Behind the abbey ruins at Varnhem’s abbey church in Varnhem, archaeologists from the Västergötland Museum have been excavating since 2005, revealing a whole new part of the history of the area around here. The archaeologists’ findings at the site date largely from the 10th century and tell a fascinating story about the time before the monks took over the Varnhem manor and settled down to build the monastery in the 12th century.
Sweden’s oldest preserved room
What is now called Kata Farm tells an important story about the break between the Viking Age and the Middle Ages and the time when Christianity came to Västergötland.
Older burial mounds found in the area show that the history of the farm goes back to the Iron Age and the thousands of graves in the area testify that people have lived in the area for a very long time. The new finds made at the site testify that Christian burials began to be held here as early as the 10th century, which has led to the history of Västergötland being partially rewritten. Several generations before Olof Skötkonung was baptised in Husaby around the year 1000, there seem to have been Christians living in Varnhem.
Farm church from the Viking Age
On the site were found the ruins of a farm church from the Viking Age and a Christian burial ground that was already here in the 10th century. The church was first built as a wooden church, but shortly afterwards it was rebuilt as a stone church. A crypt was also found in the church ruins, which may be the oldest preserved room in Sweden.
When the monks took over the farm, they seem to have reused the stone building that formed the church in the 13th and 14th centuries. Finds suggest that the monks bricked up the opening between the parts of the church known as the chancel and the nave. The so-called choir seems to have been used for bronze casting and the long house may have been some kind of dwelling or guest house.
Who was Kata?
One of the grave finds at the site had a burial mound with runes on it. The text read “Kättil made this stone after Kata, his wife Torgil’s sister”.
Kata’s tomb was a mid-12th-century limestone coffin located just to the north of the church. The location of the tomb, the runic inscriptions, the elaborate coffin and all the other finds made at the site testify that Kata was an important person with great influence and power in a society that had contacts all over Europe.
Kata, who was 160 cm tall, died at the age of 30-35, but her skeleton showed no signs of the wear and tear that is common on skeletons at this time, her teeth were unusually fine and smooth, and it has therefore been judged that Kata may have been the farm owner of what is called the Varnhem manor during the first half of the 11th century. Today she has named the excavation site in Varnhem.
Excursion destination Kata farm
Varnhem’s abbey church and ruins are definitely worth a visit, but in 2017 an information building called “Kata Farm” was also opened on the site. The building that protects the ruin from the elements is a mighty tent-like triangular glulam structure without walls. Under the roof you can see the exhibition “Christian Vikings in Varnhem” about the church ruin and the crypt. You can also see through the glass floor some graves including the one called Kata’s grave with its tombstone with runes on it.
Varnhem Abbey Church, the abbey ruins and Kata Farm are about 4 kilometres from Valle Camping (6 minutes by car, 14 minutes by bike). However, several of the finds, including the Viking jacket, buckles, coins and travel altars, can be found in Skara at the Västergötland Museum and their exhibition “Kata and Kättil”. Among other things, there is a reconstruction of what Kata might have looked like. Västergötland Museum is 11 km from Valle Camping (11 min by car, 37 min by bike).
The Kata Farm Information Centre is open from spring (around the time the cranes usually arrive at Lake Hornborga) until well into autumn. In the area around Kata Farm, new excavations are regularly carried out during the summers, which have so far been public, so that the public can experience archaeology at close quarters.