Saturday, September 22, 2018

Ismantorp Fortress, Öland

Road Trip 2018, Part 18

From Karum’s Alvar with the Bronze Age stone ship, we went on to also have a look at the ruins of Ismantorp Fortress; an old ringfort dating back to between 200-600 A.D.

I struggled with how to present this place, but decided to let you see it pretty much the way we did. All I knew beforehand was really that the fortress is the largest and probably also the oldest on Öland; but also has the unusual feature of no less than nine gateways in the wall.

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The fort is situated kind of “in the middle of nowhere”; and from the parking space, we had to follow a woodland walkpath to get there.

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When the woodland opened up, there was the ancient limestone ringwall in the background; said to have a circumference of approximately 300 meters and a diameter of 125 meters.

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From the burnt grass and some trees already in autumn colours (this was 18th July!) you can tell how very hot and dry the summer was – and that we’re once again on “alvar” kind of ground (cf. previous post).

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Entering “the main gate” in the wall (well, the one used as such nowadays, anyway!)

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Within the wall are the foundations of around 90-100 buildings, with an open place in the middle.


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Getting an overview of the place from the ground level is difficult… If not for the sign and map at the entrance (+ having read a little about it beforehand) I don’t think we’d have had much clue what we were looking at inside!

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Because of the unusual construction with the nine gates in the wall + all the buildings inside, opinons seem to vary about the purpose of this fort. On the one hand, the layout is thought to be inspired by Roman military camps; but on the other hand, the large number of gates makes it seem unlikely that it was built primarily for defense. The buildings are said to have been homes, workshops, animal sheds and barns; but at the same time, archaelogical excavations have provided very little evidence of the fortress having served as a permanent settlement.

There seem to be three main theories – and I suppose they don’t necessarily contradict or exclude each other:
1/ A military training camp, perhaps also used for storage of goods, livestock and slaves brought back from raids abroad.
2/ A fortified trading site, like Gråborg (another ancient stronghold on Öland, which we also visited on the same day)
3/ A ritual/religious center. This theory is supported by the nine gates, as the number nine is important in the old Norse mythology. (For one thing, there were nine “worlds” all connected to the mythical tree Yggdrasil. Was there perhaps once a big tree growing in the middle of this fortress? Who knows!)


Aerial photo of Ismantorp fortress (1997), from Swedish Wikipedia


15 comments:

  1. I love how we are walking with you, just as you did! It was so big! This makes me think that is was maybe an entire fortified village. I love the overhead shot, that really adds to the journey. The entrance you are going through looks rather treacherous and rocky! You have very good footing. I kind of find this all rather sad, imagining them all doing normal everyday things. All gone with the wind now.

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    1. Ginny, it must indeed have been an entire village. What puzzles the historians is on the one hand lack of archaeological evidence of a long-term settlement; and on the other hand, if the purpose was protection in times of war, why all the gates? (which would weaken the defense) - The stony ground was indeed rather treacherous, so once inside the enclosure, I did not venture much further.

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  2. Very interesting - thank you, I'm appreciating this heritage you're sharing as I have Scandanavian ancestry on my mum's side.

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    1. Glad to be able to share, Amy! Our trip was only one week in July, but with all the photos I took, I'll probably make it last all autumn! ;)

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  3. Amazing! Thanks for the visit!
    There may have been lots of gates but the walls were very substantial! Maybe to keep people (slaves) in and others out and prevent the latter from pinching loot? it would only take a couple of soldiers on each gate to keep it secure... ? Just a theory.

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    1. Kate, the enigma is probably what keeps drawing people to this place (and others like it). With no written sources dating back to this period (and few archaeology finds) it leaves us plenty of room for wild guesses! I don't think nine gates make much sense neither to shut prisoners/slaves in nor to keep invading armies out; so I'm more excited about the possible connection to old Norse mythology. Maybe it was a "folly" more anything else - a symbolic manifestation of power?

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    2. I sadly imagined each of the little huts were slave cages :0(
      I like the idea of follies though. And as you say, the nine, not a coincidence I am sure.

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  4. the first 4 photos look very much like our area out east of us, and could be florida. the rest of the photos I have never seen anything like all that stone. I am sure the walls defended them from wild animals and also bad people or invaders. i try to imagine how it would be then to live behind those walls

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    1. Not sure Öland ever had all that many (big) wild animals, Sandra (like wolves or bears). Perhaps wild boars... (Not that I really know all the facts about what it was like as far back as 1500 years ago, though!)

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  5. I do love a good real-life mystery! The information board says that maybe it was never meant to be a permanent settlement. But why would the buildings and the wall be of stone, then? Stone was used for structures that were meant to last - be it tombs, religious places or dwellings.
    Anyway, it is yet another fascinating place I'd love to visit.
    That July really looked like late September!

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    1. Meike, I tend to agree. The original purpose of a building/fort and the way it actually came to be used (or not!) over the next few centuries is not always quite the same thing, though. (I don't know if you're familiar with the British Time Team TV show, but I'd love to send those guys in there to dig a bit more and see what ideas they might come up with!!!)

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    2. Now, that's a cool idea. Invite them over!

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    3. Yes, I know the Time Team - they'd certainly discover more fascinating things about the place!

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  6. I'm certainly fascinated by the apparent intended permanence evidenced by it being built of stone when, presumably, wood was plentiful. Lack of archaeological evidence might suggest that it was abandoned prematurely. However, as you said, we shall probably never know.

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    1. Graham, there is a lot of stony ground on Öland, and a lot less wood than on the mainland. But I agree, this place raises a lot of questions as I understand it differs a bit in structure compared other forts on the island. (There are/were around twenty, now in varied degree of preservation vs decay. We "only" visited this one + one more, Gråborg.)

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