From Norwich to Sweden

From Norwich to Sweden

In June 2022, the Nara to Norwich team travelled to Sweden to view some of the archaeological sites and items explored in the exhibition. As the trip photographer, I spent most of my time peering through my camera’s viewfinder in an attempt to document as much as possible (in fact, I worry that the people that I met will know my camera better than my face!). In this post, I’d like to use a selection of my favourite photographs to guide you through our Swedish expedition.

Day 1: 05.06.22

We began in Valsgärde—an archaeologist’s paradise due to the hundreds of burial mounds and ancient graves located there. Since archaeologists formed the majority of our group (we were outnumbered 3 to 5!), it was no surprise that this important cultural site would mark the start of our journey. With fields extending as far as the eye could see, we embarked on the first long walk of many to learn about the burial mounds from our Nara to Norwich contributors, and guides for the day, Neil Price and John Ljungkvist.

On reaching the top of a burial mound, we were met with beautiful panoramic views of the site and the Uppland plain, though these views were, surprisingly, not the most intriguing aspect of this setting; we were standing in the vicinity of fifteen Viking boat burials— a practice in which the deceased was placed in a boat, surrounded by expensive gifts, then buried beneath the ground. This was an unusual ritual for its time—around the Vendel (550–750) or the Viking (750–1050) period—as cremations were far more common. It has thus been suggested that this practice was reserved for those of a higher social standing.

Our tour continued to Gamla Uppsala, with its royal burials and a museum which contained various items pertaining to the Vendel and Viking periods. I had my first encounter with runestones—large, stones bearing runic inscriptions, with the earliest recorded runestone dating to the 4th century. These became my favourite objects on the trip and we later spotted them not only in museums, but in the walls of churches, shops, or even just in the landscape.

After concluding the walk around the burial mounds behind the museum and visiting the site of a large longhouse believed to be the royal palace, and the later church (pictured), we made our way to the heart of Stockholm, where we would be staying for the remainder of the trip.

Church of Gamla Uppsala.

Day 2: 06.06.22

The following day, we took a (rather windy) two-hour boat trip to an island called Björkö, famous for the site of Birka, an important Viking-age trading centre.

We began by visiting the museum, which contained recreations of Viking clothing and settlements. It was a very accessible resource for all ages to learn about life in the Viking period and provided us with a quick crash course in Viking history before we set off on a tour of the island, led by Neil. It was during this tour that we encountered (what I deem to be) the most breath-taking scenery from the trip. I hope the photographs can give you a taste of this beautiful island, but I really recommend that you visit if the opportunity arises.

We had learned in the museum about a 10th century grave that was originally believed to hold the remains of a male Viking warrior, but later became famous after further genomic analysis in 2017 found the deceased to be female. She was buried with the weapons and horses needed for her role, and has since attracted significant attention as this may reconceptualise how we understand the role of warriors and women in the Viking period. Not only could we read about the warrior in the museum, but a short walk took us to the site of her grave. It was a very special experience to be able to stand beside the grave as we discussed its significance.

Day 3: 07.06.22

We spent the third day of our trip at the Swedish History Museum with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, the archaeologist who led the re-identification of the Birka woman warrior and a curator at the Museum. She led us round their Viking exhibition, providing us with a deeper insight into specific items that could be of interest to the Nara to Norwich project. I particularly enjoyed viewing items that I recognised from the exhibition website, such as the Helgö Buddha, the resurrection egg, and a Vendel burial helmet (pictured)—there is something quite stirring about seeing an item in-person that you have been looking at for months through a computer screen!

After a quick lunch, we moved upstairs to hold a Nara to Norwich workshop where we were joined by Eva Myrdal, former curator at the Museum and Ben Raffield, researcher at Uppsala University. Simon Kaner provided an introduction to the project, which was followed by a tour of the online exhibition by myself, and an overview of the Viking Phenomenon project by Neil Price. We then had presentations by Katy Cubitt, who focussed on pilgrimage and how trade networks are not as linear as they are often perceived, and Chris Scull, who provided an insight into Rendlesham in the UK—one of the exhibits and a site of archaeological interest due to its links to the burials at Sutton Hoo and Snape. The discussion that followed these presentations not only provided us with topics that could be explored in Nara to Norwich, such as layered networks, trust, and identity, but also brought a number of scholars together from different backgrounds and countries in a collaborative effort to better understand Scandinavian trade and pilgrimage during the Vendel and Viking periods.

The Nara to Norwich conference.

Day 4: 08.06.22

Before we knew it, it was the final day of the trip. Of course, we had to squeeze in one more museum visit before flying home; we took a leisurely stroll along the waterfront to the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, where we met with Michael Lee who works there as a curator.

Michael guided us around the museum’s collection, providing extra information on items that were related to the Silk Roads, before showing us the museum library, items in storage, and the conservation room, where we were able to handle some of the items. My favourite part of this experience was listening to the team speculate about the items – many were labelled with minimal information, so everyone chipped in to discuss the items’ provenance, function, and importance in learning about trade routes. It was a fantastic end to an extremely educational and inspiring trip.

Final Reflections

I studied Psychology and Neuroscience at Keele University for three years, followed by the MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies at the University of East Anglia. Since my MA was during the pandemic and my BSc was largely lab-based, I haven’t been on a field trip throughout my time at University, so it was amazing to be able to travel somewhere and absorb information, rather than stare at articles, google images of items, and cram information with revision cards. It was an entirely new experience that taught me not only about the Silk Roads, but also the importance of travelling to learn about culture.

Furthermore, I have been working from home on the Nara to Norwich project since joining the team in September 2021, so most of my interaction with objects has been through low-quality photographs from Wikipedia! I found it refreshing to see a selection of the objects in-person and to make new links between items, places, and people. It is with this newly-developed understanding of Sweden’s culture, history, and religion that I hope to think of new ways to make the website as educational as possible so that those who cannot travel can still appreciate the historical value of the sites, objects, and concepts in Nara to Norwich.

I would like to thank the Toshiba International Foundation and SISJAC for giving me the opportunity (to borrow the words of Simon at his toast on the first evening) “to go to a wonderful place with interesting people”.

Naomi Hughes-White

One of the few pictures of me from the trip! Photo by Andy Hutcheson.