Agricultural Landscape of Southern Öland
Since 2000 • Cultural
The southern part of the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea is dominated by a vast limestone plateau. Human beings have lived here for some five thousand years and adapted their way of life to the physical constraints of the island. As a consequence, the landscape is unique, with abundant evidence of continuous human settlement from prehistoric times to the present day.
Södra Öland is an outstanding example of human settlement, making the optimum use of diverse landscape types on a single island. The medieval land division uniquely indicates how natural conditions dictated the extent of cultivable land at an early stage. This site takes its contemporary form from its long cultural history, adapting to the physical constraints of the geology and topography.
The island is a sedimentary formation, the uppermost surface of Ordovician limestone. The main topographical feature is Västra Landborgen. To the west there is a 3 km wide coastal plain, which contains the most fertile soils on Öland. On the east is Stora alvaret: half of this limestone pavement (one of the largest in Europe) is either exposed or covered by a thin calcareous soil, with other parts covered by raised beaches or lenses of sediment, sometimes overlaid by fen peat. The villages are almost entirely located along Västra Landborgen, and there is a large number of archaeological sites from the prehistoric period. The interaction between man and the natural environment in the south of Öland is of unique universal value. The continuity of land use goes back to the Stone Age, when people began farming this area. The use made of the land has not changed significantly since then, with arable farming and animal husbandry remaining the principal economic activity.
The present-day land division, with linear villages in 'lawful location', is easily discernible, and the division can be clearly perceived between infields and outfields, a division that has been constant since the medieval period, by which time all the available farmland was in use. The outfields are still being used as pasturage. Together the linear villages, infields, coastland and limestone pan make up a unique agricultural landscape possessed of great cultural and natural values of more than 1,000 years' continuity. This living agricultural community also includes a residual Iron Age landscape, as well as abundant traces of the Stone Age and Bronze Age.
Stora alvaret is noteworthy because of the way in which its medieval land-use pattern of villages and field systems is still clearly visible, which is a very rare survival in northern Europe. This is borne out by numerous adaptations to climate, frost movements, and grazing, among other things. The grazing regime is a precondition for the preservation of biodiversity. The present agricultural landscape and the community of southern Öland have a unique cultural tradition which still exists in land use, land division, place names, settlement and biological diversity as far back as the Iron Age.
The prosperity of the island, due in no small measure to its situation on the main trading route through the Kalmar Sound, is reflected in the imposing stone churches built in the 12th century, such as those at Hulterstad and Resmö. They were fortified as defence against attacks from marauders. By the 15th century Öland was dominated by land-owning farmers, although the Crown, the nobility, and the monastic orders also owned land there. In 1569 Johan III reserved the open spaces on the island for the Crown as a hunting preserve. The farmers lost their commoners' rights and suffered considerably from depredations by preserved game animals. This restriction survived until 1801, when it was abolished. The island suffered during the long wars between Sweden and Denmark in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, not least from epidemics, which carried off almost half the population.
The typical so-called 'Geatish' farmstead is divided into a dwelling yard and a cattle yard, separated by a wall or fence. They are constructed of materials from Öland, with the Geatish homestead and windmills forming distinctive features. Most of the farms originally had their own windmills. The houses are constructed of wood and weather-boarded. Many of the houses in the dwelling yards were considerably extended and embellished, with upper floors and ornamentation, especially around the doors. Some of the barns retain their original medieval structures, with crown-post roofs. The Royal Manor of Ottenby in the extreme south of the island, established by Gustav Vasa in the 16th century, is still Crown property. The main building dates from 1804; its design was influential elsewhere on Öland and more widely in Sweden.
The first human beings to come to the island of Öland were the hunter-gatherers who arrived 8000 years ago. A coastal settlement of these people, probably in use for some two millennia, has been excavated at Alby. During this period there is evidence for the domestication of plant and animal species, and passage graves at Resmo, at the summit of Västra Landborgen, testify to permanent settlement in the Neolithic period. Archaeological remains testify to considerable clearance of the alvar at this time.
