However, as soon as the ground was disturbed, fragments of bones and ancient artifacts began to emerge. Fast-forward 4 years, and after extensive excavations, the workers had unearthed a ship burial that challenged common knowledge about the beginning of the Viking Age.

Treasure island

The island of Saaremaa, just off the coast of Estonia, is perhaps not the first place that you would expect to find a groundbreaking (pardon the pun) archaeological discovery. 

However, when construction workers began to lay an electric cable in the autumn of 2008, they uncovered human remains and ancient artifacts that would help challenge assumed knowledge about the very beginning of the so-called "Viking Age."

The construction work stopped almost immediately when the first human remains were found, and the archaeologists were called in. Over the course of the next four years, after extensive excavations and painstaking scientific research, two clinker-built ships were unearthed as well as the remains of 41 warriors, six dogs, two hunting hawks and a treasure trove of weapons and grave goods.

The two ships (one unearthed in 2008 and the second in 2010 – with the possibility of a third hypothesized but not yet unearthed) are clinker-built. 

This constriction of boat building originated in Scandinavia during a historically blurry period of time that separates late antiquity from the early medieval period. The Salme boats, however, have been dated to being constructed between 650 – 700 CE with wood originating in Sweden. 

The length of the ships is impressive given the time period, as one is 58 feet / 17 meters whilst the other scrapes in at just over 38 feet / 11.5 meters. Both had a keel and were believed to have used sails – making them the oldest found vessels using a sail in the Baltic region.

Human remains

Amongst the fragments of the ship discovered back in 2008, the construction workers also made a grisly find: human remains. The skeletal remains of 42 individuals have since been discovered in the vicinity. 

Most of them appeared to be aged between 30 – 40 and were killed in battle. The remains of 36 individuals were buried, in four layers, on the larger ship, with the smaller ship housing seven individuals.

Forensic archaeologists and scientists went about further analysis of these skeletal remains. An isotope analysis of the teeth – which can help determine the region a human originated from – was undertaken, and they were believed to come from somewhere in central Sweden. 

More in-depth analysis of the Y-chromosomes found that four of the men buried were brothers with another older man, a possible relation – either an older cousin or an uncle.

So who were these men, how did they die, and what were they doing on this island in the middle of the Baltic Sea in the early 8th century CE? 

Archaeologists looked to the grave goods buried with the men to try and solve this mystery.

Dogs, dice, and dead men

Amongst the fragments of the two boats and scores of skeletal remains that the archaeologists uncovered were dozens of grave goods too. 

More than 40 pieces of different swords were uncovered. What was interesting is that the swords had been deliberately damaged, disfigured, and bent out of shape in an effort to, what archaeologists and scholars believe, discourage the disturbance of this ship burial and grave. 

Along with the sword pieces were the remains of other weapons, including arrowheads, shields, and spears.

Aside from weapons of war, further excavations unearthed items with a more humane and personal nature. These men obviously knew a thing or two about early medieval high fashion, too, as a decorated comb made of bone was found along with a bear claw necklace. 

One of the more interesting finds was hundreds of gaming pieces – made of bone and antler – along with six dice. Finally, archaeologists discovered the remains of hawks – used for falconry- as well as the remains of two dogs believed to have been ritualistically slain.

The grave goods discovered further underlined the initial theory – along with the scientific proof gathered from the isotope analysis, and the clinker-built construction method of the two ships – that these men may have been Vikings from Sweden. Yet what were they doing on this island?

In 2021, an exhibition called "Vikings before Vikings" took place in the Saaremaa Museum in Estonia, featuring 150 original objects which were placed as grave goods along with the Viking warriors. Photo: Saaremaa Museum

Raiders or rulers?

Scholars, historians, and archaeologists worldwide greeted the discovery of the Salme ships with great excitement. The initial theory as to the identity and purpose of the men buried with the Salme ships was explosive. 

These men, the theory went, were Viking raiders who had sailed from Sweden to conduct a vicious raid on the inhabitants of this coastal community. 

As the ships were constructed sometime in the first half of the 8th century, this discovery meant a rethinking of the beginning of the so-called "Viking Age" – traditionally dated from a Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 CE

We do know that Lindisfarne was not the first Viking raid in history, but the discovery of the Salme ships would push the beginning of the "Viking era" back – at least – 50 to 100 years.

Yet the discovery of the second ship in 2010 somewhat changed this theory. Amongst the weaponry unearthed was a large number of bronze hilts for swords – something that was commonplace for nobility, political elites, or, at least, the very wealthy. 

Furthermore, the remains of the animals – both hawks and dogs – seem to suggest that the men may indeed have been on a diplomatic trip. Falconry and hunting were popular leisure activities right through the medieval period, even at this early stage. 

Some scholars have argued that all these factors make it likely that these men journeyed to this island to try and forge new alliances, political relationships, or kinship ties.

Look to the sagas

Perhaps the final word as to the mystery of these men should be given to the 13th-century Icelandic poet, author, and historian, Snorri Sturluson. 

Like so much of broader Viking history, the Salme ships have been intertwined with Norse sagas. In the Ynglinga Saga – a history of Norse kings – Sturluson tells the tale of the Swedish King Yngvar Harra. 

He spent the majority of his life fighting against people from what is now Estonia and was ultimately killed in battle and buried there. Sturluson dates his death to the early 7th century CE.

Given that medieval historians and authors did not have a wealth of information available to modern-day scholars, was the story of King Harra somewhat influenced by these men who had traveled to Salme on a diplomatic mission? 

Is there a degree of historical accuracy hidden deep in this saga? Since Sturluson wrote more than four centuries after the Salme ships were buried, details and dates may have blurred to form this saga.

Nonetheless, the discovery of the Salme ships presents a fascinating insight, and possible mystery to yet be conclusively solved, into the dawn of the so-called "Viking Age." 

With the ever-increasing advance of scientific methods used in modern archaeological excavations, more discoveries like this – that help challenge assumed thinking and knowledge of the "Viking Age" could well lurk beneath the surface.

For more information on the Salme ships, visit an article by Current World Archaeology on them here.

Whilst an article on the return of the remains from a decade of research and analysis, along with the news of an upcoming exhibition at Saaremaa Museum, can be found here on the Estonian Public Broadcasting website. 

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