The Boomerang

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Västra Tunhem. A Portal to the Viking Age

If you drive east out of the Swedish town of Vänersborg and continue past the steel mill, cross the bridge where Lake Vänern becomes the river Göta Älv, and take a right in the second roundabout, you will enter another world.

There are no signs or buildings to point it out, yet the change is palpable. Not only do you feel the shift happening, you see it in the air, in the light, in the ground. You know–but can’t explain–that you have arrived in a different place. It’s as if you have entered through a portal.

As you continue down the winding road, on your immediate left there is a field of Iron Age grave mounds, followed by agricultural fields surrounding an old estate, the manor house of which is visible from the road. Behind the graves, the fields, and the house, looms the ancient rock of Hunneberg. On your right, the river is your constant companion, winding its way south.

A couple of miles down the road, there is an inconspicuous intersection with an even smaller road. You take the turn and find yourself driving through a grove of old, lush trees. This road winds itself across the fields towards Hunneberg. Once it reaches the rock, the road veers a sharp right and takes you through a cathedral of tall elm trees.

The cathedral of trees.
Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

On the other side of the trees, you pass through a group of small, old homes, clinging to the side of the rock, spilling down towards the fields now on your right. You continue along the base of Hunneberg, past all the buildings, until the view opens up, and on your right you see a church surrounded by a cemetery.

You continue past the church, enter yet another cathedral of trees. The road hugs the base of the rock ever closer, until you emerge once again and reach another intersection. In front of you are fields of pasture where oak trees dot the landscape, some of them nearly eight hundred years old.

Medieval oak tree at Västra Tunhem.
Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

Here, you take a right and drive down yet another winding road. Even though this road is similar to the one you just left, and even though the landscape looks the same with fields, trees, and small buildings, as soon as you pass the last oak tree, you notice another shift. You have exited the portal.

The area you just drove through is called Västra Tunhem and is located in between the towns of Vänersborg and Trollhättan in west Sweden. Västra Tunhem has been populated and cultivated for thousands of years. The name itself is evidence of its age.

“Västra” is modern Swedish and means “west,” this to distinguish this location from Östra Tunhem, or East Tunhem. “Tunhem” is a compound noun that consists of the words “Tun” and “hem.” “Tun” means “enclosed location,” usually with some kind of administrative central place function. “Hem” means “homestead, farm, or location.”

Both “tun” and “hem” are very old. “Hem” as a place name is predominantly found in the western parts of what is now Sweden and can be traced back to the Iron Age where it predates the Viking Age. “Tun” is more commonly occurring in east Sweden, there in the form of “tuna.” The form “tun” is mostly found in Norway and Iceland. Also interesting to note, is that Västra and Östra Tunhem are located in the same part of west Sweden, Västergötland, once again emphasizing the western orientation of the place name.

Västra Tunhem has been an important location for more than two thousand years. Not only is the name “Tunhem” evidence of this, but so is the location of the church.

Västra Tunhem church.
Photo: Västra Tunhem parish.

The church at Västra Tunhem got its current form when it was rebuilt in 1736–1740. The church tower was added in 1810. The first church was built at this site around the year 1100. In Swedish history writing, the year 1100 is used as the chronological transition year between the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. The turn of the twelfth century is also an intense period of church building in Västergötland where Christianity was beginning to take hold.

These churches were built on or near pre-Christian cult sites, often on land belonging to the local elites. The most famous stories about pre-Christian Scandinavian religion involve temples, but the religion could in fact be practiced anywhere, usually in groves, by water, at boundaries real or otherworldly, but also in the home and on the farm.

To gain a deeper understanding of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious practice, we need to step away from the written sources and instead read a location’s topography as text.

If we look at the location of the church at Västra Tunhem, we see the pre-Christian Scandinavian religion unfold before us. The church is located on the plain at the base of Hunneberg. To the west of the church is the river. To the east, the rock. The church is also located at the intersection of several roads: the road that we drove on as we passed through the area; roads crossing the fields towards the river; and roads up the side of the rock and across to the other side.

The church at Västra Tunhem is located in what scholars call “liminal space.” Liminal spaces are transitional locations where, for example, one type of topography transitions into another; where one type of symbolism intersects with another; where one practice rubs up against another; where one reality opens up to the next. Västra Tunhem checks all the boxes of what makes a liminal space.

The top of the church tower at Västra Tunhem. Notice the church’s location in between the fields and the rock of Hunneberg. Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

If we change our perspective once again and take to the skies for a bird’s eye view, we notice that Västra Tunhem is the center (the “tun”) of a larger area. Looking on the map, we see how this area reaches from the roundabout where we took the turn to reach Västra Tunhem to the field of oaks where we took the turn to leave.

The fortification on Halleberg is number 5 on the map. The ship setting is located at the letter R on the map, just south of the number 5. The Iron Age field of grave mounds is located just north of number 9, and Västra Tunhem is numbers 12–14. Source: Sveaskog.

Adopting the point of view of the people who lived in Västra Tunhem during the Iron Age, we see that the area starts north of Hunneberg on top of the smaller rock called Halleberg, where an Iron Age fortification or settlement (“fornborg”) is located. At the base of Halleberg’s south side, below the fortification and facing Hunneberg and Västra Tunhem, is a ship setting. A ship setting is a Scandinavian and Baltic elite burial practice from the Iron Age where a grave is marked with stones in the shape of a longship.

South of the ship setting is the field of grave mounds we saw immediately after we took the turn in the roundabout. South of those of graves are the fields with the manor house, to the south of which we took the left turn onto the even smaller road, driving briefly in an eastern direction to the base of Hunneberg, where we turned once again driving south. Continuing on this road, we drove past the church, and south of the church were the oaks. Here, we took a turn to the west to leave, driving past a second field of Iron Age graves, thus bookending the area.

From an Iron-Age fortification on a hill top to an ancient grove of oak trees, Västra Tunhem is a portal through time and space that allows us to visit the world of Iron Age Scandinavians, commonly referred to as Vikings, and for a while, we exist in their universe.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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