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Archaeologists Discover Viking Age Ship Burial in Norway

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Archaeologists using radar technology have discovered a millennium-old ship burial in southeastern Norway, at a site that they hope will offer clues about life during the period after the fall of the Roman Empire through the end of the Viking Age.

Lars Gustavsen, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research and the lead author of a paper on the findings, published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, said his team made the discovery in April 2018 in Gjellestad, Norway. A farmer notified the local authorities about his plans to build drainage ditches in one of his fields, prompting the archaeological survey.

“Before we started we knew about maybe one other site like it in that area,” Mr. Gustavsen said. “Now we have another one that could probably provide us with more information about how society was built, what kind of political system they had, what kind of technological systems they had.”

ImageThe farm where the ship burial was found. The farmer, Olav Jellestad, notified the authorities about his plans to build drainage ditches in a field, prompting the survey.

The archaeologists used a motorized, high-resolution ground-penetrating radar system. They found evidence of the ship burial, a feasting area and another building that may have been the site of religious worship during the Viking Age, from about 750 to 1050. During that time, a ship burial symbolized safe passage into the afterlife and was a sign of status, wealth, and political or religious connections.

In the coming months, the archaeological team will conduct a larger survey, which it hopes will unearth more evidence about the broader society at that time.

(Olav Jellestad, the farmer who owns the land over which the remains were found, will not be able to grow crops on one of his fields while further archaeological exploration takes place, but the Norwegian government is compensating him, Mr. Gustavsen said. Mr. Jellestad did not respond to a request for comment.)

The site appears to have originated as a cemetery in the Iron Age that was expanded in the Viking Age, according to the paper.

Credit… L-R: Kartverket, L. Gustavsen

Scandinavia through much of the era consisted of small kingdoms, that, when banded together, sometimes launched fleets of ships carrying hundreds or thousands of warriors on brutal raids. They also engaged in the slave trade and maintained extensive trade routes: Ship traffic streamed from north of the Arctic Circle down the western coast of Norway, through Denmark and onto the European continent, bringing enslaved people, precious metals and items to and from the Mediterranean.

Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, an associate professor in Scandinavian history at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study, said the findings were exciting, but not surprising. She said that past findings suggested the area was under the control of a series of local rulers who held power over small regions and trading sites.

What could be telling, once the excavation is complete, is whether a man or a woman was buried at the ship burial site, she said. Most of the people buried in ships that have been discovered were men, but in one nearby site, two women were found buried.

Dr. Rowe said an embroidered tapestry and other artifacts found at the site indicated that one of the women may have been a priestess, a “sorceress” or someone with significant religious power or responsibility. The woman buried with her may have been her assistant, she said.

Credit…Kirsten Helgeland, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo/Cc by-Sa 4.0

“It fills out our picture of the ninth and 10th centuries in this part of southern Scandinavia,” she said, adding that the findings showed that aristocratic centers in the region had a shared style of buildings and particular combinations of buildings and burials.

“It emphasizes that even though these are all in some way independent, little centers of power, that they share the same culture,” she said.

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