From commemorating the far-flung travels of Viking warriors to business partners mourning the loss of a valuable colleague to grief-stricken families besides themselves over the loss of a great father and husband, runestones offer us a very personal glimpse into Viking-era families that would otherwise be lost to time. 

Anyone wanting to experience a wealth of these millennium-old messages must head to one Swedish district. Here, there are so many runestones, more than 1,500, that it is commonly known as Runeriket, "The Rune Kingdom."

Off the beaten tourist path...

As we are self-proclaimed Swedophiles at The Viking Herald (along with lovers of all things Scandinavian in general... don't get too jealous, Norway and Denmark!), we cannot imagine a better place to visit than Sweden. 

From the medieval history that lines the cobbled streets of Stockholm's Gamla Stan to the daily ritual of pristine wildness of the UNESCO-protected Muddus National Park, Sweden seems to have something for everyone.

Hang on a sec, I can hear you ask. We are visiting a Viking website, what about we lovers of all things Viking?

Well, to discover one of Sweden's hidden gems, you must head to the shores of Lake Vallentuna, some 30km (about 18 miles) north of Stockholm. 

Here, a collaborative effort between the Stockholm County Museum and the municipalities of Täby and Vallentuna have quite literally established a "Kingdom of Runestones," or as the locals call it, Runriket.

You can leisurely amble along a 35-kilometer (about 21-mile) trail that winds around the lake and includes some of the most impressive runestones you will ever see. 

U 164 is a Viking-era runestone erected by Jarlabanke Ingefastsson, a powerful local chieftain, located at the causeway known as Jarlabanke's bridge in Täby. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ok, what are the runes? 

Long before the Runriket was established, this area of Sweden was smack bang in the middle of the Viking world. 

Whilst the Norwegian and Danish Vikings often get more credit for their westward raids and colonialization, the locals from this area, especially from this area of what would become Sweden, expanded eastward as far as the Russian steppes and down to the Byzantine Empire.

Some even made it as far as the premier economic city of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad. Yet, for all their overseas exploits, many had a family and community waiting patiently for their return. Whilst many Vikings did return after making their fortune or fame, many did not.

One of the most poignant ways to remember those who didn't return or died before their time was to raise a runestone. This was a stone, often a boulder, that was raised with a runic inscription, often to memorialize a loved one who passed away. 

One of the earliest runestones discovered yet comes from the early 4th century CE in Åre, Norway, but the majority lie in Sweden.

As Vikings from the eastern seaboard of Sweden began raiding, trading, and exploring – often winding their way down the various river systems of Eastern Europe to end up in Constantinople – there is a multitude of runestones describing the exploits and adventures of these "Varangians."

The shores of Lake Vallentuna. Photo: Martin of Sweden / Shutterstock

Runriket - the Rune Kingdom

We know that people in Viking societies that centered around Stockholm raised more runestones than anywhere else in the world. 

In fact, roughly 60% of all runestones raised were in the area between Stockholm and the shores of Lake Vallentuna. 

This area has a wealth of runestones that include descriptions of both eastward and westward voyages, of those that made it as far away as Constantinople, the Caspian Sea, and Iceland, whilst more than 20 relate to one Viking, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, and his clan.

Most of these stones were raised during that historical estuary of a period, the 11th century CE, where the long process of the Christianization of Scandinavia, and especially Sweden, was almost complete. 

Many runestones in the Runriket proclaim the new faith of those who raised the stone; in an era before communal churches, this was the most visible way of communicating with the community. 

Most were brightly decorated (though the color has worn off over the centuries) and were carved by master craftsmen called runemasters.

Some of the inscriptions on the runestones that line the trail around Lake Vallentuna help bring this period of history, more than a millennium ago, to life. 

They include the tales of a man named Östen who managed to journey all the way to Jerusalem (a mammoth journey in the early medieval period), a woman named Estrid and several generations of her family, and the aforementioned Jaralabanke who was sort of a big deal in this community... if you believe his runestone. 

Situated near Stockholm, Arkils Tingstad is a historical Viking assembly place, featuring a stone formation and runestones that narrate the legacy of the Skålharmas family. Photo: Pål-Nils Nilsson / Riksantikvarieämbetet (CC BY-SA 2.5)

A trail that leads to a Tingstad 

Now, the Runriket trail is available to traverse however you would like it, but we feel that the best way to experience it is to start at the Jarlabanke bridge

Here, there are four runestones (with two removed from other locations and placed here) that detail the exploits of Jarlabanke and his clan. There are several outdoor pavillions and scenic picnic spots nearby, perfect for the warmer months of the Swedish year. 

From there, you can wander around the trail that includes the local church at Täby - built not long after the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066) in the early 13th century CE. The final stop, however, should be to assemble where a Viking-era assembly took place, the Arkils Tingstad.

The remains of two runestones, as well as a stone formation, signals the place where local chieftains would meet. Just what they did when they met here is open to debate. 

Some scholars claim that they would deliver justice and reach agreements, whilst others argue it was simply a place to state what was going to happen rather than deciding what may happen. 

As the new Christian religion took hold of the area, another theory is that this was the meeting place for baptism ceremonies to take place, right by the shores of the lake.

Nowhere else in the country can you both admire the natural beauty of Sweden whilst also learning about the history, the stories, and the adventures of local Vikings more than a millennium ago. 

Runriket may be a hidden gem, but we at The Viking Herald believe it should be top of everyone's list when they visit Sweden. 

The Council of Europe has created a "Viking Cultural Route" website that includes information on Runriket, available here

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