The Research Project
Dr Sigmund Oehrl’s research project centres on the picture stones on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. These standing memorial stones, often taller than a man, were created between the Migration Period and the late Viking age (around 400 to 1100 A.D.). They are adorned with a myriad of carved figures, providing a unique insight into the religious ideas of the Nordic culture in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The Gotland picture stones constitute a unique group of archaeological monuments found nowhere else in this form in regions settled by Germanic peoples. Created in a largely illiterate age, they bear authentic testimony to an otherwise highly elusive pagan cultural world and constitute an invaluable source for Germanic religious history, mythology and heroic saga. It is in particular later Old Norse written sources that enable interpretation of the incised depictions, making the stones a field of research in both archaeology and Old Norse studies.
Owing to severe weathering the pictures on the memorial stones, either carved or in primitive bas-relief, are mostly very difficult to identify. The 1941-2 edition of the stones by Sune Lindqvist, which is still the fundamental reference work, is technologically outdated and only encompasses 280 of the 467 picture stones or picture stone fragments known today. Back then, the carved surfaces were illuminated with a lamp and the recognizable depictions marked in black and photographed. It was often the case that Lindqvist was unsure as to whether the shadows resulting from the lateral illumination were picture outlines or natural irregularities in the stone or even later damage, and the images in said edition consequently reflect the subjective perspective of a single observer.
In the context of the project, the researcher uses cutting-edge archaeological methods and techniques (computational/digital archaeology) to create a basis for reassessments and documentations. With the help of reflectance transformation imaging (RTI method) and photogrammetry (3D digitalization), Dr. Oehrl has already examined and documented many of the Gotland picture stones, and initial exemplary studies point to the result providing an entirely new basis for interpretation. The aim is to process the data obtained (some 30,000 photos) with various software solutions, to create 3D models of the picture stones and to evaluate these with regard to a critical review of previous documentation and interpretive proposals and to search for hitherto unrecognized details that are potentially important for interpreting the pictures. In a second stage Dr. Oehrl shall conduct iconographic studies and develop new perspectives on interpretation for all picture stone groups from the fourth century to the late Viking age. Key issues concern the stones’ relationship to the written sources from the High Middle Ages and how they are connected to Continental iconography of late Antiquity/the early Middle Ages. The project findings are to be presented in a monograph on the Gotland picture stones and the problems of their interpretation and submitted as a habilitation thesis at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich.