As construction nears completion on Oslo's brand new Museum of the Viking Age, which has seen countless millions of kroner spent over a few years, Viking ships are once again at the forefront of the cultural spotlight in Scandinavia. 

Further south, in Denmark, the five Skuldelev ships often get pride of place and have even seen a museum built specifically for their display

Yet there is another Danish Viking ship, the Ladby ship, which was uncovered on a farm in 1935. It is lesser known but has a history just as fascinating as the other Scandinavian ships uncovered. 

Discovered by a pharmacist and amateur archeologist, Poul Heweg Mikkelsen, on 28 February 1935, it remains the only Viking Age ship burial found in Denmark. 

Mikkelsen started digging a small hill, which he knew might, in fact, be a burial mound, in a field in the village of Ladby, near Keterminde in eastern Denmark. 

He soon realized that he had uncovered archeological gold. 

The Ladby Viking ship reconstruction displays the ship's impressive dimensions of 21.5 meters (70.5 feet) in length and 2.75 meters (9 feet) in width, which could accommodate up to 30 to 32 rowers. Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock

What lay beneath 

Excavations began as soon as Mikkelsen contacted the National Museum of Denmark and were supervised by conservator Gustav Rosenberg from 1935 to 1937. 

Though mostly disintegrated, the ship was measured to be approximately 21.5 meters (70.5 feet) long and 2.75 meters (9 feet) wide, thanks in part to the more than 2,000 rivets uncovered along with the ship. 

The ship's length allowed it to accommodate between 30 to 32 rowers, indicating a substantial crew size. This suggests that whoever was buried in the boat likely held high status. 

Despite the excavations being undertaken almost a century ago, long before modern scientific and technological advancements, Rosenberg believed the ship was built around the turn of the 10th century. 

Several grave goods (see below) adorned in the Jelling style, which was common throughout much of the 10th century, were found alongside the ship. 

This was a turbulent time in Danish history, as several petty kingdoms fell under the iron grip of Gorm the Old, who is credited as the first ruler of a unified Danish kingdom. 

Upon his death in 936, Christianity had already gained a foothold among the ruling elite, with his son, Harald Bluetooth, reportedly being the one who converted the entire kingdom to Christianity. 

A bloody spiritual battle was being played out for much of the 10th and 11th centuries between newly converted Christians and followers of what historians now call the Old Norse religion

The ship's bow was probably decorated with a dragon's head, but today, only the iron-coiled mane of the dragon remains intact. Photo: Malene Thyssen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Uncovering the truth, one artifact at a time 

Following the dating process, the next question that needed answering was who the ship was for, which was not an easy task. 

However, several artifacts found during the excavation provided some clues to solve this puzzle. 

The first discovery was several iron pieces, potentially forming part of the ship's ornamentation, possibly in the shape of a dragon. 

Usually, a Dreki ship (Dreki is Old Norse for Dragon) was reserved for the ruling elite, typically kings or powerful warlords. 

This ornamentation, along with the size of the ship, suggests that this ship was for a king. 

The skeletal remains uncovered along with the ship provided the following clues, which helped us understand who the vessel was for. 

Specifically, the skeletal remains of 11 horses were uncovered near the ship's bow. 

Some scholars jumped to the conclusion that this was not a royal ship but rather a transport ship, akin to vessels depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry showing horses being ferried over as part of the Norman invasion of England. 

However, a reconstruction of the ship showed that it would be impossible to transport horses safely due to the shallowness of the ship's hull. 

The best bet is that these horses were part of an elaborate ritual offering as a part of the funeral practice, perhaps ritually killed when the ship was buried alongside whoever it was intended for. 

The presence of grave goods, too, seems to suggest that this was a powerful and high-status individual. 

Though no human skeletal remains were uncovered, making it impossible to conclusively determine who the ship burial was for, several grave goods help support the theory that it was intended for a Viking ruler. 

Amongst the artifacts uncovered were weapons, tools, textiles, and equipment for riding horses. 

During the early medieval period, only high-status individuals could afford to ride horses. 

Furthermore, the presence of textiles, which were time-consuming to produce and costly, supports the theory that whoever was buried in the ship was a person of influence and wealth. 

The Ladby Viking Museum is situated on the northeastern shore of Funen Island. It features a ship burial reconstruction with the chieftain, grave goods, dogs, and eleven horses on display. Photo: Toxophilus (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A disturbed grave 

Despite the wealth of archeological treasure uncovered, there were signs of human desecration and destruction long before 1935. 

The grave itself was extensively damaged, with only a few human bones found – frustratingly, not enough to piece together an identity of who was buried with the ship. 

Modern-day researchers have concluded that the grave was disturbed during the rise of either Harald Bluetooth or his son Sweyn, who was famously said to have usurped power from his father and then shipped him off into exile. 

Another tantalizing theory is that the grave was desecrated due to religious differences. 

Perhaps the deceased was a high-status pagan, and the grave was deliberately targeted by a newly converted Christian elite as a means of destroying the old faith, both in this life and the next. 

This also may explain the lack of human remains – should the zealotry of the new Christian converts be the reason for the grave's disturbance – the skeletal remains of whoever was buried were likely moved or destroyed. 

This would be a final stinging blow showing the supremacy of this new faith. 

However, like so much of the archeological discoveries from the Viking Age, the archeological record has given us more questions than answers. 

The Ladby Viking ship now takes pride of place at the Ladby Viking Museum (Ladby Vikingmuseet). 

The Ladby Viking Ship remains a poignant reminder of Denmark's proud Viking heritage and the enduring legacy, as well as the popularity, of these seafaring warriors and traders. 

For more information on recent Viking ship discoveries, visit Science Norway here

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