At the University of Stockholm and Gotland’s Museum in Visby, a new long-term project aiming for a new digital edition of Gotland’s picture stones has been started.

The particularly rich imagery of the Gotlandic picture stones, dating to ca. 400 to 1100 AD, offers a unique source for studies of Late Iron Age material culture – in particular male and female dress, architecture, ship technology as well as carriages, weaponry and combat, hunting and fishing. Most importantly, the picture stones from Gotland constitute an unparalleled source for information on pre-Christian religion, depicting ritual and cultic acts like horse fights, drinking ceremonies, human sacrifices, and funeral rites. Occasionally, it is even possible to interpret the depictions on the basis of written sources from medieval Iceland – eddic and skaldic poetry, mainly recorded in manuscripts from the 13th century.

Although much research on the Gotlandic picture stones has been carried out since the early 1940s, most of this research, by necessity, has been based on Sune Lindqvist’s edition “Gotlands Bildsteine”. However, 75 years after the publication of this important book it is quite clear that Lindqvist’s edition is outdated, and it is outdated for two reasons. Firstly, the edition only includes 240 picture stones, which were the number of monuments known in the early 1940s. However, today about 570 picture stones and fragments of picture stones are registered. Consequently, a new edition of all Gotlandic picture stones is an urgent desideratum. Secondly, since the carved figures are so faint, Lindqvist traced them directly on the stones with paint in order to make them visible. Thus, photos of the painted stones have been the basis for all research on the stones. Although Lindqvist was an excellent specialist, his perceptions of the images are sometimes doubtful and have been challenged several times. Consequently, more precise and up-to-date documentation of all the monuments is highly needed.

In order to realise the aim of a new digital edition of the entire corpus, we have applied for project funding at the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) within the call ”Digitization and accessibility of cultural heritage collections”.

This application was granted in October 2018, with a funding amount of almost 15 million Swedish crowns and a runtime of 5 years. The project, based at Stockholm University and Gotlands Fornsal, has four major aims:

1.) Digitization of the entire corpus of Gotland’s picture stones, applying the most advanced 2.5D and 3D recording methods available, combining different technical approaches. 

2.) Collecting literature, reports, early photographs and drawings, letters and other information kept in the archives.

3.) Creating an online edition, addressed to both the lay public and researchers. It is going to be freely accessible, interactive, and bilingual (English and Swedish). It will contain compact profiles of every single stone with brief texts, together with a reduced 3D model, which can directly be rotated and turned on screen. For academic use, more detailed texts will be presented, containing all information about find contexts, object biography, chronology, inscriptions, ornamentation, interpretations, references et cetera. Full resolution digital data (in particular 3D models) as well as images and further archival material will be available for download.

4.) Research (based on the new documentation), mainly on iconography, foreign influences and Scandinavian parallels, workshop traditions, and re-use of picture stones.

A digital edition of the Gotlandic picture stones will fundamentally change the basis for any research on these monuments. For the first time, the stones will become fully accessible and fully evaluable. Moreover, the project will provide the monuments with the local, national and international attention that they deserve. Concerning the project’s long-term significance, it is also important to stress that many stones are still exposed to the elements without protection. Carvings are gradually being destroyed by rain, frost and other influences. A digital edition will preserve these threatened monuments for future generations and provide an excellent basis for any means of protection of this vulnerable Swedish heritage.