Rare Viking chamber grave found in central Norway

Archaeologists have unearthed an extremely rare chamber grave of a woman from the Viking period at Hestnes, central Norway. The excavation had returned evidence of settlement — post holes, cooking pits — but there was no indication of any graves at the site until the team came across evidence of a rectangular structure in the earth. A dark, greasy layer of soil indicated they’d come across a grave, and excavation revealed the rectangle about 5.5 feet long and three feet wide was what remains of a wooden burial chamber dating from the mid-9th century to the mid-10th century A.D.

“This chamber grave is special, because hardly any examples of graves of this type have been found in our part of the country,” says archaeologist and project manager Raymond Sauvage.

Sauvage explains that the chamber was built in a hole in the ground. After the deceased woman was laid in it, a lid was placed on top. The grave is dated to 850 – 950 CE, and very little was left of the chamber itself after more than 1000 years underground.

“We found imprints of the four posts that stood in each corner and some of the walls. The construction technique and size helped confirm that it’s a chamber grave,” says Sauvage.

Wooden chamber graves were fashionable in urban centers during this period. Hundreds have been discovered in cities like Birka and Hedeby, but they are seldom found outside of population centers.

The burial is unusual in its grave goods as well. The deceased was laid to rest with fine jewelry, including a trefoil brooch that fastened her cloak at her neck. These types of brooches are thought to manufactured in Hedeby which was Old Danish territory at the time. They are rare in Norway, and when they have been discovered there, it’s usually in the southeast of the country which was once Danish.

Even more unusual were the turtle brooches discovered in the grave. The double-shelled brooches were typically used to pin up robes, but these had a whole different function: they held the remains of bone and teeth inside the curved double shells.

Archaeologists have also recovered 339 tiny beads from the grave. The green and purple beads are between one and two millimeters wide, so small the team had to use mesh netting to sift the soil and catch the beads. The mini-beads are yet another extremely rare find. Only a few have been unearthed in graves before, nothing like this number in one place. The densest concentration of beads were over the deceased’s right shoulder. They may have been part of a bead necklace, or may have been used in an embroidered textile.

“In archaeology, it’s common to think that the artefacts in the graves tell us something about the status and identity of the person who was buried. This artefact material indicates that the woman came from the south-eastern part of Scandinavia, and that she was buried according to her own cultural tradition,” says Sauvage.

We can only speculate how she ended up here, but Sauvage says she might have come to Hestnes through an arranged marriage.

“Travelling great distances and building networks over large areas is typical of the Viking Age. Alliances and friendships were the primary social glue in Viking Age society. It was through them that you built your social status and gained political power in an area. Marriage was a way to ally two families in this system,” he says.

Researchers hope to answer questions about her origins by analyzing the bone and teeth found in the turtle brooches.