Yet the function of this Tingstad has been hotly debated – was it a sort of legal court where the townspeople would come to see justice delivered or just a meeting place to listen to the whims of the local chieftain?

A Kingdom of runes close to the "backside" of Sweden

Standing in the modern downtown of Stockholm, lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants, the early medieval period seems light years away. However, just 15 kilometers northwest of Sweden's capital lies Täby. Aside from this being a commuter town to the nation's capital, Täby is part of the greater Stockholm region, which lays claim to having the highest density of runestones in the world.

Centered around Vallentuna Lake, a joint partnership between the Stockholm County Museum and the municipalities of Täby and Vallentuna has produced the wonderful "Runriket" (The Rune Kingdom). Arguably this is the world's best exhibition of carefully preserved runestones in the world. 

One of the sites in this kingdom of runes is the Arkils Tingstad. This is not only believed to have been a sort of District Court for the area in the early medieval period, but each of the stones has inscriptions detailing the story of one Viking-era family, the Skålharmas.

What was a "Ting"?

Before we delve into the story of the Skålharmas, an introduction to a Viking-era "Ting" (assembly) is needed. The Arkils Tingstad was just one of many governing assemblies in early Viking societies that were made up of free people, of a community that dotted the Nordic region. A Ting was not only an assembly but also functioned as a sort of proto-parliament and local court. It was also vital for the "airing of grievances" of the local community, i.e., the resolution of blood, family, and/or tribal feuds.

During the early medieval period, Tings in Sweden were held at both natural and also man-made mounds. The assembly site had easily accessible (with clear land or water routes) and often had large runestones, with inscriptions, detailing a local family's supremacy. 

The Ting met at regular intervals -  with locally elected elites and a "lawspeaker" (a sort of judge who had memorized all the local laws and edicts). Though not necessarily democratic (in the modern sense of the term), a Ting was founded on the ideals of neutrality, representation, and the representation of large interests of local communities.

The location of the Arklis Tingstad, with two runestones on the right of the formation. Photo: Berig / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

A poem of loss and mourning

The creation of the Arkils Tingstad dates back to the second decade of the 11th century CE. Vallentuna County considers the Tingstad as being its first district court; therefore, legal proceedings have been going on in this country for more than a millennium.

The Arkils Tingstad is situated right near the shores of the Vallentunasjön. All that remains nowadays are a rectangular stone formation and two runestones. It is on these runestones that we first learn of the Skålharmas, who have inscribed a poem, of mourning, for Ulv - a deceased female member of the clan. It is one of the longest examples of runic inscriptions that have been uncovered thus far, consisting of over 200 runes.

The rough English translation of the runic inscription - based on the Project Samnordisk Runtextdatabas Svensk - is as follows:

Ulfkell(?) and Arnkell and Gýi, they made the Assembly-place here ... No landmark will be more (great), than (the one) the sons of Ulfr made in (his) memory; able lads in memory of their father. 

(They) raised stones and produced the staff(?) and the great signs (of acclaim); Gyríðr also cherished her husband: he will therefore be commemorated in weeping. Gunnarr cut the stone. 

It is believed that a local family/clan – the Skålharmas – were behind the creation of this Tingstad. They were believed to be the most significant landowners in the area, locally landed elites, who established this Tingstad in the middle of their estate.

Some historians have argued that they created this Tingstand in order to lure priests from Sigtuna (an important city in the early medieval period of Swedish history) to help proselytize and baptize the local community. It was, after all, during the 11th century that Scandinavia, especially Sweden, was at the forefront of a battleground of religious beliefs. 

It was seen as a divine mission for the Catholic Church to go to the edges of "civilized" Europe and spread the Christian message to the peoples in Viking societies. Central to this mission was the importance of rituals – especially baptism.

Whatever the reason for the creation of the Arkils Tingstad, it provides a fascinating insight into the political, legal, and familial goings on in this area of Sweden in the early medieval period. Should you be close to Stockholm, a trip to the Runriket to see the Arkils Tingstad is a must for all those who love Viking-era societies and Swedish history.

More information on the Runriket can be found here.

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