Archaeologists Scouring The Norwegian Countryside Have Discovered An Enormous Viking Ship

Image: Norsk institutt for kulturminneforskning

It’s spring 2018, and archaeologists are exploring the area around a 30-foot-high Viking-era mound southeast of Norway’s capital, Oslo. Rather than digging, the team are using georadar technology. But even so, they have little hope of finding anything of significance, as farmers have worked the land for generations. The researchers’ pessimism soon turns to elation, though, when they discover the astonishingly well-preserved remains of a buried Viking ship.

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Before we describe in detail the discovery that the archaeologists made that day, it’s worth recalling who the Vikings were. These seafaring people sailed from the Scandinavian countries from the late 700s to around 1066. And as is well known, they had a formidable reputation as raiders of European coastal settlements. In fact, the name Viking has its roots in the Old English word “wicing,” meaning pirate.

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Viking seamanship was, it’s worth noting, of the highest order. The Vikings’ mastery of sailing in their distinctive longships and their incredible knowledge of navigation enabled them to explore far and wide. Some reached North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. And the famous Viking Leif Ericson and his men even made it to far-flung Newfoundland, Canada.

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Meanwhile, as described by the Vikings’ own epic poems and evidenced by modern archaeology, theirs was a rather rigid society, with just three classes: Jarls, Karls and Thralls. Something like 25 percent of Viking people were Thralls, who had the status of slaves.

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Karls, meanwhile, were farmers who owned livestock and land. And as for the Jarls, they enjoyed the highest positions in society – so much so that their Thralls sometimes stayed with them after death. Macabrely, this at times meant sacrificing the slaves and then burying them alongside their masters. Yet women, as long as they weren’t Thralls, held comparatively free positions in Viking society. Under some circumstances, in fact, they could inherit property and even become heads of their households.

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But let’s cut back to the discovery that the aforementioned archaeologists made in early 2018. The team were working at a place called Viksletta, in a field close to highway number 118 in southeastern Norway. The site – located towards the Swedish border – is famous for its 30-foot Jelle burial mound, which drivers see as they speed along the busy artery.

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In terms of equipment, the archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) were working with a piece of kit called a georadar. Specialists from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute were also on hand to provide support for the ground-penetrating technology. And the georadar was attached to the front of a small tractor passing backwards and forwards across the field, scanning as it went.

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Fascinatingly, the high-resolution georadar can detect forms lying beneath the surface, and this allows archaeologists to see if there’s anything of interest there without first needing to dig. This bit of kit also has the advantage of avoiding possible damage to artifacts that may lie below the surface soil. Plus, it can save a great deal of time and money.

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Now as suggested, the archaeologists actually had little hope of finding anything in the field because it had been plowed over so many times. However, the high-resolution digital images generated by the georadar equipment showed that the team had, in fact, found something. And that something was an extremely important archaeological site dating back to Viking times.

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Amazingly, just 20 inches underneath the topsoil of the field lies a Viking ship’s carcass measuring some 66 feet long. The buried craft is only the fourth of its kind ever discovered in Norway. And it seems that there’s little doubt surrounding the idea that this vessel is actually a tomb – most likely that of an important warrior chieftain or even a member of royalty.

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Image: Lars Gustavsen, NIKU

The georadar images also revealed that there are another eight, previously unknown graves at the site. Unfortunately, it appears that the graves have been wrecked by years of farm work in the field. But even so, the images show the outlines of the tombs beneath the surface, and this in turn will allow for more accurate surveys and maps of them.

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Image: Lars Gustavsen, NIKU

In October 2018 the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute issued a press release about the buried ship. In it, NIKU’s Head of Digital Archaeology, Dr. Knut Paasche, said, “This find is incredibly exciting. We only know [of] three [other] well-preserved Viking ship finds in Norway… [And these were] excavated [a] long time ago.”

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Dr. Paasche, whose specialism is large Viking boats, added, “This new ship will certainly be of great historical significance, as it can be investigated with all modern means of archaeology.” And it seems that parts of the vessel, including its keel and some of its planks, are still intact despite the passage of time.

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The idea that this is a remarkable site that will enable researchers to learn more about the Vikings seems certain. As Jan Bill, the Viking ships’ curator at Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, told The Smithsonian, “I think we could talk about a hundred-year find. It’s quite spectacular from an archaeology point of view.”

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What’s more, the ship and burial mounds – some of which measure 90 feet wide – aren’t the only significant relics located at the site. Researchers have also found five dwellings there. At this stage, though, we can’t be sure as to whether the longhouses are related to the burials or derive from a different era.

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Unfortunately, the researchers cannot yet give a definite dating for the buried ship, either. But speaking to tech website Gizmodo, NIKU archaeologist Erich Nau said, “Ship burials are a tradition that only exist[ed] in Scandinavia and adjoining areas during the Late Iron Age, from the 6th to the 11th centuries. The majority of the already excavated examples can be dated to the 9th and 10th centuries, which is also called the Viking Age.”

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“Therefore, we can assume that the new [ship burial] is also from this period and [is] thus between 1,000 and 1,200 years old,” Nau continued. “However, we cannot date the new findings with certainty yet. This will probably be possible only within the framework of an excavation.”

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Nau also pointed out that this is the first ship burial found for more than a century. The last one was unearthed in 1904 at another farm: Oseberg. The discovery – which was made near the town of Tønsberg in the south of Norway – is an incredibly well-preserved example of a longship. And, what’s more, the remains of two women, one elderly and the other middle-aged, were uncovered with the buried vessel.

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Also discovered at the Oseberg site were a range of grave goods. Among the artifacts were four sleighs, parts of a bed and a cart. The most stunning find, however, was an ornamental brass pail decorated in enamel and adorned with an enigmatic cross-legged figure.

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As for what treasures the Jellstad ship may yield if and when an excavation takes place? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, though, the NIKU archaeologists intend to continue exploring the site using surface-based techniques. And the more the experts can learn about the ship before any digging takes place, the better able they will be to unearth it without the priceless find suffering any damage.

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