1,300-Year-Old Ship Burial Unearthed in Norway

The custom of burying people in their ships was believed to help provide safe passage to the afterlife

Grassy area with an oddly shaped mound in the middle
The burial mound is called Herlaugshaugen, and it's located in coastal Norway in a community called Leka. Hanne Bryn / NTNU University Museum

Archaeologists in Norway have discovered a 1,300-year-old ship burial that pre-dates the Viking Age. It’s now the oldest known ship burial in Scandinavia, according to a statement from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Researchers discovered the ship burial while investigating a large, grassy hill in the coastal community of Leka. Known as the Herlaugshagen burial mound, it measures 23 feet tall and 197 feet in diameter. Given its size, researchers have long suspected it contained a ship.

Ship burials were once a traditional custom that involved interring a deceased person inside their vessel and covering the ship with a dirt mound. The practice was “believed to make the person’s transition to the afterlife a safe one,” writes Artnet’s Verity Babbs.

After surveying the site this summer, archaeologists finally confirmed their suspicions. Working on behalf of the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage, the team excavated part of the mound and found large rivets and pieces of wood that were likely once part of a vessel.

Radiocarbon dating of the wood suggests the mound was built around 700 C.E. during the Merovingian Period (roughly 550 to 800 C.E.). This period immediately precedes the Viking Era (around 793 to 1066 C.E.).

“This dating is really exciting because it pushes the whole tradition of ship burials quite far back in time,” says Geir Grønnesby, an archaeologist at the university’s museum and the project manager for this summer’s excavation, in the statement.

Man's hand holding an oblong brown object
Archaeologists found rivets and pieces of wood that likely once belonged to a ship. Geir Grønnesby

The find suggests that people who lived in the region at that time were “skilled seafarers” who could build big ships “much earlier than we previously thought,” Grønnesby adds.

The mound also helps fill in the gaps between early Scandinavian ship burials, which date to the end of the eighth century, and the well-known Sutton Hoo ship burial in England, which dates to the early seventh century.

But is there a relationship between the ship burial traditions in Scandinavia and England? That remains an open question—one that researchers might be able to answer by studying other large unexplored burial mounds in Norway.

Researchers aren’t sure what the ship buried at Herlaugshagen was used for. However, they do know Leka is situated along a centuries-old shipping route, reports Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.

“We know that the exchange of goods must have been extensive at this time, and the most logical thing is that the goods were transported by ship along the coast,” Grønnesby tells Live Science.

Based on local historical records, the researchers also know the site was excavated several times in the 18th century, per Frid Kvalpskarmo Hansen of Norwegian SciTech News, an outlet the university uses to share its research.

At that time, workers removed a variety of objects from the mound, including a seated skeleton with a sword, animal bones, charcoal, iron nails and a bronze kettle. Those items, however, have been lost since the 1920s.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.