About a 20-minute drive from Stockholm's famously picturesque Gamla Stan (Old City) is the town of Täby. With a population of just over 65,000 in its surrounds, the town is not exactly the first place you would think to get a glimpse into the early medieval period. 

However, in the vicinity are more than 20 runestones and a bridge, said to have been erected for a powerful Viking-era chieftain, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson.

The 20 runestones, part of the broader Runriket (Rune Kingdom), have made this area a popular tourist destination for many a Viking aficionado.

So who was this powerful chieftain that, quite literally, left his mark on the local countryside for we moderns, more than a millennium, to appreciate and enjoy? 

What do these runestones say about this man, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, his power, reach, and influence in the region and beyond more than a millennium ago? 

To find out, we must wind the clock back to the early medieval period, an era of Viking raids and rulers. 

In the era of Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, as evidenced by his runestones, Swedish Vikings were expanding eastward, a movement that culminated in some serving in the prestigious Varangian Guard in Constantinople. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Eastern expansion in early medieval Sweden 

In the 11th century, Sweden was undergoing significant changes. While most historians agree that a unified Swedish state didn't form until the 12th century, the 11th century was marked by a forceful and frequently violent consolidation of power. 

This period, mirroring developments in other Scandinavian countries, was characterized by the rise of small kingdoms and regional leaders competing for power and influence. 

Alongside these political developments, there was a significant outward expansion by the Vikings of Sweden. They ventured eastward, engaging in conquest, colonization, and trade

Utilizing the extensive river networks of Eastern Europe, these Vikings sought fame, fortune, and glory. 

This eastward expansion led to the development of the Kievan Rus – one of the largest polities of the early medieval period – comprising a vast territory that includes parts of Eastern Europe from which Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all trace their ancestry. 

The Volga River became a conduit of international commerce, and the Swedish Vikings would often raid and trade along its course until reaching its endpoint, the Black Sea. 

The Vikings' journey eastward brought them close to Europe's largest city at the time, Constantinople, splendidly located beside the Bosporus and serving as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

In Constantinople, the Vikings' martial prowess was in high demand, and they went on to form a personal bodyguard for the Byzantine emperor. 

Through Runestone U 127, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson immortalized his achievements, claiming sole ownership of Täby and acknowledging his contributions, including a bridge and multiple runestones, as enduring symbols of his power. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tracing a life story through runestones 

This eastward expansion, which may have sometimes been peaceful but was most definitely profitable, saw great wealth (often in the form of enslaved individuals) flow back to communities throughout what is now Sweden. 

One of these communities was the area around what is now Täby. 

Thanks to a set of 20 runestones erected during the second half of the 11th century, we can trace the life story of a local ruler, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson.

According to these runestones, Ingefatsson seems to have been a powerful ruler of the area who may have been responsible for significant infrastructure projects. 

Not only is he credited with building a bridge, a structure initially composed of layers of tree branches, sand, and gravel that has since evolved into the modern causeway, but he is also responsible for the construction of a parliamentary assembly, the local Thing

Rune 165 describes Jarlabanke's oversight of the bridge's construction as a touching tribute to his soul. 

This inscription may indicate his Christian faith, suggesting that he was either a baptized and devout believer or someone who aligned with Christianity for political reasons. 

By this era, the late 11th century, much of the Swedish Viking elite, particularly the powerful, had been baptized as Christianity had gained a significant foothold

He was said, according to runestone U127, to have "owned all of Täby," but modern historians view this claim with skepticism. 

Runestones were erected as symbols of power and prestige, so this assertion might be factual or simply an example of Viking braggadocio. 

Additionally, stones erected by his father and for his children indicate that Ingefatsson hailed from a powerful and influential family. 

His legacy persisted even after his death, evidenced by a runestone erected in his honor by his wife and children, ensuring that the story of Jarlabanke Ingefatsson lived on beyond the grave. 

Runestone U 142, intricately carved by the esteemed Öpir, serves as a posthumous tribute to Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, commissioned by his wife Ketiley and son Ingifastr. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A famous artist and a famed end 

What makes these runestones even more fascinating, aside from giving us a glimpse into the life, times, and family of a Viking-era ruler, is that one was crafted by a famous runemaster, Öpir. 

A runemaster was a profession of immense skill and prestige in early medieval Sweden. Öpir, one of these skilled craftsmen, is believed to have carved over 50 runestones, many of which are found in the region that is now modern-day Uppsala. 

A further 50 bear his name – meaning he oversaw their carving (by a colleague or an apprentice) and erection.

Given that Öpir was responsible for some of the most aesthetically striking and delicate runestones, it further reinforces that Ingefatsson had the resources, power, and prestige to commission a master artist like Öpir to ply his trade. 

Where did some of this wealth come from? 

Some of the runestones – which form part of the famous Greek runestones (a set of runestones depicting people from Viking societies' adventures and exploits in the Byzantine Empire) - offer a clue. 

Here, one in Täby explains that a man from the region "met his end in Greece" (i.e., the Byzantine Empire). 

Could this have been a relative of Ingefatsson, gone to serve in the Varangian Guard who died upon a battlefield far away? Or was he lost upon a trade mission, trying to make his fame and fortune further south? 

Could this man have even been Ingefatsson himself? 

Sadly, we may never know, but it offers a tantalizing possibility of how Ingefatsson met his end and the interactions between Northern and Southern Europe during the early medieval period. 

This historic Viking causeway, built by Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, symbolizes the convergence of practical infrastructure and spiritual aspirations, with runestones at its site declaring it a deed for his soul. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A legacy that has lasted over a millennium 

Whilst we may never know exactly how Jarlabanke Ingefatsson met his end, it is his life story, carved in stone, that we have detailed knowledge of. 

Thanks to his powerful family, his political power and prestige, and the skill of artisans like Öpir, we have physical remnants of a Viking-era ruler and local elite with us more than a millennium after his death. 

Looking at the range of politicians in many countries today, will their legacy even last an election cycle, let alone a millennium? 

Thanks to the power, prestige, and braggadocio of Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, we have direct contact with the early medieval period, at the very dawn of Sweden as a nation-state. 

For more information on what modern technology has uncovered about some famous runestones, visit the Smithsonian Magazine website here

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