Norway Plans to Excavate a Viking Ship Burial for the First Time in a Century

The outline of a Viking ship as captured using georadar. The vessel is located under only 50 cm of top soil.
The outline of a Viking ship is captured by georadar. The vessel is located under only 50 centimeters (roughly 20 inches) of topsoil. (Photo: NIKU/LBI ArchPro)

For the first time in more than 100 years, the government of Norway plans to conduct a full excavation of a buried Viking ship, the country's Ministry of Climate and Environment has announced. That could be eye-opening, researchers say, thanks to modern technology and methods that weren't available in 1904, when the last excavation took place.

The ship may have been buried underground for 1,000 years or more, but the excavation is surprisingly urgent, archaeologists say, due to water from a nearby drainage ditch as well as air exposure during a trial excavation, both of which could speed up the decomposition. Due to a fungal attack, much of the ship is already rotting, according to Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History.

"When we did that trial last year, we only found preserved wood at the very, very deepest level, the lowest part of the keel," he told The Local, an English-language news outlet. "Everything above that had rotted away, and as we looked at that keel we could see that there was soft rot in it, so it was actively decaying as we looked at it."

Norway has set aside 15.6 million Norwegian kroner (roughly $1.5 million USD) for the dig, The Local reports, and if that is approved by Norway's parliament, excavation could begin in June.

'Great historical significance'

Archaeologists made the initial discovery in 2018, using high-resolution georadar to identify the shape of a Viking ship buried only about 20 inches (50 centimeters) below the surface of a farm field. A survey revealed a burial ship about 20 meters (66 feet) long.

"We only know of three well-preserved Viking ship burials in Norway, and these were excavated a long time ago. This new ship will certainly be of great historical significance and it will add to our knowledge as it can be investigated with modern means of archaeology," said Knut Paasche, head of the Department of Digital Archaeology at Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research (NIKU), and an expert on Viking ships.

In the fall of 2018, NIKU archaeologists studying a farmer's field southeast of Oslo came across the first remains of a buried Viking ship. The vessel, likely part of an elaborate burial ceremony for a high-ranking member of Viking society, was located using noninvasive ground-penetrating radar. The team also detected evidence of eight burial mounds and the remains of five longhouses dating back to the Iron Age.

According to archaeologist Lars Gustavsen, project leader from NIKU, the Gjellestad ship burial is only part of an ancient cemetery plot "which is clearly designed to display power and influence."

You can view a georadar animation of the ship, which looks like a heartbeat as the layers of earth are penetrated inch-by-inch, in the video above.

According to the research team, the Viking vessel was likely once buried under a large mound that was steadily worn down by erosion and centuries of ploughing. Remarkably, they say the 66-foot-long ship today lies just below the topsoil at a depth of less than 20 inches. They're also fairly certain, at least based on the radar imagery, that the ship's keel and floor timbers remain intact.

"We are certain that there is a ship there, but how much is preserved is hard to say before further investigation," Morten Hanisch, county conservator in Østfold, said in 2018.

A monumental hint

A side-rendering of the giant mount that once covered the Viking ship. Today, it's remains lie under less than 20 inches of topsoil.
A side-rendering of the giant mound that once covered the Viking ship. Today, its remains lie under less than 20 inches of topsoil. (Photo: NIKU/LBI ArchPro)

Interestingly, the site of the discovery sits directly next to the recently excavated Jell Mound, which dates back around 1,500 years. According to Smithsonian Magazine, archaeologists had previously assumed any discoveries left to make around the site had been destroyed by farming practices. County officials told them to have a look anyway and the rest, as they happily found, is history.

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