For the First Time in a Century, Norway Will Excavate Viking Ship Burial

Archaeologists racing to save the rare vessel from fungal attacks hope to begin work in June

Norwegian officials plan to excavate this rare Viking ship burial site
Norwegian officials plan to excavate this rare Viking ship burial site. (Photograph by Erich Nau / NIKU)

Norwegian archaeologists are set to carry out a full excavation of a buried Viking ship for the first time in more than 100 years, the country’s government announced Monday. Per a statement, Norway has designated 15.6 million Norwegian krone (roughly $1.5 million USD) toward the dig. Pending approval of the budget by Parliament, the researchers hope to begin the project in June, reports David Nikel for Forbes.

Digital archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) discovered the rare, 65-foot-long Gjellestad Viking ship in fall 2018. Found using ground-penetrating radar, the vessel was buried just 20 inches below the surface of a farming field, reported Jason Daley for Smithsonian magazine at the time.

According to Forbes, the Gjellestad ship spent more than 1,000 years hidden underground near the Jell Mound in Østfold County. Three well-preserved Viking ships previously discovered in the Scandinavian country were excavated in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, reports the Local Norway. This time around, archaeologists will have the opportunity to carry out a full excavation that adheres to modern standards.

Researchers used georadar technology to locate the remains of the Viking ship
Researchers used georadar technology to locate the remains of the Viking ship (NIKU / LBI ArchPro)

“[This project is] important because it’s more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this,” Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, tells the Local. “With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place.”

Researchers are under pressure to act quickly: In January, Bill raised the alarm that the ship’s wooden structure was suffering from “severe” fungal attacks, according to state broadcaster NRK. The burial site is located near a drainage ditch that produces wet earth; these conditions, combined with the ship’s exposure to air during a trial excavation, will likely speed up the rate of its decomposition, reports the Maritime Executive.

“It is urgent that we get this ship out of the ground,” Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister for Climate and Environment tells the NRK, per a translation by the Local.

The Gjellestad ship likely served as a grand resting place for a powerful Viking king or queen, reported Andrew Curry for National Geographicin 2018. Researchers discovered the remains of several longhouses and burial mounds nearby, leading them to theorize that the burial site was part of a Viking-era cemetery.

“The ship burial does not exist in isolation, but forms part of a cemetery which is clearly designed to display power and influence,” says NIKU archaeologist Lars Gustavsen in a statement.

Led by Dr. Knut Paasche, digital archaeologists at NIKU discovered the Gjellestad burial using georadar technology. By sending electromagnetic waves into the ground and recording where the waves act differently, researchers are able to construct images of items buried underground without disturbing them.

That same technology has revealed other surprising archaeological treasures in Norway: Just last year, NIKU archaeologists came across the remains of another Viking ship in a field next to Edøy Church, located on the island of Edoeya, reported Theresa Machemer for Smithsonian magazine at the time.

 

This article was originally published in Smithsonian Magazine on May 12, 2020.