The vessel, discovered by Håkon Reiersen and his team, forms part of a collection grouped around the later powerbase of Viking king Harald Fairhair.

Project chief Håkon Reiersen talks to The Viking Herald about this amazing find, its connection to a previous dig by his compatriot predecessor, Håkon Shetelig, a century ago, and what the next steps will be. 

The Viking Herald: How long have you been involved with archaeological excavations around this site?

Håkon Reiersen: The excavations and geo-radar surveys are part of a research project called 'Avaldsnes – Port of Power', concentrating on the maritime aspects of this center of power and sheltered port over 3,000 years. 

Our focus is the many grave monuments from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking Age, situated along the sea entrance to Avaldsnes, as well an exploration of the medieval port area at Avaldsnes, both on land and underwater. While the main project has been running since 2019, new surveys of the ship burial mounds in the area started in 2022. 

Actually, our main focus at the time was a minor excavation and geo-radar survey of the remains of the burial mound Storhaug. In relation to this, we wanted to use the geo-radar also in the adjacent areas, and the remains of the equally monumental Salhushaugen mound a few hundred meters to the south was an evident site for the survey. 

In the research literature, Salhushaugen has often been mentioned alongside the two adjacent ship burials in Storhaug and Grønhaug, and they indeed shared many similarities. As no certain burial was identified during Håkon Shetelig's partial excavation of the mound, it has, however, been hard to grasp what the mound represented and integrate it in research."

TVH: How much did the work of Håkon Shetelig affect the decision to carry out further work here a century later?

HR: When we got the results from the geo-radar survey, and there was a ship pattern centrally in the mound, my initial reaction was, "But of course, this is also a ship burial!". 

When we then returned to the original documentation of Håkon Shetelig's reports and letters, we learned that he initially suspected it to be a ship burial and that after he finished the excavations, he stated that there might still be a "large burial" in the unexcavated areas. 

Among the things he did find in the mound was a large circular stone slab of 2 meters in diameter which has a direct parallel in the Storhaug mound. 

The presence of about 15 wooden spades is only paralleled by similar amounts of such tools in the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials. Shetelig himself had excavated the Grønhaug and Oseberg ship burials in 1902 and 1904, and during the excavation in Salhushaugen in 1906, he stated that the construction of the latter mound strongly resembled the two others. 

Among several other things, this supported our interpretation of the geo-radar signals as an actual ship and the mound as the third ship burial in the Avaldsnes area.

TVH: What did you expect to find here – and can you tell us about the moment when it became clear that there was something of serious interest?

HR: In many ways, with the Storhaug and Grønhaug ship mounds from 779 and c. 795, respectively, we already knew that regional royal power was established at Avaldsnes on the eve of the Viking period, and that the Scandinavian ship burial tradition first occurred here. The third ship burial strengthens this view and really confirms that the research established by other scholars is valid. 

In no other areas are ship burials found in so concentrated an area as here, where the royal burial tradition originated. We suspect that the Salhushaugen mound is largely contemporary with the two other burials, precisely at the same time as the first Viking attacks reported in the British Isles in the late 780s and 790s.

TVH: What's the next step? How do you intend to investigate further?

HR: While the old excavations in the Salhushaugen mound revealed several well-preserved wooden objects, a hundred years later, we are uncertain about the current preservation conditions. 

The geophysical signals might indeed reflect actual parts of the ship, but it is likely that this is merely an imprint of a disintegrated ship. 

We hope to do a verification excavation in the coming year, although economic matters and the timeline have not yet been settled.

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