The archeologists working on the Gjellestad ship, the first Viking ship burial in Norway to be found in 100 years, have issued a stark warning and called for urgent funding to ensure its preservation. 

The call comes as a group works to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status for Gjellestad and other ship burials in Norway. 

A precarious position 

The Gjellestad archaeological site, situated near the town of Halden in southern Norway, was initially identified in 2018 using ground-penetrating radar technology. Preliminary investigations at the burial mound suggested the possible presence of a ship. 

The subsequent full-scale excavations, carried out over a period of two years by a team led by Christian Løchsen Rødsrud of the Museum of Cultural History, confirmed the first Viking ship burial discovered in Norway since the famous Oseberg vessel was excavated in 1904

However, while both the Oseberg and Gokstad ships were exceptionally well-preserved, the condition of the Gjellestad ship is extremely precarious. 

Although the imprint of the ship was clearly visible with radar, there are only small fragments of the ship left in the soil.

Without due care and the provision of strict environmental conditions, these final remains are expected to deteriorate severely over time. 

As an innovative step, the delicate rivets of the ship were removed in blocks of turf to prevent them from being damaged. 

The team is now working to map the geometric position of the rivets in relation to the ship. Using the 3D model currently under construction, the team hopes to produce a full-scale recreation at a later date. 

The moment when the keel of the Gjellestad Viking ship was discovered by Løchsen Rødsrud and his team in 2020. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo

A race against time 

Unfortunately, the archeological team was not provided with the resources required to maintain a permanent presence at the site. 

After the initial excavation, the ship's imprint was covered with perforated plastic, fiber cloth, and then sand and soil in the hope of offering some degree of protection. Yet without further care, the archeologists believe the ship's imprint could be lost within a decade. 

"The main step to preserve it must be to secure the remaining imprint by digging a cellar beneath it, allowing control of temperature and humidity," Christian commented to The Viking Herald

"Otherwise, the remaining parts of wood will degenerate – we do not know the speed of this process." 

This 3D reconstruction represents the Gjellestad ship on-site near Halden, Norway, as it was just before a burial mound was constructed over it. Source: NIKU / YouTube

"A unique opportunity" 

Creating a permanent protective structure around the ship would also allow people to view its remains in the exact area where it was placed more than 1,000 years ago. 

The team also hopes to build an adjacent visitor center to provide historical context for the find. 

In addition, preserving the ship on-site would boost an ongoing application for Norway's Viking ship burial sites to be awarded World Heritage Site status. 

Vestfold's ship burials are currently on UNESCO's tentative list, but their status has not yet been confirmed. 

"The site is important on a national level, but if I put on international glasses, it also becomes clear that in situ (on-site) preservation of the chosen heritage is a prerequisite for becoming a UNESCO site," Christian comments. 

Indeed, since both Oseberg and Gokstad have been removed from the locations where they were found, keeping the Gjellestad ship on-site could be a crucial aspect of the application to UNESCO. 

Archeologists are advocating for urgent resources to protect the fragile remains of the Gjellestad ship and enhance the site's chances of achieving UNESCO World Heritage status. Photo: Christian Løchsen Rødsrud / Museum of Cultural History

A decision to be made 

Naturally, the primary focus remains ensuring that the site can be preserved for future generations to enjoy. 

The UNESCO working group of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, of which Christian is a member, has chosen to provide funding for monitoring work to be restarted at the site. 

However, further resources are still required to ensure the more extensive preservation efforts that would secure the long-term future of the Gjellestad ship

"It is fairly straightforward to do, but there is no available funding locally," Christian admits. "This means that the politicians at the state level must decide whether this is of national value or not." 

Christian has already spoken to two politicians at the Norwegian Parliament to inform them of the urgent need to preserve the remains of the ship, and the Gjellestad team is now expected to meet with the Norwegian Minister of Culture to discuss the situation. 

"It is important to preserve it – to allow for an audience experience," Christian adds. 

"The three Viking ships of Tune, Oseberg, and Gokstad that were excavated over a century ago have been taken out of their original context and moved to a museum in Oslo." 

"This is a unique opportunity to preserve a similar burial on-site and preserve the original context within the landscape it once featured so prominently." 

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