For 1,000 years, the only evidence we had of the temple at Uppsala, one of the most important centers of pagan Norse religion in Scandinavia, was the writings of Adam of Bremen.

Born in the middle of the 11th century, this German chronicler describes the geography, history, and customs of the Nordic lands in his most notable tome, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum

Pagan sacrifices 

More precisely, Adam of Bremen provides detailed accounts of the conversion to Christianity of the pagan population of Scandinavia, some of which he would have witnessed or heard of first-hand. 

As director of the school based at Bremen Cathedral, he had been invited to the court of Sweyn II of Denmark, teaching him Latin and encouraging him to build hundreds of churches across the land. 

Given his status, Adam would have been keen to extol the benefits of Christianity and paint pagan beliefs, particularly the ceremonial sacrifices, in a bad light. 

The passages outlining these brutal rituals are the most famous in Gesta

We learn that for nine days around the time of the spring equinox, men and male animals were slaughtered and offered up to the gods. 

By the temple stood a large evergreen tree where the bloody worship took place; bodies hung from its branches and were left to rot. 

Centerpiecing the building was a three-seated throne fashioned in the forms of Odin, Thor, and Freya. In case of famine, a sacrifice was duly made to Thor; for victory in war, Odin; and for a successful marriage, Freya. 

The temple was "adorned with gold," and a golden chain looped around the temple building and hung over its entrance. 

Experts have since conjectured that the temple at Uppsala was possibly the largest structure north of the Alps before its destruction in the late 11th century. 

The Gamla Uppsala Museum in Sweden features a composite model of Gamla Uppsala, an ancient Norse religious and political center, illustrating the site's historical progression throughout history. Photo: Cyberjunkie (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Destruction of the temple

Before then, most in Viking society believed in Norse paganism, which can be traced back to when North Germanic peoples separated from their compatriots who stayed further south in the early part of the first millennium. 

Swedish King Inge the Elder is said to have destroyed the temple due to his devotion to the new Christian faith and having been exiled for refusing to carry out ritual sacrifices. 

From the 1080s or 1090s until 1926, the only notion of its existence came from Adam of Bremen and one of the 16 books in the epic series Heimskringla by Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, written in the early 1200s. 

The Gamla Uppsala Museum is located near the site where Sune Lindqvist discovered postholes, which led to theories about the appearance of the pagan temple. Photo: Pudelek (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Archeological research 

Based at the Swedish History Museum and later at Uppsala University in the early 1900s, archeologist Sune Lindqvist is best known for discovering both the Vendel Period and Viking Age boat graves at Valsgärde near Gamla Uppsala. 

Familiar with this area, an hour's drive from Stockholm, and its heritage, Lindqvist began to conduct his archeological research around the site of the early Christian wooden church that had been built at the same location as the previous pagan one. 

What he found was a series of postholes that followed the lines of rectangles, each oblong smaller than the other. This discovery led to several theories about how the pagan temple would have looked.

Sadly, many of these notions were discredited nearly a century later when modern-day archeologists Magnus Alkarp and Neil Price used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to ascertain that these postholes dated from different eras and could not relate to a single building. 

Moreover, in 2013, again with the help of GPR, they discovered two lines of holes for large wooden poles, one over a kilometer long and with 144 openings and a shorter line at right angles to it. 

Though hindered by a lack of funds for further investigation, Alkarp and Price concluded that the second line probably runs much further and that the temple at Uppsala was most likely the largest structure north of the Alps. 

To learn more about the temple at Uppsala, take the STOEX Viking History Extended tour from Stockholm. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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