This process continued during the Bronze Age (1800-500 BC), when farming became more specialized. Technological improvements made possible the cultivation of much larger areas. Stock breeding resulted in the creation of large flocks and herds, which were pastured on the Alvar.
The Iron Age (550 BCE-CE 1050) saw greater developments in farming, with the creation of permanent arable fields and the introduction of dairy farming. The landscape, including Stora alvaret, was being exploited intensively in small fields. The remains of many house sites from the Roman Iron Age and Migration Period (the first six centuries CE), with their associated enclosures, are known, some grouped in villages. The Bronze Age social structure of clans dependent upon large flocks was transformed into one of unitary farmsteads producing food crops and hay. Cattle formed the basis of the economy, and there is evidence that hides and leather goods were being exported, along with dried meat. The availability of iron saw stone tools being replaced by metal ones. Metal-working was among the specialist crafts that evolved during the Iron Age, along with comb-making and stone polishing. Fishing, especially for herring, became important, centred on Kyrkhamn, at the southern tip of Öland.
Increasing unrest led to the need to provide protection for the islanders, and five forts (or, more accurately, fortified villages) have been identified. These probably began as places of refuge but developed into permanent settlements. A legislative structure was created, matters of importance being decided by the Ting, where rules for the administration of justice were laid down. A military organization, the ledung, was created for defence against external enemies.
In early medieval times, from the 11th century onwards, there was a movement from the Iron Age sites, following the introduction of the medieval open-field system and strip farming. The villages migrated to the sites that they still occupy today, sited conveniently between the infields and outfields on elevated, dry terrain, and laid out in linear form along a single street.
The prosperity of the island, due in no small measure to its situation on the main trading route through the Kalmar Sound, is reflected in the imposing stone churches built in the 12th century, such as those at Hulterstad and Resmo. They were fortified as defence against attacks from marauders. Exports from Öland included horses, oxen, fish, limestone, and slate.
By the 15th century Öland was dominated by land-owning farmers, though the Crown, the nobility, and the monastic orders also owned land there. Gustav Vasa established five 'model' manors there for the benefit of local farmers, and also as a centre for stock breeding. Fishing was important, and was of special interest to the monastic communities: Kyrkhamn, at the southernmost tip of the island, was a major centre of this activity. In 1569 Johan III reserved the open spaces on the island for the Crown as a hunting preserve. The farmers lost their commoners' rights and suffered considerably from depredations by preserved game animals. This restriction survived until 1801, when it was abolished.
The island suffered during the long wars between Sweden and Denmark in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, not least from epidemics, which carried off nearly half the population. As a result farms were deserted and fields reverted to nature. In the latter half of the 18th century the first reform of the land holding system (storskifte) took place. This involved the large number of discrete strips held by individual farmers being consolidated into larger holdings. A more radical redistribution (enskifte) took place in the early 19th century. Each farmer received an allocation consisting of sections of each of the different types of land within the village boundaries - arable land, meadows, alvar land, and coastland; at the same time many of the farmsteads were relocated outside the linear villages. A great deal more land was brought into cultivation at this time.
Heavy population growth led to men travelling to the mainland and into northern Europe annually in search of work. However, it was not until the agricultural crisis of the 1880s that mass permanent emigration to North America took place, reducing the population by more than a quarter; the alvar villages were abandoned and farming discontinued. However, the early years of the 20th century saw considerable expansion and diversification of agriculture, including horticultural products and sugar beet, whilst the dairy industry assumed a major role.
The depression of the 1930s saw the abandonment of many farms, and after World War II agriculture underwent rationalization and intensive mechanization. The number of farm holdings decreased as a result of mergers, a process that is still continuing, with concomitant rural depopulation.
Justification for being a World Heritage Site
Criterion (iv): The landscape of Southern Öland takes its contemporary form from its long cultural history, adapting to the physical constraints of the geology and topography.
Criterion (v): Södra Öland is an outstanding example of human settlement, making the optimum use of diverse landscape types on a single island.