Discovering a Viking Past
In the center of town, Jelling Kirke (tel. 75-87-16-28) was erected at the beginning of the 12th century, and is one of the oldest churches in Denmark. The church is visited mainly because of its two well-preserved runic stones, which sit outside the door. You should look inside the church as well to see its restored 12th-century frescoes. Admission is free, and the church is open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm, and Saturday 10am to 2pm. It's closed for visits on Sunday because of Mass. You can attend Mass then, but casual sightseeing in the church is discouraged when it's being used as a place of worship.
Both Gorm the Old (883-940) and his son, Harald Bluetooth (935-85), lived in Jelling, and they left behind two large burial mounds and two runic stones -- one small, one large. The small stone bears the inscription KING GORM MADE THESE SEPULCHRAL MONUMENTS TO THYRA, HIS WIFE, THE GRACE OF DENMARK. The large stone is inscribed KING HARALD HAD THESE SEPULCHRAL MONUMENTS MADE TO GORM, HIS FATHER, AND THYRA, HIS MOTHER, THE HARALD WHO CONQUERED ALL DENMARK AND NORWAY AND MADE THE DANES CHRISTIANS.
The latter part of the inscription has often been called Denmark's baptismal certificate, though this is something of an exaggeration. But King Harald and his people were undoubtedly converted to Christianity, even if it was a century before the country as a whole can be said to have become Christian.
The north's oldest depiction of Christ is seen over this part of Harald's runic lettering. The Christ-like figure appears with his arms spread out but without a cross. This may have been because the artist at the time wanted to depict Christ as a victorious Viking king -- hence no cross. The significance of the other depiction on the stone isn't known. It shows a snake locked in deadly combat with a mythical animal. The stones, decorated in the typical Viking style, with interlacing leaf and creeper-work, were originally painted in bright colors.
Excavations of the two barrows began in 1820, when the north barrow was dug up. It revealed a burial chamber but no human remains, only a few objects and fragments, including a silver goblet, later dubbed the Jelling goblet. It's thought that grave robbers may have plundered the site over the years. In 1861 King Frederik VII, who had a keen interest in archaeology, excavated the south barrow, but it didn't even have a burial chamber. It is now believed that both Gorm and Thyra had been buried in the north mound and that the empty south barrow was merely a memorial mound.
In modern times, the area beneath the church was excavated, and archaeologists discovered the remains of three wooden churches. The oldest was King Harald's and was even bigger than the present Jelling Kirke, earning the nickname "the Cathedral of the Viking Age."
The discovery of a burial chamber beneath the choral arch revealed human bones, but they were in complete disorder, indicating that they had been moved. The skeletal remains are believed to be those of Gorm, which were probably moved over from the north mound when Harald became Christian. It has never been determined where Queen Thyra was reburied.
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