Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial

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Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial

A 1,300-year-old ship burial has been unearthed in Leka, a municipality in Norway’s Trøndelag county. According to a  statement  from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, it is Scandinavia’s oldest identified ship burial.

Last summer, archeologists with a metal detectorist conducted a small survey of Herlaugshaugen to date a burial mound and find out if it contained a ship. Given the size of the large, grassy hill, researchers have long suspected it contained a ship – and it was indeed a ship burial. The ship they unearthed measures 23 feet tall and 197 feet in diameter.

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Related: Viking Burial Treasure discovered in the Middle of the Capital of Norway
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Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial
Viking king Herlaug

Excavated before

In the late 1700s, Herlaugshaugen was excavated three times. According to reports, findings included a type of wall, iron nails, a bronze kettle, animal bones, and a seated skeleton with a sword.

“Unfortunately, these findings disappeared already in the early 1920s. The skeleton was once displayed at Trondheim Cathedral School as King Herlaug, but no one knows where it ended up,” explains Geir Grønnesby, project leader from NTNU Science Museum.

According to Grønnesby, the discovery reveals the region’s advanced maritime capabilities much earlier than previously thought.

Skilled seafarers

“The mound was constructed in approximately 700 CE. This is called the Merovingian period and precedes the Viking Age. This dating is really exciting because it pushes the whole tradition of ship burials quite far back in time,” he says.

“The find suggests that people who lived in the region at that time were “skilled seafarers” who could build big ships “much earlier than we previously thought,” Grønnesby adds.

Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial
Geir Grønnesby, project leader from NTNU Science Museum. Photo: Nancy Bazilchuk/NTNU

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Related: Historic Viking Longship Discovered in Norway
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Is there a relationship between the ship burial traditions in Scandinavia and England?

The mound also helps fill in the gaps between early Scandinavian ship burials, which date to the end of the eighth century, and the well-known Sutton Hoo ship burial in England, which dates to the early seventh century.

Grønneby is supported by archaeologist Lars Forseth from Trøndelag County Authority who also participated in the surveys.

“I think that the location along the shipping route plays a key role in understanding why Herlaugshaugen burial mound is located at Leka. We know that whetstones have been traded from Trøndelag to the continent from the mid-700s onwards, and goods transport along the route is key to understanding the Viking Age and developments in ship design before the Viking Age,” he says.

Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial
Herlaugshaugen. Photo: Visit Namdalen

But is there a relationship between the ship burial traditions in Scandinavia and England? That remains an open question—one that researchers might be able to answer by studying other large unexplored burial mounds in Norway.

Ship burials were once a traditional custom that involved interring a deceased person inside their vessel and covering the ship with a dirt mound. The practice was “believed to make the person’s transition to the afterlife a safe one,” writes Artnet’s Verity Babbs.

Furthermore, the Herlaugshaugen mound, one of Norway’s largest burial mounds, is regarded as a symbol of power and wealth, indicating that the region’s prosperity was likely derived from trade and maritime activities rather than agriculture alone.

Scandinavia’s Oldest Identified Ship Burial, written by Tor Kjolberg

Feature image (on top):  Field leader Hanne Bryn with ship’s nail © Geir Grønneby/ NTNU/Viyenskapsmuseet

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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.

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