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Viking ship buried an Iron Age cemetery uncovered by scientists

Ancient Viking ship buried in an Iron Age cemetery to symbolise ‘safe passage into the afterlife’ is uncovered in Norway using ground-penetrating radar

  • Archaeologists have identified what was a previously unknown ritual centre
  • The site at Gjellestad, Østfold includes a feast hall, cult house, and ship burial
  • The finding was discovered without excavation, using ground-penetrating radar  
  • The site appears to have its origins as an Iron Age cemetery, later expanded in the Viking Age and could shed light on cultural changes during this period 

A Viking ship burial, feast hall and cult house have been found by archaeologists in Norway without having to dig into the soil – only using ground penetrating radar.

The discovery was made by experts from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) at Gjellestad in southeastern Norway.

Gjellestad is home to the Jell Mound, one of the largest Iron Age funerary mounds in Scandinavia and this new discovery adds to the prominence of the site, suggesting it was used for from as early as the 5th century AD through to about 1050 AD.

Radar scans revealed 13 burial mounds including one featuring ship grave, a simple farmhouse and buildings that may have been used during religious practice.

Viking experts say the ship burial would have been reserved for a powerful Viking individual and was to mark their ‘safe passage into the afterlife’.

The radar data showed that the Viking ship was about 62ft long and was buried up to 4.6ft below the surface of the ground, according to the research team.

The radar data showed that the Viking ship was about 62ft long and was buried up to 4.6ft below the surface of the ground, according to the research team

Radar images of the entire field revealed not just the ship, but evidence of a farmstead that eventually evolved into a burial and religious site for important Vikings

The latest surveys of the Jell Mound site first began in 2017 and they found 13 burial mounds once existed at the same with some over 100ft wide. 

As well as the ship, researchers found a farmhouse within the radar scan data alongside a large building that would have been used for feasts and a religious structure such as a cult house not intended for habitation.

‘The site seems to have belonged to the very top echelon of the Iron Age elite of the area, and would have been a focal point for the exertion of political and social control of the region,’ said Lars Gustavsen, lead author of the research.

The range of structures and burials at the site suggests it has a long history of use. 

Whilst the Jell Mound could date to the 5th century AD, the ship burial appears to be part of a Viking tradition common several centuries later.

‘We suggest that the site has its origins in an ordinary mound cemetery, which was later transformed into a high-status cemetery represented by monumental burial mounds, hall buildings and a ship burial,’ the researchers wrote.

Researchers mounted ground-penetrating radar devices to tractors and drove them over the site where the historic burial ship and other structures once stood

The discovery was made by experts from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) at Gjellestad in southeastern Norway

Gold pendant: a so-called ‘berloque’ found by metal-detectorists near the Jell Mound. The site is one of the largest Iron Age burial centres in Scandanavia and the new findings add to its rich history – showing it was also used during the Viking period

This site may span a key period of Scandanavian history, from the political turmoil following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire to the rise of the Vikings.

‘It forms a stepping stone for further research into the development and character of social, political, religious, and economic structures in this period,’ said Gustavsen.

The Late Nordic Iron Age, which lasted from AD 550-1050, spans a key period of history that eventually resulted in the rise of the Vikings. 

As such, studying this period is vital for understanding the history of both Scandanavia and the rest of Europe, researchers said. 

Gjellestad, located in Østfold, Norway, is one site that may shed light on this important period due to the fact research has uncovered evidence of burials dating from the Iron Age and through the Viking period.

The site of the new discovery in Gjellestar is home to the Jell Mound, which is the second-largest Iron Age burial mound in Scandanavia and was likely constructed between the 5th and 6th centuries AD. 

Excavations and metal detectors had also uncovered other Iron Age artefacts, including several gold items used in high-status female burials from AD 1-400. 

The site was also home to three other burial mounds which were demolished in the 19th century, with a ship found in one of them. 

Such ship burials were common centuries after the Jell Mound was constructed – during the time of the Vikings.

Taken together, these suggest that Gjellestad was in use for a large portion of the Nordic Iron Age and so could provide insight into this key period. 

However, the full significance of this site was not established until the landowner submitted plans for a drainage ditch. 

This prompted archaeologists to undertake a ground-penetrating radar survey in 2017 to ensure such construction would not damage anything of historical value. 

Combined interpretation map of the Gjellestad site based on the geophysical survey, showing each of the mounds, buildings and the ship burial in the middle

Researchers found 13 mounds at the site, including one featuring evidence of an ancient burial ship (illustrated here as the main central object)

These two images show the ship using different radar scans – it was likely used to mark the passing of an important Viking and ‘aid them’ in their journey to the afterlife

The initial results, announced in 2018, revealed that the seemingly non-descript field next to the Jell Mound was actually home to a significant archaeological site.  

Radar data revealed 13 burial mounds and four halls or houses at the site – with study of the layout revealing among them was a common farmhouse. 

This suggests the site had humble origins as a farmstead which was then transformed into a high-status centre with the construction of additional structures. 

The burial mounds tell a similar story, with some sharing features of a typical Iron Age burial site. Later, this cemetery was transformed into a place for elites, ultimately including a ship burial. 

Test excavations have been conducted and a full excavation of the ship burial is underway, the research team added.

This is the first time a Viking ship burial has been excavated in almost 100 years, offering a chance to do it with modern scientific techniques.    

The findings have been published in the journal Antiquity. 

THE VIKING AGE LASTED FROM AROUND 700–1,110 AD

The Viking age in European history was from about 700 to 1,100 AD.

During this period many Vikings left their homelands in Scandinavia and travelled by longboat to other countries, like Britain and Ireland.

When the people of Britain first saw the Viking longboats they came down to the shore to welcome them. 

However, the Vikings fought the local people, stealing from churches and burning buildings to the ground.

The people of Britain called the invaders ‘Danes’, but they came from Norway and Sweden as well as Denmark.

The name ‘Viking’ comes from a language called ‘Old Norse’ and means ‘a pirate raid’.

The first Viking raid recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was around 787 AD.

It was the start of a fierce struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.

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