Viking Age ship burial found in Norway

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TWH – Antiquity reported that archaeologists have found evidence of an elite Norse burial complex that includes burial mounds, buildings, and a ship burial.

The dates for these structures range from the Migration Period (500 to 800 C.E.) to the Viking Age (800 to 1000 C. E.). They found this complex in Gjellestad, in southeastern Norway which lies close to the Swedish border. Archaeologists have labeled these complexes as “central places.” Burial practices can illuminate cultural beliefs and practices about the other world.

The Ship Burial

Lyonel Perabo, who holds hold an M.A. in Old Norse Religion from the University of Iceland and is an associate member of the Creating the New North research group at the University of Tromsø, said that few Icelandic Norse tales mention ship burials.

A passage in Snorri’s “Gyllfaginning” and the older “Húsdrápa” poem describe Baldr’s funeral. Perabo said, “Baldr is already described as residing in Hel before his body is even burned on his ship Hringhorni.”

Ibn Fadlan’s travelogue contains a description of the burial of a Rus. According to Perabo, in that account, “an exceedingly complex ritual ends up with the burning of a dead’s chieftain body which was placed on a ship.”

Model of the Sutton Hoo ship burial (England), similar to a Norse ship burial (placement of the burial chamber marked in white.) Image credit: ​Eebahgum – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4515737

The archaeological exploration took place in two stages. First, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) identified shapes in the soil. Second, archaeologists dug an exploratory trench to examine the ship burial.

The large circular mound has a diameter of about 15 m (15 ft.). In its center, GPR found an elliptical shape roughly 19 m (63 ft.) long and 5 m wide (16 ft.). Archaeologists interpreted this shape as the remains of a large ship. In Norway, other ship burials tend to be of smaller ships.

Ship burials range from the 1st to the 11th Century. Live Science reports that this ship burial dates to the Viking Age.

In October of 2020, archaeologists found the remains of a bull, horse, or ox near the ship burial. They believe that Viking priests sacrificed this animal as part of the funeral rites. In the Viking Age, large animals, like ships, had great value. Archaeologist, Lars Gustavsen was the lead author of the “Antiquity” study. He stressed that the site as a whole displayed high status. He said, “It was important for the elite to exhibit their status through lavish and carefully planned burial rituals.”

The Smithsonian Magazine reported that in the 20th Century, farmers had unknowingly built a drainage pipe above the ship burial. Unfortunately, the pipe leaked, which allowed fungi to enter the remaining wooden timbers. While archaeologists had hoped to excavate the ship, the ship is under attack from fungi.

Gustavsen told CNN, “What we have to do is use modern technology and use it very carefully. By doing that, we’re hoping that we can capture something from that ship, and be able to say something about what type of ship it was.”

The Jell mound, other burial mounds, and house-like structures

In “Archaeo-Chat: Gjellestad Viking Ship Burial, Christian Løchsen Rødsrud, of the Kulturhistorisk Museum, University of Oslo Rødsrud discussed the ship burial. He reported that the Jell Mound had a diameter of 80 m (262 ft.). One of the largest in Northern Europe, it rises about 10 m (33 ft.) above the plain.

Archaeologists have dated this mound to 450 to 600 C.E. At that time, it would have been visible from the sea. Archaeological excavations in the 20th Century revealed it to be built out of a piece of cut turf, arranged in layers. Those layers covered a cremation grave.

The Jell Mound (Jellhaugen) – Image credit: Lars Gustavsen – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77869236

 

GPR found nine circular mounds. The nine mounds have diameters ranging from roughly 7 m (23 ft.) to 11 m (36 ft.) and one oval mound.

The oval mound has a length of about 15 m (49 ft.) and a width of about 6 m (19 ft.). It resembled a long-mound. Commonly found in Norway, these types of mounds tend to be associated with female burials.

Of the circular mounds, two are noticeably larger. One has a diameter of about 30 m (98 ft.). A second circular mound has a diameter of about 28 m (92 ft.). Burial mounds of this size range from the 5th to the 10th Century.

Besides the burial mounds and ship burial, GPR revealed four house-like structures. Three (H1, H2, and H3) lie to the west of the burial mounds. A fourth structure (H4) lies roughly 80 m (262 ft.) to the south of the three other structures. The GPR shows postholes for weight-bearing timbers. At least one of these structures matches descriptions of feasting halls. Poets would sing tales of heroes and gods of the Norse in those feasting halls.

From the southeastern corner of H3, 20 small post-holes indicated a type of fence running southeastward. All the other structures lie to the west of H3 and that fence. All the burial mounds lie to its east.

According to Gjellestadstory.com, the website of the project, the structures had a sequential quality. Some structures decayed while others were being built.

Folk Beliefs

The Norwegian website Osloogviken reported folk beliefs about the site. In 1794, people reported seeing blue lights or fires burning above the Jell mound. A local legend reports that King Jell lay buried in a Viking ship on that farm.

Perabo described the importance of archaeology to modern Heathens, “Archeology, in general, is one of the most potent sources for gaining new knowledge about Norse myth and religion.”

He feels that “as opposed to the field of textual research, where the work that is left to be done in this field revolves more around communicating what has been preserved than discovering brand new information.”

He continued, “In the past decade, numerous finds have helped prove and disprove theories revolving around everything from ritual practice, worldview, the depiction of the Gods and more..”

Archaeological sites are easier to access and have more “oomph” than the original texts do. Perabo said modern Heathens cannot “barge into the manuscript vault of the Icelandic Arni Magnusson Institute in order to take a look at the original manuscripts of the Edda (believe me, I tried).”

In Scandinavia, Perabo pointed out that everyone is one hour’s drive from “rock carvings, ancient burial mounds, a runestone, or a museum displaying Þórr’s hammers. All of these finds, which literally enliven the land with stories, carry an intrinsic heritage and spiritual value that reminds us of the sacred that surrounded our ancestors, and still surrounds us to this day.”

Editorial Note: Lyonel Perabo is a contributor and Perspectives columnist for TWH, and lives in Norway.