In many parts of Sweden, these cup-marked boulders are known as elf-stenar, and are still believed by the common people to possess curative powers. They say prayers, and make vows at them, anoint the cups with fat (usually hog's lard), place offerings of pins and small copper coins in them, and when they are sick, they make small dolls or images of rags, to be laid in them. These facts are stated in the Manadsblad of the Swedish Academy of Science. Miss Mestorf, as quoted by Mr. Rau, is more explicit:-
"The elfs are the souls of the dead; they frequently dwell in or below stones, and stand in various relations to the living. If their quiet is disturbed, or their dwelling-place desecrated, or if due respect is not paid to them, they will revenge themselves by afflicting the perpetrators with diseases or other misfortunes. For this reason, people take care to secure the favour of the "little ones" by sacrifices, or to pacify them when offended. Their claims are very modest: a little butter or grease, a copper coin, a flower, or ribbon, will satisfy them. If they have inflicted disease, some object worn by the sick person, such as a pin, or button, will reconcile them.
A Swedish proprietor of an estate in Uppland, who had caused an elf-stone to be transported to his park, found, a few days afterwards, small sacrificial gifts lying in the cups. in the Stockholm Museum are preserved rag dolls, which had been found upon an elf-stone."
Ever since seeing a picture of this place in the papery Modern Antiquarian all those years ago, I’ve been intrigued and captivated by this site, indeed it was the whole reason we chose to come to this part of Sweden (although I’m glad we did as Skane is lovely!). I’d pictured it as being on some far flung remote headland, standing in a tundra-like landscape, the reality of the gentle lush countryside of Skane proving the opposite of my preconceptions. Just off Route 9 to the east of Ystad is the village of Kåserberga and parking at the large and well signposted carpark in the pretty village centre, I was gripped with anticipation as we climbed the steep path up to the cliff top, as I eagerly sought a view of the stones.
On our first visit a thick sea mist clung to the stones, which loomed out at us from the fog like a ghost ship, shadowy figures of visitors flitting amongst the stones only adding to the eerie atmosphere. Despite being perched near the cliff edge the sea wasn’t even visible to us, just the haunting calls of seabirds drifting over the water, it was truly otherworldly.
We returned again a couple of days later, this time in glorious hot Swedish sunshine, and able to take in the fantastic views out over the bright azure Baltic, which almost seems to encircle the site. The sunshine had also drawn out the hordes, Ales Stenar in its magnificence, and as a monument of national importance to Sweden, having the ‘Stonehenge effect’ (albeit without all the horrible commercialisation) of attracting the crowds and being firmly on the tourist trail. After all this is the largest skibssaetning in Sweden, a huge oval 67 meters long and 19 metres wide formed by 59 large boulders of sandstone, and according to Scanian folklore the resting place of the legendary King Ale.
These ‘ship settings’ in Scandinavia are generally regarded as burial monuments, yet no grave has ever been positively identified in the limited area that has been subject to archaeological research at Ales Stenar. If not a grave then, what would such an impressive monument have been built for? Various theories include that it may have been raised to honour a local ruler, or as a show of dominance by a particular King, as it would have been a highly visible landmark from the all along the sea coast. It may even have had an astronomical significance, as the sun sets over the north west tip of the monument at midsummer, rising over the tip of the opposite south easterly stone on midwinters day. A cupmarked boulder amongst the stones also points its way to the midwinter sunrise, which we spotted the other day as the shallow cupmarks had been outlined in chalk.
So now after getting up at 6am this morning I’ve come along to the site to see if I could get a few photos of the skibssaetning without any tourists around, and take in some of the atmosphere of the place when it is a little quieter. We were staying only around twenty minutes drive away along the coast, and being another gloriously sunny morning I was full of anticipation of getting some lovely shots of the empty monument. Things looked good when I arrived, the car park being empty, and no-one visible at the nearby camp site, so on reaching the stones I was most annoyed to find two people wrapped in sleeping bags inside the monument. After my initial fit of pique, (and I can’t complain too loudly, as I’ve slept at ancient monuments myself in the past!) I took to tramping around the stones and setting up the tripod for my camera in the noisiest way possible. Needless to say the campers soon took the hint, but by the time they had packed up their sleeping bags and left a family of early risers from the campsite down the road, along with their two children, arrived to shatter the peace. They didn’t stay long though and so finally I was alone at this amazing place.
