Archive for November 20th, 2019

Nested Viking boat burials found in Norway

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Two Viking-era boat burials have been found, one inside the other, in Vinjeøra, central Norway. The graves were unearthed by a team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum in October who were excavating a known Viking era burial ground in advance of highway construction. They first came across the burial of an elite woman dating to the second half of the 9th century. Then they found a second burial, this one for an elite man dating to the 8th century, under hers.

“I had heard about several boat graves being buried in one burial mound, but never about a boat that had been buried in another boat,” said Raymond Sauvage, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and project manager for the excavation.

“I have since learned that a few double boat graves were found in the 1950s, at Tjølling, in the south of the Norwegian county of Vestfold. Still, this is essentially an unknown phenomenon,” he said

The man was buried in boat around 30 feet (9-10 meters) long. Interred with him were a spear, a shield and a single-edged sword. The style of the sword is what dates the grave to the 8th century, the Merovingian era. The woman’s burial boat was about 25 feet long (7-8 meters) and interred with her were a pearl necklace, two scissors, a spindle whorl and the head of a cow. Her garment was fastened at the chest with two gilded bronze shell-shaped brooches and a cruciform brooch that was originally a horse fitting of Irish manufacture likely taken in a raid and repurposed as jewelry.

The wood of both boats has almost entirely rotted away (a small piece of the keel of the woman’s boat was the only survivor), but the rivets were all in place and undisturbed. Archaeologists were able to determine the size and shape of the boat by mapping the rivets, and that’s how they realized instead of a single boat they had discovered a smaller one nested inside a larger one. This was not a haphazard stacking. The first grave had to have been painstakingly excavated so as not to disturb the remains and grave goods and then the woman’s boat carefully placed within.

The two boat graves were found on the edge of what had once been the largest burial mound on the site. The mound had eroded to flatness over the centuries of agricultural use of  the land, but archaeologists hoped to find artifacts, if not remains, from the central grave in the middle of the tumulus. They did discover an early Merovingian-era brooch, confirming that the mound pre-dates both the boat burials.

But what was the connection between the man and the woman? Sauvage says it’s reasonable to assume that the two were related. The Vikings on Vinjeøra probably had a clear idea about who was in each burial mound, since this information most likely was passed down for many generations.

“Family was very important in Viking Age society, both to mark status and power and to consolidate property rights. The first legislation on allodial rights in the Middle Ages said you had to prove that your family had owned the land for five generations. If there was any doubt about the property rights, you had to be able to trace your family to “haug og hedni” – i.e. to burial mounds and paganism” says Sauvage.

“Against this backdrop, it’s reasonable to think that the two were buried together to mark the family’s ownership to the farm, in a society that for the most part didn’t write things down,” Sauvage says.

While the soil is too acidic for good bone preservation, fragments of the woman’s skull and teeth were found in the grave. Researchers will attempt to extract DNA from the remains and perform stable isotope analysis to find out where she grew up and what she ate. Archaeologists will return to the site next year to continue the excavation of the mound. The goal is to unearth any artifacts associated with the central burial.

This brief but illuminating video recreates the boat burials and their contents as they would have looked originally. CGI rendering artfully illustrates how the two boat graves fit with each and in the context of the earlier burial mound.

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