Peer into the Norse sagas about heroic King Herlaug or look him up on the internet, and you will encounter an epic tale of a brave warrior who chose to be buried alive rather than face capture.

The year was 871, the location was Namdalen in Central Norway, and the victor was King Harald Fairhair.

Such was Herlaug's valor that he even had eleven of his men buried alongside him, though the exact details of this act remain somewhat elusive.

Leka landmark 

The burial mound on the island of Leka, one of the largest ever found from the Viking era, actually contains a ship, the more traditional way high-ranking Norse warriors were buried.

Some 1,300 years ago, Namdalen was important as it oversaw the profitable mercantile routes between the North and South of Norway.

Herlaug's brother Rollaug had sided with Harald Fairhair in order to benefit from this advantageous location.

Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, Herlaug duly ordered a mass suicide by live burial. 

This is according to Icelandic scribe Snorri Sturluson writing in Heimskringla some 350 years later.

The truth may be a little more prosaic, however. 

In the late 1700s, excavators dug three tunnels into the burial mound – originally some 12.5 meters high and 70 meters in diameter – and found a human skeleton leaning up against a wall, thus confirming the astonishing tale laid out in the Norse sagas.

In more modern times, a major archaeological dig was undertaken in 2012 using geo-radar technology, and its frustratingly inconclusive findings were presented at a press conference.

As Arne Anderson Stamnes of the NTNU Science Museum in Trondheim explained: 

"This does not mean that it wasn't [a live burial] because the information we have from the end of the 18th century is quite convincing. The pile is so large that it is not impossible to believe it contained one or more ships." 

"Unfortunately, we were unable to confirm it through the surveys. It's a bit annoying, but we've learned a lot from it."

At the time, even the mayor of Leka, Per Helge Johansen, chipped in, saying: "It was very exciting, but I'm glad that we still have the adventure and mystery."

The Norwegian island of Leka has been closely associated with the tales of King Herlaug. Photo: Michal 11 / Shutterstock

Contemporary findings

Then, in recent weeks, a report in Norwegian Sci-Tech News revealed that archaeologists had found the ship's rivets, the breakthrough proof of what must lie within the mound. 

This time, the investigation was led by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage alongside NTNU University Museum.

Experts now think that Herlaug's mound contains a ship burial, but the wood from the vessel itself has long rotted away. 

Perhaps worse, the skeleton, animal bones, bronze kettle, and parts of a wall unearthed in the 1700s disappeared around a century ago after being put on display in Trondheim. 

Where these artifacts went is uncertain. Some say, including the project leader on the recent dig, NTNU's Geir Grønnesby, that the bronze kettle might have been melted down to make shoe buckles. 

However, Grønnesby and his team have more modern methods at their disposal. 

Carbon dating can be used to assess the age of the horse's tooth and layer of charcoal now found alongside those ship's rivets.

"It is not possible to determine the exact size of the ship, but the size of the rivets indicates that it must have been a ship burial."

While we await the results of the carbon dating, there was another theory put forward by Grønnesby that might call into question our previous thinking about Herlaug's burial place:

"The mound has been referred to as a Viking Age grave, but it shares similarities with another burial mound, Storhaug, that is dated to the late Merovingian period – meaning the period before the Viking Age."

The Merovingian dynasty ended in 751. Could someone have been buried here before the valiant King Herlaug, regardless of his final moments?

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