Researchers Nearly Finished With Excavation of Viking Longship in Norway

Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar KHM

Archaeologists are excavating a rare Viking longship that has been buried for about twelve hundred years in Norway. It’s the first such excavation in Norway for about a hundred years. They hope to compete their work this month.

The ship is buried near Gjellestad which is southeast of Oslo. This is an ancient burial site from the Roman Iron Age (1-400 AD) that includes up to 20 graves and the Jell mound. The Jell mound is the second biggest in Norway. The longship that is currently under excavation is located about 100 meters from the mound and used to be a mound as well.

The partly uncovered Gjellestad longship. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar KHM
The partly uncovered Gjellestad longship. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar KHM

Over the years, farmers plowing their fields have shaved the mound down until it is level with the surrounding ground.  Looters have also picked over most of the graves and mounds in the area, leaving little for archaeologists to work with.

The leader of the excavation, Christian Rodsrud, said that the ship was likely buried to honor a king, queen or jarl. A jarl is a noble warrior, equivalent to earls in Anglo-Saxon history.

The Gjellestad ship is a similar size to the Gokstad ship discovered in the 1880s. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Gjellestad ship is a similar size to the Gokstad ship discovered in the 1880s. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen CC BY-SA 3.0.

Typically, smaller boats were used for such burials but this one measures 19 meters long and 5 meters wide (62 feet by 16 feet). That makes it similarly sized to the Oseberg and Gokstad Viking ships that are on display in Oslo.

Much of this ship has rotted away but archaeologist Dr. Knut Paasche feels that they will be able to build a replica by noting the layout of the iron nails that remained where the wood is now gone.

Vikings used the longship type to travel around the Northern Hemisphere. They traveled in them to raid towns on the coast of the British Isles and then used them to sail to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland before settling in what is now Newfoundland, Canada.

At this point, the team is not sure whether the ship is a sailing ship or a rowing ship. Paasche said that they can tell that the keel appears to be different from other longships that have been discovered. Once the ship has been completely excavated, they will be able to study and learn from the keel in more detail.

Here is the outline of an axe head which has corroded completely away over the centuries. Left behind is its corrosion imprint. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar KHM-2
Here is the outline of an axe head which has corroded completely away over the centuries. Left behind is its corrosion imprint. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar KHM-2

According to Paasche, the changing wind made traveling along the coast difficult with a sail. But rowing to further away lands was too difficult so raising the sails and waiting for the proper wind was preferable.

Along with the boat, the archaeologists found the bones of a large animal which they feel was likely either a horse or a bull in the grave. They also found evidence that well-organized robbers have removed artifacts from the grave.

Other objects have been found around the ship’s location, due to its prominent Viking heritage. This bead, while not strictly from the ship, has been dated from the late 900s AD, around the Viking age. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar
Other objects have been found around the ship’s location, due to its prominent Viking heritage. This bead, while not strictly from the ship, has been dated from the late 900s AD, around the Viking age. Image by Margrethe K. H. Havgar

Researchers have also used ground-penetrating radar to discover other structures at Gjellestad. One of the buildings appears to be a feasting hall and the other is believed to be a cult house. The discovery of these structures has led some researchers to conclude that Gjellestad was a “central-place” which had previously been unknown.

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It could indicate that these central places were more common than realized and that they followed a standard layout.