: Hjalmar Stolpe (1841 - 1905) / Public domain

Archeological delights

Over the past 150 years, archeologists have painstakingly uncovered many artifacts, including textiles, an entire Viking shipyard, various weapons, jewelry, coins, and a wide selection of grave sites. 

Veronica informs us there are thought to be around 4,000 graves in total, though only a quarter has been excavated so far.

Indeed, there is still much work to be done in exploring the rich archeological treasures of the area.

"We think they might have found the first-ever Viking church," Veronica says, "but we need further excavations to confirm it." 

"Sources tell the story of a missionary sent here in 829 by Emperor Charles the Great to convert people – it would be the oldest church in Sweden. We hope to receive funding, though there is a lot of competition for resources."

Bustling summers

Veronica and her team have worked hard to produce a truly engaging and immersive site, setting up a series of events and additional options for exploration and recreation. 

"We have programs from May until the end of October." 

"I wanted something for everybody. We have a tattoo convention, where we invite 20 of the best tattoo artists in the world to the island; the Strong Viking competition, a midsummer festival, and even a wild boar guild!"

Veronica tells us that while around 60 percent of visitors come from Scandinavia, the rest arrive from all over the world, with many choosing to extend their stay. 

"There is a glamping site on the island, so you can sleep in a Viking camp close to the water, and you can also go swimming in the lake and ride canoes."

Birka engages visitors with a volunteer program, offering accommodations, meals, Viking attire, and hands-on experiences in Viking life. Photo: Holger.Ellgaard / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Live like the Vikings 

In fact, there is even a chance to get truly immersive during the Vikings at Birka event in July, where people dress up in Norse costumes and try to follow ancient Viking customs. 

"There is a volunteer program, with mostly young people from all over the world," explains Veronica. 

"They get a room, food, and Viking clothes. They live and work here and learn about Viking life. They take care of animals, the Viking houses, and learn Viking Age handcrafts."

Though the local government owns the site, it is managed by the tourist company Stromma, which is how Veronica came to be here in the first place. 

"I was working with hotels and contractors, but I always had a dream to become an archeologist, so I decided to study," she says.

"I needed a summer job, so I started working on the island as a guide. I did it for four years before they offered me a full-time job." 

"Now I live on the island all year round. There are 11 of us all together: a farmer family with lots of cows and sheep, then me and my husband." 

That's just the people who stay at Birka during the winter; of course, all are warmly welcome for the rest of the year.

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