In June, archaeologists began excavating a Viking ship in a farm field in eastern Norway. The 1000 to 1200 year old ship was probably the tomb of a local king or jarl, and it once lay beneath a monumental burial mound. A 2018 ground radar survey of a site called Gjellestad, on the fertile coastal plain of Vikiletta, revealed the buried ship.
The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, or NIKU, announced the ship’s find in 2018 and announced earlier in 2020 that excavations would begin in the summer to save the ship from wood-eating fungus. The recent study by NIKU archaeologist Lars Gustavsen and his colleagues is the first academic publication of the research findings and includes the previously announced ship burial in Gjellestad, as well as the other ancient graves and buildings. In the recently published article, the radar images reveal the ghosts of an ancient landscape around the royal tomb: farms, a banquet hall and centuries of burial mounds.
Taken together, the buried structures suggest that over the course of several centuries, from at least 500 BCE to 1000 CE, a common coastal farming settlement somehow evolved into a major seat of power on the eve of the Viking Age.
A ghost map from the past
In 2018, NIKU archaeologists criss-crossed the fields of Gjellestad with ground-penetrating radar mounted on the front of an all-terrain vehicle. They revealed a forgotten Iron Age world beneath the crops and pastures. In the radar images, a dozen ghostly rings mark the loose soil that fills the trenches that once surrounded burial mounds. Post holes and wall foundations trace the faint outline of at least three former farmhouses, along with a larger building that could have been an Iron Age banquet hall.
There, the local landowner is said to have held parties, political rallies and some religious gatherings (though others would have taken place outside). A proper banquet hall was not something most farms or small communities would have had; only wealthy, powerful landowners could have built one or would have had any reason to. The hall is said to have marked Gjellestad as an important meeting point for religious events and business, as well as a center of political power for the entire region.
Radar images show postholes that once contained wide, hefty girders arranged in two parallel rows in the center of a 38-meter-long building, with two large rooms in the center. That’s unusually large for a farm, but just right for a banquet hall. And just over a gate from the hall, to the east, were four large burial mounds, including the ship’s grave of Gjellestad.
Ties to the country were very important in Scandinavian culture. People thought it was very important to stay connected with, for example, the land where their ancestors were buried. All the construction in Gjellestad would have been a powerful statement about the ruling family’s hold on their land and their power in the tumultuous centuries leading up to the Viking Age.
Local farm makes it big
The banquet hall’s layout—particularly the way the walls curve outwards slightly—suggest that it may date to somewhere between about 500 and 1100 CE. It’s impossible to be more accurate without actually excavating artifacts to radiocarbon date, but based on comparisons to other sites, the largest burial mounds at the site, including the ship’s grave, likely date from the same broad time frame.
By this time the community in Gjellestad was probably centuries old, starting out as a more ordinary farming community with a fairly typical burial mound nearby. The 2018 radar survey revealed the ring moat footprints of nine small mounds (about 7 to 11 meters wide) in Gjellestad, and archaeologists already knew of dozens of other mounds about a kilometer from the site.
These mounds would likely contain the dead ancestors of those who lived and farmed nearby. A hill near Gjellestad, called M8, may actually belong to a woman; its long oval shape resembles women’s graves from other Iron Age mound cemeteries in Norway. Radar images show features that may be the actual graves buried in the center of the former mounds.
And the images are detailed enough to reveal literal layers of history beneath the fields of Eastern Norway. Gustavsen and his colleagues were able to see that people in Gjellestad had built their large burial mounds overlapping the sides of smaller mounds. That suggests the smaller hills came first.
“This could be a result of chance or practical circumstances,” Gustavsen told Ars. “Another interpretation is that it is a way of associating with an existing cemetery, or perhaps as a more powerful statement where an incoming elite wants to settle in the landscape and do this by placing their burial mounds on existing ones.”
Again, it’s impossible to say for sure how old the mounds are without excavating them, but the larger ones probably date from the centuries just before and during the Viking Age, 500 to 1100 CE, based on comparisons to other sites. The smaller mounds may be centuries older. At least two of the farms may be the same age as the smaller mounds based on their layout.
Work in progress
Excavating the Gjellestad ship will likely take about another month, Gustavsen said. The Gjellestad ship offers archaeologists their first chance to excavate and study a Scandinavian ship in more than a century. It is one of only four ship graves in Scandinavia, including the one spotted by a GPR aerial survey in western Norway last year. Only about 19 meters remain of the ship’s hull, but in ‘life’ it was probably 22 meters from stern to stern – a real seagoing vessel of the kind that would eventually take the Vikings to the coasts of Greenland to Constantinople .
Meanwhile, Gustavsen hopes to do more ground-penetrating radar surveys of the landscape around Gjellestad to try and understand more about how the burial mounds, farms and banquet hall fit into the larger world of Iron Age Norway.
“What will happen to the site and this particular field in the future is not clear,” Gustavsen told Ars. These discoveries happened because in 2017 a local farmer applied for a permit to dig a drainage ditch in one of their fields. “The landowner was positive about the process and has been informed and involved from the start,” says Gustavsen. “Currently, the landowner is compensated for lost income, but of course that cannot go on forever.”
The people who work the Vikiletta plain today know that they walk on top of the houses, halls, ritual places and tombs of centuries past. Most of the burial mounds and standing stones that once dotted the gently rolling landscape disappeared under 19th-century plows, but modern farmers occasionally display artifacts in their fields, and crops usually grow taller and greener over buried ditches.
Archaeologists excavating the Gjellestad ship work practically in the shadow of one of the largest burial mounds in Scandinavia, known as the Jell Mound, likely the resting place of an Iron Age ruler. Like much of the region’s ancient landscape, it had faded into the background of modern life. “It might have been a bit forgotten – it was something you passed on the highway on your way to Sweden,” Gustavsen told Ars. “Hopefully people will eventually see these sites as valuable assets that can enrich a place.”
Antiquity, 2020 DOI: 10.1584/aqy.2020.39 (About DOIs).