Ever since the blurred image of a Viking burial ship in Gjellestad came to light, all eyes have been on this site in southern Norway.

As The Viking Herald reported in 2022, in 2018, researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) were tasked with investigating this area of mounds and hillocks long steeped in local lore.

Viking ship under the surface

Using ground-penetrating radar technology, the NIKU team has made a series of sensational discoveries, not the least of which is a huge vessel, some 18 meters long, intact and brimming with fascinating evidence of Viking social interaction some 1,200 years ago.

Sat in a potato field, the ship, named Gjellestad after its location beside the E6 highway that links Norway with Sweden a short drive away, was due to be left in the ground for preservation. 

Originally, it would have been interred in a burial mound, but generations of farmers had plowed the land to such an extent that it lay only 15cm below the surface.

Upon further analysis by experts, given the long, dry summers resulting from climate change, it was decided that the ship should be excavated after all. This process began in 2020, and represented the first such archaeological dig in Scandinavia since 1905. 

The top half of the Gjellestad had already been plowed away over the centuries, and the remaining section lacked its planks – though not the 1,400-plus rust-covered iron rivets that had held them together.

These have been analyzed and scanned, literally one by one, and their exact location noted down so that a picture can be constructed of how this burial ship would have looked in its day. 

Now that the initial phase of the painstaking exploration of the Gjellestad site, the excavation of it, has drawn to a close, a 3D model of the ship is being created, a procedure that should take the rest of this year to complete.

How were Vikings buried?

Even before this, however, there’s quite a lot we can already surmise about the vessel. First, it’s quite thin for a longship, meaning that there wouldn’t have been a mast attached – inferring that the Gjellestad was rowed but never sailed. 

Having said that, this was an impressive craft and would have been used for the burial of someone of particularly high standing.

It dates to the late 700s, at the start of the Viking Age, but that’s not all that has so far been ascertained from initial assessments. 

Again using state-of-the-art technology, specialists have been able to investigate the soil in and around the Gjellestad and piece together a picture of what the actual burial was like. 

As a result of geophysical surveys, a 60-meter longhouse was discovered at Gjellestad. Illustration: Lars Gustavsen/NIKU, photo: Arild L. Teigen/Viken fylkeskommune

A circle delineated by a trench would have been placed around the vessel for security reasons, with a ramp made out of earth to one side for conveyance. 

Whatever had been laid to rest here, the body and Viking bling, has long been plundered, although beads, an axe head, and animal remains had lain here for 1,200 years before the NIKU team arrived in 2018. 

Back then, those gathered would have felt up close to proceedings, lending a theatrical element to the ceremony and hinting at a more intimate and interactive relationship between the living and the departed.

Gjellestad Across Borders

As we also reported in 2022, Gjellestad is a major complex whose extent and contents point to a significant community even before the impressive farewell of around 800. 

Other finds include a longhouse 60 meters long, one of the largest of its kind, four other buildings of around 15-30 meters in length, several other burial mounds sadly since plowed down – and then there’s Jellhaug. 

The second largest burial mound in Norway, it rises 13 meters high, attracting the attention of archaeologist Erling Johansen, who investigated further in the late 1960s; his interest was piqued when the landowner told him that King Jell is buried there.

The charcoal and burned bones he found were dated far earlier than the ship, the nearest estimates suggesting a burial between 330 BCE and 660 CE – but no other evidence was discovered.

Gjellestad was therefore considered a sacred place long before those onlookers gathered around a burial ship. 

All this feeds into a project with a wider remit, Viking Nativity: Gjellestad Across Borders, again headed by NIKU, which is looking at how power structures worked in this part of the world and how national identities were formed across Scandinavia during the first millennium after Christ. 

The time frame is from the Roman Iron Age to the late Viking Era, thus spanning 800 years from 200 to 1000 CE.

The public can follow further results from the NIKU team as it sifts through the huge trove of evidence. 

But the preservation of the ship’s footprint, as well as its parts, points to the creation of a visitor center or open-air museum of some kind, those 1,400 Viking-era rivets dutifully placed back at the exact spot where they had been found.

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