Ship burials in North Western Europe are few and far between. The question is: when and where did this burial practice originate?
It is often claimed that the ship burial at Sutton Hoo represents one of the earliest known examples of the practice of burying a dead person in a chamber on a ship inside a barrow.
However, the earliest example from Anglo-Saxon England is probably from Snape in Suffolk. This burial was discovered in 1862. This ship was at least 14 metres long and was clinker built. Based on the artefacts found in the grave and the surrounding burials in the ground, it has been dated to the period after AD 550. Other ship graves from the same period have been found in eastern Sweden as well as Norway. Slightly later is the Sutton Hoo burial, which has been dated to c. AD 625. From the same period must be mentioned the somewhat later boat-graves from Vendel and Välsgarde c. AD 600 – 700 in the region around Lake Mälaren near present-day Stockholm. It makes sense to stipulate that there existed a cultural affinity from East England to Eastern Sweden as witnessed by helmets, cruciform brooches, wrist clasps, ceramic vessels, tablet-woven braids and the widespread use of Germanic animal styles I and II.
At the beginning, many types of boat-burials could be found. Predominantly found in Southern Scandinavia, they typically involved small boats from three to five metres. Later, however, the practice came to dominate high-status – royal – Viking burial grounds in most of Scandinavia. Whether Vikings were buried in entombed ships or just in look-a-like stone ships or boats, the practice became widespread in the 9th and 10th centuries. The question remains, though, where this tradition originated? Was it an Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian, or Swedish tradition? In which direction did the practice spread?
Ship Burials in Western Scandinavia
Recently, dendrochronological evidence from Western Norway furnished archaeologists with new input, when they succeeded in dating two minor ship-burials found on the country’s west coast. Discovered more than a century ago in Rogaland, at Storhaug and Grønhaug on Karmøy near Bergen, these finds were soon eclipsed by Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune. The minor finds were relegated to the periphery and regarded as no more than less spectacular examples of the same tradition. In a splendid new article by Niels Bonde and Frans–Arne Stylegar, which reads like a detective story, this has now been remedied.
The excavation of Storhaug took place already in 1887. The keel of the ship was found to measure 22 m. No remains of a mast were found and the ship was characterised as a rowing vessel. The deceased had been placed inside a chamber together with two swords, two spears, a round quiver with 24 arrows, and entire set of blacksmith’s tools , a hand-quern of granite, a fire flint and steel, a large iron pot, a small box, containing a ring, and a bird’s feather. Other valuables were two splendid sets of gaming pieces made of glass and ember, a wax disk, a gold arm ring, and a number of beads. Grønhaug was found somewhat later and excavated in 1902. This ship was smaller, only 15 m. The man had been laid to rest in a burial chamber on a feather-bed, dressed in costly fabrics of which parts had been trimmed with silk. With him were parts of a glass beaker, pieces of wax, and other wooden vessels.
Originally, these graves were dated between AD 700 and 900, as early attempts at finding a dendrochronological match had failed in the 90s, a more precise date eluded the archaeologists. Recently, however, they compared the profiles of the two ships with that of the Oseberg ship, which was also complicated to date correctly. The results were overwhelmingly clear. It appeared, the three ships had been made of oak grown under the same circumstances and had the same dendroprovenance. The result was that the ship from Storhaug could be dated to the period between AD 758–87 (c. 770); probably placing the burial around AD 780. The ship from Grønhaug was probably built around the same time, AD 780, while a small boat found next to the ship from Storhaug was probably built around AD 733. It is estimated the ships were between ten or fifteen years old, when they were used for burial between AD 780 – 790. Thus, these ship burials were somewhat older than Oseberg, where the ship has been dated to c. AD 820, while the burial took place in the summer of AD 834. The question remains, though, where the building had taken place.
One of the interesting features of the Oseberg ship is that part of the gunwale had been built of beech. Now, beech is not a widespread and common tree in Norway, where it struggles to survive. Old beech woods are found exclusively at Skagerak coast in the Southern part of Vestfold and on Vollom at Lurefjord in Lindås in Hårdaland. The latter wood is probably an artificial plantation, established in the Viking Age at roughly the same time as that in Vestfold. As the oak of which the ship from Oseberg was made, did not derive from Vestfold, the archaeologists conclude that all the three ships were in all likelihood built near Bergen. Not far from there, at Mangersnes in Hordaland, archaeologists have located a shipyard, which was active from around the birth of Christ and up until the 8th century.
What we know now is thus that the earliest Norwegian ocean-going ship burials fitted with chambers were carried out on the west coast of Norway at the end of the 8th century; we also know that the most famous of them all, the Oseberg ship, was probably built in the same location.
What might this mean? The archaeologists involved in this study conclude that while the early boat-graves found in the northwest reaching from Southern East Anglia to Eastern Sweden characterised a widespread practice of high-status burials, the more recent large ship-graves, equipped with chambers, and fit for kings might have been inspired by the Anglo-Saxons ideas of how to take the tradition for boat-burials to the next level: the burial in an ocean-going ship signalling royal status; whether we should understand the buried individuals at Storhaug, Grønhaug and in later ship-burials as “petty” kings or “real” kings is of no consequence. The main conclusion is that the idea of how to bury a king was probably fostered in an Anglo-Saxon context and exported (back) to Scandinavia via “Western Norway in the eight century, culminating in the well-known Viking Age ship graves at Oseberg, Gokstad, Tune and Ladby”, writes the archaeologists.
One question, though, which is not debated in this context, is the parallel construction of magnificent stone ships – the largest of which may be found at Jelling (c. 900 – 950), measuring 354 meters – and how these interrelated with the burials, in which concrete ships were sacrificed as part of the internment. Such stone ships were more common in southern and eastern Scandinavia and along the Baltic and perhaps slightly younger. Of special importance here are the large stone ships at Lejre (c. 900), Bække (c. 900 – 950) and Glavendrup (c. 900), all dated to the first half of the 10th century. It appears, that while proper ocean-going ships were used to bury kings in Norway (with a few outliers in Denmark), the practice of erecting massive stone ships took off further south. How this hangs together with the erection of minor stone ships elsewhere, e. g. at Lindholm, is another question, waiting to be explored.
Between Sutton Hoo and Oseberg – dendrochronology and the origins of the ship burial tradition
By Niels Bonde and Frans-Arne Stylegar
In: Danish Journal of Archaeology. Published online: 07.11.2016
Stone ships: continuity and change in Scandinavian prehistory.
By Peter Skoglund
In: World Archaeology (2008) Vol 40., Issue 3. Pp. 390 – 406.