It was believed to have been burnt for a local ruler, over a millennium before its discovery as the story of the Myklebust Viking ship, and its discovery is just as exciting as any Norse saga.
Discovered on a farm in the middle of nowhere
By the time Anders Lorange stepped foot onto the Myklebust farm, near Nordfjordeid, in western Norway, he had already made a name for himself, in the archaeological community, with several excavations throughout Norway. He had already attained a degree of celebrity in Bergen, as he was the first archaeologist hired by the relatively newly opened Bergen Museum. However, this former jurist had little idea what he would unearth when he started to excavate one of the 5 burial mounds that were scattered around the Myklebust farm.
Lorange decided to excavate the largest of these 5 burial mounds, some 30 meters in diameter and 4 meters high, and soon discovered the remains of what had once been a large fire pit. After careful examination, Lorange then found rivets from a ship. These were the only remains of a large ship that had been destroyed with fire and then covered over with a burial mound. After further digging, Lorange then found the further remains of various other materials from the ship, along with destroyed weapons and a vessel containing burnt human bones.
It soon became clear to Lorange that he had unearthed one of the largest Viking ships ever discovered in that country.
Just how big was the ship?
Since Lorange discovered the burnt remains of this Viking ship, generations of academics, historians and scientists have been able to analyze and postulate about the sheer size of the ship. Wood remains were not found, but a layer of coal was discovered with a diameter of 100 feet (30 meters). Creating a fire with a 100-foot diameter means that the Viking ship must have been, to put it mildly, rather large. There was also a considerable amount of ash – often layered with sand – discovered, meaning a huge amount of wooden material was burnt.
The next discovery that gave an insight into the ship's huge size was the number of nails and rivets discovered. Over 7,000, of varying sizes and lengths, were found, meaning the Myklebust ship was an impressive piece of early medieval naval engineering. Some 44 shield buckles were also unearthed. These have been assumed to represent the crew of the ship.
An "average" Viking ship had between 20-40 crew members, so it is clear this ship, if the shield buckles represent the number of crew, was larger than average. Furthermore, the shields would have been placed next to each other, in a row, on each side of the ship, helping to add another insight into the size and scope of the ship.
Using all the excavated evidence, the Sagastad Viking Center, along with collaboration with the University of Bergen, has reconstructed the Myklebust Ship with a total length of over 100 feet (30 meters). This means that the ship dwarfs more well-known (and less burnt) Viking ships also discovered in Norway – the Gokstad (94 feet / 28.8 meters) and the Oseberg (71 feet / 21.5 meters) ships.
Local boat builders and carpenters from nearby Bjørkedalen helped construct a replica of the Myklebust Viking ship. Photo: Jorn Loset / Sagastad
Why burn a Viking ship?
The early medieval period in Norway continues to excite and fascinate historians and academics as there are substantial blank areas of knowledge waiting to be filled in by discovery and research. From about the 8th century CE onwards, it has been estimated that there were about nine petty kingdoms dotted throughout Norway. One such petty kingdom that dominated the area where the Myklebust Ship was discovered was the "Kingdom of Fjordane" (often also called Firda or Firdafylke).
Archaeologists and historians have noted that during this early period of medieval history, in western Norway, the burning of ships was a common practice in this locality. This was a common way to honor the dead, often fallen rulers of warriors in battle. Of course, these great funeral pyres would catch the imagination of later authors and Hollywood scriptwriters.
One such important ruler in the late 9th century CE was the King of Fjordane, Audbjörn Frøybjørnsson. He was one of the rulers of the petty kingdoms that were spread throughout Norway from the 8th century onwards. His reign, at over three decades (840 – 870 CE), came to an abrupt end at Solskjel. He was killed, if we are to believe the sagas, at the second Battle of Solskhel in 870 CE, by forces of none other than the future first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair.
Fairhair was on a mission to subjugate all of the petty kingdoms and unify Norway under one crown. Marching south from Trondheim, he had his sights set on the Kingdom of Firda. Frøybjørnsson, naturally, wanted to uphold the status quo and thus allied with another nearby petty king to try and block Fairhair's advance south. In the ensuing second battle, both petty kings fell, and Fairhair would soon unite Norway under one, his, crown.
Along with the shield buckles and the piles of ash uncovered a millennium after the second Battle of Solskjell were human remains. Were these the remains of Audbjörn Frøybjørnsson?
The replica of the Myklebust Viking ship was launched in mid-2019. Photo: Ruben Soltvedt / Sagastad
The ashes of a Viking ruler?
One of the more interesting finds uncovered by Lorange more than a century ago was a large enameled bronze vessel containing human remains. This bronze vessel was believed to have been part of the loot from a raid of an Irish church or monastery.
Whoever buried this vessel must have acquired it on a Viking raid, meaning someone from this petty kingdom had been raiding as far away as Ireland. What makes this raid impressive is the sheer distance covered. The distance today between the port of Bergen and the port of Dublin is some 842 nautical miles (969 miles / 1560 kilometers) – a huge stretch of rough and choppy waters to be traveled in a Viking ship without modern navigational technology.
The bronze vessel itself, adorned with three enameled male figures, is one of the finest (and only) intact examples of Irish enamel art from the (very) early medieval period. In the vessel, there are burnt bones of a male – with an estimated age of between 30 – 35 years old. Could these remains be that of Audbjörn Frøybjørnsson?
There was, of course, no higher honor in Viking-era societies than for a warrior to die in battle. If Frøybjørnsson, a King, had fallen in battle, surely an elaborate burial ceremony – involving a giant Viking ship being set alit – would have matched his stature and prestige.
Unfortunately, however, though the historical dates seem to match given the uncovered evidence, there has been no definitive answer as to whether these male remains found in the vessel are indeed those of King Audbjörn Frøybjørnsson, whatever the sagas may say. It still offers a fascinating insight into the ceremonial rituals of Norwegian petty kingdoms during the early medieval period. Furthermore, like the sagas themselves, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The replica is now located in the Viking Museum in Sagastad, Nordfjordeid. Photo: Fotografen Eide / Sagastad
Where can you see the Myklebust Ship today?
On May 10, 2019, the Norwegian Minister for Culture, Trine Skei Grande, opened the Viking Museum in Sagastad, Nordfjordeid. Taking pride of place in the museum is a full-scale replica of the Myklebust Ship, weighing in at over 16 tonnes.
Local boat builders and carpenters from nearby Bjørkedalen helped construct the Viking ship, which was launched in mid-2019. On special occasions, the ship is launched into the fjord to be rowed as it would have been a millennium before in the age of Vikings.
For more information on the reconstruction and launch of the Myklebust Viking Ship, click here.
Details about the Sagastad Viking Museum can be found here.
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