The Hunnestad Monument
May 19, 2021
The Hunnestad Monument was one of the most significant Viking Age monuments, and an exceptional example of mixed Christian and heathen iconography in Nordic art, during and immediately after the conversion of Scandinavia.
When the monument was built in the first half of the 11th century, it consisted of at least eight stones located on a field, later known as ‘Runestensåkern’ (EN: ‘the runestone field’) at Hunnestad north-west of Ystad, Sweden. Several of the stones were inscribed with runes and ornamentation, probably facing north towards a former road going east from Hunnestad crossing the stream Rosbäkken east of the monument site, before meeting Lundavägen going south towards Bjäresjö.
The runic inscriptions attest that several of the stones and probably the entire monument was commissioned by members of the same local influential family.
The site was first documented in Ole Worm’s Monumenta Danica during the 1630s, a century before it was unfortunately destroyed by Eric Ruuth of the nearby Marsvinsholm when the estate was undergoing sweeping modernisation. Fortunately, four of the five known inscribed stones have since been rediscovered and are now exhibited at Kulturen in Lund, Sweden.
Tumi of Gussnava, Gunni Hand and Ásbjǫrn
The runic inscriptions centre around three notable figures of the same family, all attested to on the two Hunnestad runestones, DR 282 and DR 283, as well as the Gussnava stone DR 280 at Skårby 1,5 km north of Hunnestad.
A central male figure called Tumi is mentioned on all three stones, and the Skårby stone states that he owned ‘Guðissnapi’, ie. Gussnava, meaning that he was a landowner and a central figure of the region. He and his family probably resided at a prominent farm or hall somewhere in the area.
Gunni Hand was his father, and Tumi had at least four brothers, Hróir, Leikfrøðr, Káulfr and Autir. He probably also had a fifth brother called Ásbjǫrn with whom he raised DR 282, commemorating two of their brothers. Later Ásbjǫrn had DR 283 raised at Hunnestad in memory of Tumi after his passing.
Thus, Ásbjǫrn might ultimately have been the one responsible for the organisation of the Hunnestad monument.
The chronological order of the inscriptions begins with the first stone DR 282, raised by Ásbjǫrn and Tumi.
DR 282, Hunnestad
“Ásbjǫrn and Tumi they placed this stone in memory of Hróir and Leikfrøðr, Gunni Hand’s sons.”
The later two stones, DR 283 and DR 280 are both raised in memory of Tumi by separate members of his family and placed in different locations sometime after his passing. Therefore, it is not clear which of the two came before the other.
DR 283, Hunnestad
“Ásbjǫrn placed this stone in memory of Tumi, Gunni Hand’s son.”
DR 280, Gussnava
“Káulfr and Autir, they placed this stone in memory of Tumi, their brother, who owned Guðissnapi.”
The monument was already no longer intact when Ole Worm documented it in the 1630s. But his description and illustration still convey a reasonable semblance of what it might have looked like initially and which parts are now lost.
Three of the monument’s stones, DR 282, DR 283 and DR 284, were rediscovered in 1814 in or near the field Runestensåkern, where the monument was probably raised originally. A fourth stone, DR 285, was furthermore found in the nearby village Hunnestad in 2020. The location of the rediscovered stones confirms what the written sources also attest, namely that the monument was built on the highest spot at Runestensåkern.
While the illustration of the monument in Worm’s work Monumenta Danica from 1643 is not a precise technical drawing per se, and many of the proportions are off, it still conveys a lot of reasonably accurate and valuable information.
When compared to the surviving stones, the two runic inscriptions are largely faithfully copied. The rendition of the ornamentation is also pretty accurate, although the overall compositions are generally slightly skewed, and the knotwork’s intricate details are mostly lost in translation.
With the help of Worm’s illustration, I have attempted to reconstruct the missing parts of the man depicted on DR 282 and the entirety of the now lost DR 286. The Great Beast and Mask on DR 286 are common motifs typical for the Ringerike style and well known from several Scandinavian runestones and other artefacts.
The reconstruction illustration of the monument site shown here and the following description is based on Göran Olson’s proposed reconstruction (2005), which also relies on an informed interpretation of Worm’s description and illustration in addition to other sources.
Worm’s illustration appears to be drawn from the viewpoint of the old road going north of the monument area, looking southeast at the stones in what looks like an approximation of perspective view.
The monument was probably initially placed on the highest point at the eastern edge of Runestensåkern and the southern side of the former road going east from Hunnestad. The standing stones most likely had their front facing north to be visible from the road.
The stones were possibly standing 4-5 meters apart in a circle with DR 282 in the centre. The monument might have consisted of 10 stones originally, with the tenth stone placed on a 1-1,5 m high mound south of the other nine. The distance from the northernmost to the southernmost stone would have been c. 15-20 m.
This reconstruction, though plausible, is ultimately uncertain, as it relies on circumstantial evidence. But it offers a reasonable approximation giving a sense of its original composition, scale and aesthetics.
Motifs and Interpretation
Late Viking age art and culture is well known for combining or juxtaposing heathen and Christian iconography. The Hunnestad monument is no exception and reflects a worldview in which Nordic Mythology and Biblical concepts coexist.
With its vicinity to the nearby road crossing over the stream Rosbäcken, it is reasonable to connect it to the noble and pious custom of building bridge monuments.
The fact that a monument is also built in connection with new or ancient tumuli mounds, as might have been the case in Hunnestad, only seems to strengthen the potency of the otherwise Christian statement, rooting it in the sacral power of the ancestral and natural spirits of the land.
