These old structures may surprise you

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

There are four of them at Bornholm, which is Denmark’s most eastern island. They are not just what they seem to be. No, there’s more to it.

Let’s have a closer look.

We’ll begin with Sankt Ols Kirke, built in the 12th century.

The castle-like building you see above is both a church and a fortress.

That fits well with this specific saint, I thought.

King Olaf II Haraldson (Saint Olaf or Saint Olave), “the eternal king of Norway”, fell at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 AD.

In folk traditions, he figured as a protector against evil forces and had healing power. Even water springs had sprung where he had been. Pilgrims from different parts of Europe came to his shrine, and several churches in Scandinavia and England bear his name.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

The first room at the entrance is the so-called porch. Or weapon house, like we used to call it in Scandinavia. It might have functioned as a guardroom or armoury to store weapons in case of need.

Please note: I focused more on unexpected details rather than frescos and altars in this article.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Just like the outer part of the church, it’s round inside as well.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

There is a pillar in the middle to support the two floors above.

The modest apse lies next.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Near the altar lies this piquant stairway that leads to a tiny door — the entrance to the fortress.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Behind the door in question, you must climb this steep and claustrophobic stairway.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Then there is another floor, a round room with a pillar like the church beneath. But fewer windows, quite dark space.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

And then, another stairway leads further up.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

And finally, the citadel emerges with its pointy roof rafters and small glowing hatches.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

The conical roof rises 13 meters from the base, which stands at a hilltop 112 meters above sea level. And with its thick granite walls, it is no wonder why this was a stronghold. Up here, all the openings were excellent for tossing stones and shooting arrows at an enemy.

Okay, when we are in the defensive mood, there are three other round Churches at Bornholm. So let’s have a look at them too.

Østerlars Church

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

It was dedicated to Saint Lawrence and is one of Denmark’s oldest Romanesque churches, built around 1160 AD. A stronghold initially, with an open shooting gallery at the top.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Østerlars is the biggest of Bornholms round churches.

And, as shown in the photo beneath, there are steep stairways here as well.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Why are these churches round? The sign asks.

Then it gives four explanations.

#1 Knight Templars

According to a theory developed by a Danish journalist, Erling Haagensen, these churches were built by the Knight Templars. But most scholars doubt he’s right.

#2 Church of the Holy Sepulchre

However, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a good candidate for inspiration. The same explanation goes for the round Churches in the Slavic part of Europe.

#3 Defence Tower

This theory is supported by a medieval document, dated 1376, where the bishop of Lund gave a catapult to Aa church at Bornholm. But, on the contrary – no proof of war; no arrows have been unearthed in the area. Fair enough to me. Sacred ground.

#4 Observatory

Again, an idea by the Danish journalist Erling Haagensen, based on its location etc, etc.

What do you believe?

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Then, a view to a more peaceful perspective.

A new theme emerged.

Oh, my word! there are rune stones too

To the surprise of some, there are even stones with runic letters. Even if these enigmatic signs are more associated with the Viking era than medieval Christianity, they were in use until the 14-hundreds.
Hence one can wonder: is there any traces of Thor and Odin here, the old Norse religion?

Yes, sometimes there is. And I kept that in mind while I searched through these round churches.

So please hang on till the end.

Nylars Church

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

This church, built around 1165 AD, was dedicated to Saint Nicholas. In old Danish, this name was Nilaus and has developed to Nylars. Here the original defence systems are pretty much intact, but unfortunately, it was closed when I was there.

The rest of the church, however, was open. Hence, I managed, thank goodness, to take some photos of interest.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

The church also has two rune stones

These are from around 1000 AD, which eventually means they were carved in the Viking age (793 – 1066 AD).


The text on the left side rune stone: “Kaabe-Sven set up this stone after his son, Böse, the good man, killed at Udlänge. May God and Saint Michael help his soul”.

The text on the right side rune stone: “Sasser set up this stone after his father, Alvard. He drowned with his sailors. May Christ help his soul in all eternity. This stone shall stand memory.”
So these are examples of early Scandinavian Christians. But how about traces of pre-Christian religion? That they built these churches on old sacred ground is a known fact.

Well, they are there somewhere. No doubt. But I found one possible ancient religious altar—a pretty modest one at the smallest and youngest round church of Bornholm.
Please come with me to the end.

Ny Kirke

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

On my arrival at Ny kirke — New Church — built in the 12th century, I’ve got disappointed. With its closed doors, I couldn’t get in.
Sorry about that.
Nevertheless — never so bad that it’s not good for anything.

Then I spent more time outdoors.
And luckily, it had rained a few hours ago.
Wich made a huge difference.
Otherwise, I would hardly have seen them.
Hurrah! Cup marks on the stepping stone.
Grey sun-dried surface as a contrast.
These sparkled with water.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2022

So, what are they?

Even if these shallow marks usually date between 1700 to 500 BC., they probably were used up to the Viking Age around 1000 AD. Or they could be as old as 8000 years, for that matter.
Nobody knows for sure.

The cup marks could have been fertility marks, which may also have had a protective effect — they possibly believed.

We often find them on rocks and stones that surround the ancient fields.

The cup marks are called Freja marks, too, after the fertility goddess Freja. Freja, together with Freyr, Uller and Njord, were included as fertility gods in the old religion along with Odin, Thor and others …

Okay, I stop there.

Thank you for reading my brief article.
Please, feel free to share it with others if you wish.
Tom Thowsen

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