Southeast of Oslo, Norway, the 30-foot tall Viking-era Jelle mound found along the Rv41 118 freeway has served as local landmark for centuries. But archaeologists never took the time to examine the area, assuming that a century of plowing and farming had obliterated any traces of history. In the spring, however, county officials asked the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research to take a look, just in case, and archaeologists struck gold. (Maybe, also, tangible gold?) As Andrew Curry at National Geographic reports, the ground-penetrating radar shows the remains of a rare Viking ship grave, burial mounds and longhouses near the hill.
The almost 66-foot boat burial offers a glimpse into a funeral tradition reserved for kings, queens and other high-status Vikings. “I think we could talk about a hundred-year find,” Jan Bill, curator of Viking ships at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, tells Curry to put the discovery into perspective. “It’s quite spectacular from an archaeology point of view.”
According to a press release, the ship is just 20 inches below the surface of the farm field, and radar images show its bottom half, including the keel and floor timbers, seems to be intact. The radar, however, cannot reveal if any bones or grave goods remain in the burial mound.
“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, says in the release.
Only three well-preserved Viking ships have been found in Norway, all of them dug up long ago. If this ship turns out to be in good shape, it will give archaeologists their first chance to investigate a boat burial using contemporary techniques. While the site has not yet been dated, the ship was likely buried around 800 A.D., similar to other Norwegian boat burial mounds. It’s believed the ship was likely dragged to the site from nearby Oslo fjord.
The researchers say the ship burial is not an isolated find; rather it exists as part of a larger Viking-age cemetery, which was created “to display power and influence.” The remains of at least eight other monumental burial mounds, some 90 feet across, have already been identified at the site, as well as the outlines of five longhouses, though it’s difficult to say if the houses were related to the cemetery or come from another period of occupation.
A research proposal is in the works to use non-invasive techniques to continue studying the site, and maybe eventually even dig up the ship. Curry at National Geographic cautions that while the ship may be an archaeological goldmine, it probably is not a real goldmine. It’s likely the once-prominent burial mound was looted centuries before farmers finally toppled the hills in the 19th century.
While ship burials are rare, they occur across Europe and have been found in present-day Sweden, Denmark, England, Russia, Estonia and Ukraine. Just last year, for instance, researchers in Iceland discovered two ship burials, one of which contains the interment of a chieftain along with his sword and his dog.