Norway Funds Excavation of 1,200-Year-Old Viking Ship

Georadar image of the Viking burial ship's hull (imaging courtesy NIKU)

Published May 11, 2020 1:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of Norway has set aside about $1.5 million in funding for the excavation of the Gjellestad viking ship, one of the most significant maritime archaeological finds in Scandinavia in recent decades. 

In 2018, archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) used new georadar technology to locate a new ship burial site that is believed to date back to the Viking era. The remains of the ship are located just below the surface within what was once a burial mound. 

In a trial excavation last year, the team uncovered a portion of the vessel to determine its condition. The site is adjacent to a drainage ditch - a prescription for wet earth - and an examination showed decay in the upper portion of the hull. While precise dating was not possible, the team was able to determine that the timber could not have been hewn before 732, putting its likely age between the late 700s and early 900s. 

"It's important because it's more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this," said Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History, speaking to The Local. "With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place."

With the rate of decomposition likely to accelerate now that the wood has been exposed to air and to fungal spores from the surface, the team wants to move swiftly to preserve what remains. In addition to the structure of the ship itself, they expect to find artifacts from the burial, which could provide more clues about Viking-era society. 

"We assume that there has been a burial chamber somewhere in the ship, and that at least one person is buried here with items needed in the afterlife. It should also be possible to find traces of some of the extensive rituals that took place when someone was going over to the other side, for example, we may find animal remains after sacrifices," says Christian Løchsen Rødsrud, project manager for the initial excavation. "Best preserved are probably any precious metal items such as gold and silver. Glass and jewelry stones will also be preserved."

Assuming Norway's legislature approves the funding, the team hopes to start the excavation work in June. 

"We do not yet know how good the ship is, and it is hardly a complete Viking ship, but there is much to learn from the keel and other elements that can fill several points in the history of Norway," Climate and Environment Minister Sveinung Rotevatn told NRK. 

A team from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) found another promising ship burial site at  Smøla in late 2018. According to Dr. Knut Paasche, the head of the Department of Digital Archaeology at NIKU, newly developed georadar technology will likely enable even more finds in the years ahead.