Although a lot younger than most of the megalithic sites I’ve visited, as I’m convinced that the evidence points to Ales Stenar having been constructed much later than the Neolithic, it’s lovely to experience the grandeur of the Nordic megalithic culture, and know that it survived on here much later than in the rest of Europe.
On a clear morning like this you can really get a sense of how amazing the location of the monument is. I’m sat inside the stones, looking out over the cliffs at the vivid blue of the sea surrounding me on three sides. Looking away from the sea the gently rolling landscape unfolds before you, the stones that delineate the skibsaetning stretch away, and the high prow and stern stones tower above. You only appreciate how massive this place is when you stand back from it to try and get the whole site in shot. It takes on a whole different atmosphere when you have the place to yourself, and you can feel the true magic of the place, I’m so glad I came here this early.
This place is captivating, and I still can’t believe I’m finally here, alone in a stone boat on the shores of the Baltic, and soaking up the wonders of megalithic Sweden. This is a truly special place, and I hope that some day we will be back!
Standing on a small natural mound, rising like an upturned boat above a stream which cuts its way through the flat agricultural land, Gårdlösa (literally the ‘loose gravel mound’) draws the eye as you approach. Following the directions in the papery TME we spotted the ridge from route 11 just after passing Smedstorp, and a small lay-by, along with information sign and stile allowed access to the site.
Also known as the Alnabjar skibbstaetning, it was excavated in 1972. The hill was found to contain graves and dommarings as well as the stone ship setting itself.
Only four stones remain of the ancient skibbsaetning which was obviously placed high on the ridge to be easily visible. Just to the south of the stones on the ridge are two dommarings. These are kerb circles dating from the Vendel period of Scandinavian history (550-800CE), which were used for legal pronouncements in the Viking times.
It is still gloriously hot as we watch a group of hikers making their way back down the hill from the monument, and Ellen scans the field for signs of cows. Seeing that a large herd of the bovine beasties are separated from us by the river we climb the stile and make our way to the hill. The walk is pleasant, and not too steep, as we reach the stones shaded by the surrounding trees. After a few minutes of photographing the site though we are disturbed by an ominous mooing, and look around to find that the whole of the nearby herd of cows, accompanied by a rather large bull, and several calves, are now wading across the river into our field, and heading for the monument! Within a couple of minutes the herd had surrounded the base of the hill, cutting off our path back to the car unless we wanted to run the gauntlet of prime beef blocking our way. Now I’m not concerned by cattle, but even I didn’t fancy pushing my way past a group of protective mother cows, and the rather intimidating bull, and as Ellen was by now getting greatly freaked out we looked for another avenue of escape.
Following the ridge along we skirted the herd and headed for a fence dividing the neighbouring field, hoping to head through it and rejoin the road leading to the car further down the lane. All well and good apart from the fact that most fences hereabouts in Sweden tend to be electrified, a fact we confirmed when Linda, who was with us, got a nasty jolt on the arm as we tried to limbo our way under! Eventually we rejoined the lane and headed back to the car to find the cows had now all congregated around the stile that lead to the site, curiously observing us as we took our leave.
So overall Gårdlösa is a lovely site, although on the surface much less impressive than many of the other skibbstaetnings nearby in Skane, there is a real sense of place here, I’ll always remember the visit, although not quite for the nice relaxing experience I would have hoped for! Gårdlösa is one of those places which has obviously been a sacred place for a long time, and so definitely warrants a visit, just to be sure to take a stout walking stick with you in case you need to fend off the cows!