The imagery on the stones tells a similar story of combining otherwise opposing religious beliefs. For example, the runestone DR 283 features a cross and was probably positioned prominently at the forefront of the monument facing the road. In contrast, DR 284 features a depiction of the Jotun woman Hyrrokkin directly connected to burial rites in Nordic Mythology. If the reconstruction presented here is correct, she seems to have been positioned at the base of the mound as if she is riding into it, thus physically further embodying her connection to the underworld and the afterlife, guarantying a safe passage. While this interpretation might be conjecture, it is evident that these Christian and heathen iconographic elements were intentionally put together to tell a cohesive story.
This eclectic worldview might also be reflected in the depiction of the human figure on DR 282. He’s dressed like a member of the Varangian Guard, carrying an axe on his right shoulder, as was the custom. However, the axe is also an attribute of St Olaf. The figure also bears some resemblance in its posture and rendition to the churchly man carrying a cross on a stick depicted on the contemporary Sövestad stone DR 290 nearby. This parallel in likeness might further point to an ecclesiastic interpretation of the man on DR 282.
The legend of St Olaf played an essential role in the conversion of Scandinavia, and in the folklore, he absorbed motifs of Thor, god of thunder, protector against malicious forces, bringing fertility and prosperity to his devotees.
Olaf’s brother, Harald Hardrada, allegedly acquired wealth and reputation as a prominent member of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor while exiled. He became king for a brief period after returning to Norway, before his demise at Stamford bridge in 1066.
Even though Harald’s return from his exile in the east most likely took place a few years after the Hunnestad monument was built, it is not hard to see how aspects of the world he lived in could easily be reflected in the imagery of the stone. The interplay between concepts of kingship, sainthood and membership of the Varangian Guard were already well established in the imaginary world of the people who decorated and raised the stones. The commissioner of the monument probably belonged to the Scandinavian nobility and was most likely well versed in operating in aristocratic circles with connections across Europe.
The Great Beast and the Mask motifs further play into expressing the distinct Nordic identity of the higher echelon of the recently converted Scandinavian society in the late Viking Age.
Though their exact symbolic meaning escapes meaningful interpretation today, these types of faces and beasts regularly feature on runestones, either separately or together like on the Lund Stone DR 314. The beasts are possibly symbolic markers of powerful and pious aristocratic rulers visually rooted in a Nordic artistic tradition inspired by European imagery. The faces or masks similarly originated in Scandinavian tradition with animistic associations and were possibly meant to ward off evil.
DR 282 — Worm’s Stone 1
The stone is the oldest of the two runestones and probably the centrepiece of the monument. Ásbjörn and Tumi raised it in memory of Tumi’s two brothers. The human figure featured in the centre might depict a member of the Varangian Guard or St Olaf, maybe even a combination of the two. The depiction bears a likeness to the priest or bishop featured on the Sövestad stone DR 290, located only c. 4 km east of Hunnestad.
DR 283 — Worm’s Stone 2
The stone is the youngest of the two runestones and was raised by Ásbjörn in memory of Tumi. A cross is featured prominently in the centre of the inscription.
DR 284 — Worm’s Stone 4
The stone is the first of three picture stones without runic inscriptions. It features a woman riding a wolf-like creature with serpents as reins. A large ribbon animal runs along the top of the stone. The woman is commonly interpreted as the Jotun Hyrrokkin known from the Nordic Myth of Balder’s funeral as told by Snorri Sturluson in Edda.
DR 285 — Worm’s Stone 6
The stone is the second of the three picture stones without runic inscriptions. It features a Great Beast motif of a lion-like creature with an elaborate neck-tendril and tail.
DR 286 — Worm’s Stone 5
The now lost stone is the third of the three picture stones without runic inscriptions. It featured a beast next to a human face. Both motifs are typical for the Ringerike style and similar to the designs on other runestones like the Lund stone DR 314.
Worm’s Stone 3
Lost. But might be the one found at Runestensåkern in the 1950s still standing at the edge of the field. c. 177h x 89w cm.
Worm’s Stone 7
Lost. c. 148h x 89w cm.
Worm’s Stone 8
Lost. c. 163h x 74w cm.
The Gussnava Stone, also known as the Skårby Stone, was raised by Káulfr and Autir in memory of their brother Tumi. A Great Beast is featured on the bottom centre of the stone.
The Sövestad Stone 1 depicts a priest or bishop similar in posture and rendition to the human figure on DR 282.
The monument was built in several stages.
The earliest known account of a monument at Hunnestad, by a priest from Skårby.
Ole Worm explored and documented the monument, then consisting of eight stones. At the time, five of them were image stones, and two of those had runic inscriptions.
What remained of the monument was destroyed by Eric Ruuth of Marsvinsholm when the estate was undergoing sweeping modernisation.
The stones DR 282, DR 283 and DR 284 were rediscovered by Nils Henrik Sjöborg, who found them in a hedge at the easternmost edge of Runestensåkern, a field belonging to one of the Hunnestad farms.
The priest Johan Fredrik Lundh from St. Petri, Ystad found the top piece of DR 282 not far from where the two other pieces of the stone were found in 1814.
The stones DR 282, DR 283 and DR 284 were relocated to the northern area of the park of Marsvinholm.
The three stones were given to Lunds University by Gustaf Iacobaeus and placed in Runstenshallen of the university’s museum.
The three stones were relocated to Kulturen, Lund.
Dec 16, 2020
DR 285 was discovered during excavations for a sewage line in Ystad municipality. The stone lying with its image facing up had been used in a bridge construction over the Hunnestad stream where it crosses Hunnestads Byväg.
Danske Runeindskrifter, http://runer.ku.dk
Olson, Göran, 2005. ‘Hunnestadsmonumentet – ett fornminne på tusenårsresa.’ Ale, Historisk tidskrift för Skåne, Halland och Blekinge, no. 4, 2005.
The Scandinavian Runic-text Data Base.
Worm, Ole, 1643. Monumenta Danica.