Scandinavia’s Oldest Ship Burial Discovery “Rewrites History”

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The discovery of a new ship burial in Central Norway has been hailed as “astonishing” by archaeologists. It changes our perception of the years prior to the Viking Age in Norway.

Archaeologists in Leka, in the northern part of central Norway, have unearthed Scandinavia's oldest known ship burial, dating back to around 700 CE.

Viking ship mound in central Norway. Photo: Hanne Bryn, NTNU Science Museum.
Herlaugshaugen is mentioned in Snorri's royal sagas as the final resting place of King Herlaug. Photo: Hanne Bryn, NTNU Science Museum.

This discovery significantly predates the Viking era, challenging existing beliefs about the region's maritime and trading history.

A Site Mentioned in the Sagas

During the summer, archaeologists embarked on an expedition to the 60-metre mound Herlaugshaugen, a site mentioned in Snorre's royal sagas as the final resting place of King Herlaug.

Herlaugshaugen is one of the largest burial mounds in the country. It was excavated three times in the late 1700s. 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,” explained Geir Grønnesby, project leader from NTNU Science Museum.

The mission, commissioned by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Trøndelag Council, aimed to date the mound and confirm the presence of a ship​​​​.

Nail found in the archaeological survey. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU Science Museum.
The ship nails tell us that people here were able to build large ships much earlier than we previously thought. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU Science Museum.

The team's enthusiasm soared upon finding large nails, a definitive indicator of a ship burial. The results positioned the mound's creation in the Merovingian period, around 700 CE, pushing back the origins of ship burial traditions.

New Knowledge on the Pre-Viking Period

Grønnesby noted the significance of this finding, as it revealed the region's advanced maritime capabilities much earlier than previously thought​​​​.

This revelation sheds light on the pre-Viking period, a time when the development of ships was crucial. The size and sophistication of the ship imply a society with considerable maritime knowledge and resources.

Moreover, the Herlaugshaugen mound, one of Norway's largest burial mounds, is seen as a symbol of power and wealth, indicating that the region's prosperity likely stemmed from trade and maritime activities, rather than agriculture alone​​​​.

The discovery also underscores the importance of trade in the region, with evidence suggesting active commerce from Trøndelag to the Continent from the mid-700s onwards.

From the investigations at Herlaugshaugen. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU Science Museum.
From the investigations at Herlaugshaugen. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU Science Museum.

Grønnesby said to NRK that the ship grave suggests that contact with the wider world was greater and earlier than previously thought: “Because when one builds somewhat large ships, it is usually because one is going to travel a distance with them.”

Connections to the Elite in Sweden & England

The Merovingian period (550-800 CE) predates the Viking Age and is known for sparse archaeological finds, includes early boat burials like those in Vendel and Valsgärde, Sweden.

There's speculation about a link between these sites and Namdalen, Norway, where similar large mounds exist. Notably, about 10% of Norway's large burial mounds are in Namdalen.

This connection extends to Sutton Hoo in England, another significant Merovingian site. Researchers are keen to explore these potential historical ties further.

A Rare Discovery in Norway

In contrast to the wealth of artifacts from the Viking age, finds from the Merovingian period are rare, making this discovery all the more significant for the study of early Scandinavian history​​.

This finding not only rewrites chapters of Scandinavian history but also highlights Norway's rich and diverse past.

About Life in Norway

Sometimes, more than one person in the Life in Norway team works on a story. This was one of those times!

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