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!