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L.I.S.A. Redaktion | 10/14/2015 | 7483 Views | 5 | Movies by the Gerda Henkel Foundation |

Gotland's Picture Stones

Gotland, the unique island | Episode 1

The Swedish island of Gotland was used even by the Vikings’ forebears as an important trading centre. And even today, numerous historical remnants bear witness to the island’s colourful past. Alongside a rich Christian tradition, picture stones from pagan ancestors, and these stones have been only sparsely researched to date, can be found here dating from the 5th to the 12th century. Owing to the combined effect of various factors scientists are having particular difficulty deciphering the purpose and past messages of the picture stones. Using state-of-the-art techniques, Dr. Sigmund Oehrl is attempting to reconstruct the original stone surfaces in order to gain a deeper insight into the Norse artists’ spiritual world, heroic sagas and ideas on the afterlife.



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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 The 1941-2 edition of the stones by Sune Lindqvist, which is still the fundamental reference work, is technologically outdated and only encompasses 280 of the 467 picture stones or picture stone fragments known today.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.

Project leadership

Dr. Sigmund Oehrl



Academic Project Manager

Dr Sigmund Oehrl 

Editorial Teams
Peter Prestel

Camera Technicians
Klaus Hernitschek
Editing Technicians
Klaus Hernitschek

Overall Planning Teams
Gisela Graichen und Peter Prestel

All episodes
Gotland, the unique island
Episode 1
The Edda helps
Episode 2
Problems of picture stone research
Episode 3
Digital viking
Episode 4
The dragon-slayer
Episode 5
Gunnar in the snake pit
Episode 6
The keystone
Episode 7
The general interview with Dr Sigmund Oehrl
Episode 8


by Dr. Alfred Becker | 16.10.2015 | 19:33
Einige der Bildsteine begleiten meine Studien zum Franks Casket seit 50 Jahren, daher mein lebhaftes Interesse an Ihrem Projekt, das ich ggf. und evtl. auch am Ort beobachten würde, "wenn's denn paßt". Erste Vergleiche veranlaßten meinen "Docdad" mir die Diss. anzutragen. Mehr in "Alfred Becker, Franks Casket. Zum Runenkästchen von Auzon (Regensburger Arbeiten zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Bd. 5), Regensburg 1973; 306 S."
Vor 15 Jahren habe ich das Thema (mit Quantensprüngen an Erkenntnis) wieder aufgenommen und unter populärwissenschaftlich entfaltet. Dabei gibt es täglich der "Guten Neuen Mehr". Schauen Sie selbst, oder - bei Interesse - gebe ich Hinweise. Vielleicht ist die Kooperation fruchtbar für beide.
Frohes Schaffen
Alfred Becker


by Univ.-Prof. Dr. Max Siller | 20.10.2015 | 16:09
Lieber Herr Oehrl,
ich bin begeistert - und schon gespannt auf die nächsten Folgen!

Für Herrn Becker, dessen Franks Casket-Buch ich bewundere, ein kleiner Hinweis (weil an versteckter Stelle und leider bisher nur italienisch):
Max Siller: Storie del Mediterraneo antico nell’Europa del nord medievale: The Franks Casket (British Museum, ca. 700)....

Mit den besten Grüßen,
max siller


by Archaeologist | 29.10.2015 | 13:17
Dear Sigmund. It was great to see these filmed epsodes. They are very well produced and the filming is truly stylish, both in colors and angles and that you have captured the image of the stones fine carvings and made them so clear. It was clever of your crew to do that. Tried it myself- not easy!

I for one especially appreciate that you so clearly emphasizes the importance of actually going back to the original when you study these stones and their carvings. We have far too many who thought that it was enough with looking at the images in publications as the basis for their research. Your work is in many ways unique and us back here on Gotland really appreciate it.

You are always welcome back.

Greetings Per and staff at the Gotland Museum


by Joachim Stefan Feik | 21.09.2017 | 10:02
Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Oehrl,

Seit ich 1983 erstmals in Jelling war, fasziniert mich die Geschichte der Wikinger (in Dänemark). Dies versuche ich unter aufzuarbeiten. Von daher sind für mich auch die gotländischen Bildsteine ein absolutes Highlight! Leider habe ich es noch nicht auf Gotland geschafft, aber ich muss da unbedingt noch hin! Ihre Filmreihe habe ich aber erst gestern entdeckt und bin schwer beeindruckt! Herzlichen Dank für Ihre herausragende Arbeit! Wird dies auch noch in Buchform erscheinen? Ich habe dazu noch nichts im Internet gefunden.

Grüße eines Hobbyforschers


by S. Oehrl | 21.09.2017 | 10:43
Sehr geehrter Herr Feik,

vielen Dank für Ihren Kommentar und die lobenden Worte, über die ich mich gefreut habe. Die Ergebnisse meiner Arbeit sollen 2018 in Buchform erscheinen, unter dem Titel "Die Bildsteine Gotlands – Probleme und neue Wege ihrer Dokumentation, Lesung und Deutung". Die gegenwärtige Planung sieht vor, dass die Monographie im Likias-Verlag, in der Reihe "Studia archaeologiae medii aevi" erscheint. In Kürze wird es eine Art Vorbericht geben: "Documenting and interpreting the picture stones of Gotland: Old problems and new approaches", in: Current Swedish Archaeology 2017.

Beste Grüße

Sigmund Oehrl

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