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LANDSCAPE OF THE GODS - the sacral topography of Bornholm in the first millennium AD

Reintegration Fellowships


Before the 1980s, the Old Norse gods were mainly known from myths written down in the Middle Ages. In later decades, archaeological discoveries throughout Scandinavia have revealed evidence of the practices of this pre-Christian religion: there were small, local traditions as well as large communal sacrificial feasts. The cult took place in both remote and central places, in special cult buildings and in the open landscape. This project is a comprehensive study of religious activities and places on the island of Bornholm in the first millennium AD. It explores relations between levels of the cult in the topographical and social landscape, seeking to identify dynamics behind religious change and the position of Bornholm in pan-Scandinavian religious networks.


We have only begun to understand how Old Norse religion actually worked. Bornholm, as a well-defined geographical unit with an exceptional density of well-documented archaeological locations, offers a unique possibility to investigate pre-Christian sacral topography in detail. The island was a hub of trade and contacts in the Baltic Sea and several sites have evidence of pre-Christian cultic activity. Important examples are the rich settlement Sorte Muld near Svaneke and a place name such as Gudhjem, 'home of the Gods'. In a global perspective, the study of Bornholm through the first millennium offers insights into the long-term dynamics of a small island community and further contributes to large scale descriptions of historical tendencies in settlement and social organisation.


The project consists of a detailed interdisciplinary analysis of place names, archaeology and landscape on Bornholm in the first millennium AD. For this purpose, a revision and digital mapping of toponomy and archaeological sites related to pre-Christian religion is created. Topographical information is extracted from aerial photos, LIDAR-scans and historical maps. The project takes part in archaeological field work at Sorte Muld and performs georadar analyses of the sites Smørenge and Agerbygård. Based on these investigations, the project uncovers interplays between social organisation and sacral topography, and explores the role of these interplays in developments at local and supra-regional levels. The results are then discussed in relation to other sacral environments in Scandinavia.


In a world of digital distractions, it is ever more important to lift our gaze and look at the landscapes around us. In times of change, connecting with a deeper historical perspective can provide a sense of anchoring and order. Threads reaching far back in a forgotten time are continuously activated through our movements in the landscape and use of old place names in our everyday language. This project is about these ancient elements, visible as well as hidden in the physical and linguistic landscape. These traces will not only be investigated, but also made accessible to the local population, visitors to Bornholm and people all over the world with an interest in Old Norse religion. Work on archaeological and onomastic landscapes at its best happens in close interaction with local volunteer groups and companies and there is a strong tradition on Bornholm for engagement in local history. The project will also contribute the ongoing work of Bornholm's Museum on building sustainable heritage tourism in the Baltic Region. In a wider perspective, the study adds to a deeper understanding of local and global issues in times of change, and adds perspectives on how change in the past may point towards what will happen in the future.