In the Spotlight: The Birka Cross
Gallery Byzantium’s Birka Cross is based on a 9th century Scandinavian design of a grave find from Birka, Sweden. The original artifact is now part of the Swedish History Museum’s collections. It is also featured in the Museum’s s “We Call Them Vikings” touring exhibitions.
Despite its Scandinavian origins, the cross features ornate Byzantine influences – the result of a medieval trade route which connected Birka to the Byzantine Empire.
(Photo: Pendant, cross shaped. Silver, rock-crystal. Grave find, Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.)
A short but significant legacy
Birka was founded in 831 by Saint Ansgar and became Sweden’s first known Christian settlement. It is widely considered to be Sweden’s oldest town and is a short 18 miles west of Stockholm.
Saint Ansgar, a German monk, had set forth to Birka to spread Christianity throughout Scandinavia. His visit was welcomed by King Björn, who supported Ansgar’s mission. However, after five years on the island, a satisfied Ansgar left and, in his absence, the locals reverted back to their old religious beliefs.
One would thus assume that Saint Ansgar’s work and influence were all for naught. Yet, in spite of this spiritual reversion, Christianity would spread throughout Scandinavia over the next 200 years. A large statue for Saint Ansgar was erected on the island in the 1830’s; a commemoration of the 1,000 year anniversary of his visit. Saint Ansgar is also celebrated as the patron saint of Scandinavia.
Centrally-located and protected by the Baltic Sea, Birka thrived as an important trading center in the medieval route of the 8th and 9th century. The small island connected Scandinavia to the Orient and Europe (namely, Kievan Rus’ and the Byzantine Empire). It was home to many artisans who exported Scandinavian designs across the world and refined the exotic designs that came in through trade. Our Birka Cross exemplifies these exotic influences.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Birka stands as a historic monument as it is “one of the most complete and undisturbed surviving sites of a Viking trading settlement of the 8th-10th centuries AD.” Its relatively-untouched presence is, in part, due to the fact that the settlement was located on a small island, isolated from the progress and development which occurred throughout the centuries.
Naturally, the original structures have been razed throughout the centuries and “[t]oday there is generally not anything structured above the ground in Birka to reveal its history.” Extensive archaeological digs have, however, helped to piece together how the town would have looked and how it would have functioned.
Birka’s prominence began to wane around 970-980. For reasons widely speculated, the island was most likely abandoned around 920, leaving a rich legacy and history to be discovered by modern archaeologists and visitors. This historic location is now home to a museum which boasts a model of what the original town looked like along with life-size reconstructions of Viking homes and other buildings.
A glimpse into history
Want to see Birka for yourself? You don’t need to trek all the way to Sweden! Christer Sundberg, World Heritage Traveler, put together a wonderful video sharing the story and legacy of this small, but influential, Scandinavian island. Check it out below!
(If you are unable to view the video below, click here to view it directly on YouTube.)
Sweden.org – http://www.sweden.org.za/birka.html
Brittanica – The Viking Age – https://www.britannica.com/place/Sweden/The-Viking-Age#ref403673
The Viking City and the World Heritage – http://www.birkavikingastaden.se/en/about-birka/
The Swedish History Museum (Flickr) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/historiska/13619980674/in/album-72157643393929753
Brittanica – Saint Ansgar – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Ansgar
Christer Sundberg (video) – https://youtu.be/gsu9WLIrU50?list=PLAFpYH4BThIXXAvvZXxXe4MDvjlBzqIRk
Tags: Ancient History, Birka Cross, Byzantine, Christian cross, History, In the Spotlight, Jewelry, May 2017, Scandinavian design, St. Ansgar, Sweden
Categorized in: Uncategorized