Category Archives: NORSE/VIKINGS

Ancient Viking ship buried an Iron Age cemetery uncovered by scientists

Ancient Viking ship buried an Iron Age cemetery uncovered by scientists

A Viking ship that was laid to rest centuries ago wasn’t alone underground. A feast hall and a cult temple were also buried at the cemetery site, hinting at the elite standing of the community that conducted the burials. 

Archaeologists discovered the ship in 2018, after conducting surveys with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at Gjellestad in southeastern Norway. Since then, further scans and excavations uncovered more clues about the site and the people who created it centuries ago. 

GPR scans revealed a total of 13 burial mounds including the ship grave; some of these circular mounds were 98 feet (30 meters) wide. Other burials included buildings that may have been used in rituals, scientists reported in a new study.

The researchers found the mound cluster to the north of a large, previously excavated Iron Age mound — Jell Mound — which dates to about 1,500 year ago (radiocarbon dating revealed that the ship was buried hundreds of years later, likely around the ninth century). Linking Jell Mound to a larger network of burials suggests that Gjellestad was an important cemetery that stood for centuries, according to the study.

In 2017, a gold ornament found near Jell Mound hinted that Gjellestad was a site of some significance. Pendants such as these were often included in burials of high-status women during the Iron Age, around A.D. 1 to A.D. 400, according to the study.

Numerous funerary mounds once studded the landscape around Gjellestad, but many of these were plowed up by farmers during the 19th century, the scientists wrote. However, even after a mound has been destroyed, GPR can still reveal its former location — and what was buried there.

The discovery was made by experts from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) at Gjellestad in southeastern Norway
Gold pendant found near the Jell Mound. This type or ornament was common in high-status female burials from A.D. 1 to A.D. 400.

Near the ship grave, GPR located two large circular mounds, with seven smaller mounds clustered to the north. Four rectangular “settlement structures” lay to the west; the longest was 125 feet (38 m) in length. One of the smaller buildings may have been a farmhouse; another may represent a temple; and the largest building was similar in structure and size to feasting halls found in other Viking settlements, the scientists reported.

“The only structure that can be securely dated to the Viking Age at Gjellestad is the ship burial but, taking the whole site into consideration, we can probably say that it was important for the elite to exhibit their status through lavish and carefully planned burial rituals,” said lead study author Lars Gustavsen, an archaeologist with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU).

“We believe that the inclusion of a ship burial in what was probably an already existing — and long-lived — mound cemetery was an effort to associate oneself with an already existing power structure,” Gustavsen told Live Science in an email.

A grave situation

The ship burial itself was highly unusual. Viking burials of boats measuring under 39 feet (12 m) are common, but finding a ship this large — 66 feet (20 m) in length — is exceptionally rare. In fact, only a handful of such burials are known across Norway, Gustavsen said.

The last excavations of large Viking ships took place more than a century ago, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the first such ship to be found through GPR-scanning technology, which bodes well for discovering more ship burials that are still hidden, according to the study.

But why did Vikings bury their ships? “We do not really know for certain,” Gustavsen said. “Since these were societies whose identity was closely tied to the sea and seafaring, the ship could, in this specific context, be seen as a vessel transporting the dead from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead,” he said. 

“Or it could simply be a display of wealth, or to demonstrate that one belonged to a certain social and political class.”

Archaeologists mapped the Gjellestad site using data collected by GPR scans.

After the ship’s discovery in 2018, the team partially excavated the ship and quickly realized that damp conditions combined with periods of drought had left the ship badly decomposed and riddled with fungus, Live Science previously reported. 

Over the summer of 2020, archaeologists mounted a full excavation to recover and preserve what they could of the decaying ship. In October, the team found something unexpected: animal bones, according to a statement published by the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History.

“The animal bones are relatively large in size, so we think that they are the remains of an ox or a horse that has been sacrificed to be part of the burial,” museum representatives said in the statement. “Although the topmost layers of the bones are heavily decomposed, they seem to be better preserved further down. This indicates that it is quite likely that things are better preserved deeper into the ship burial.”

Work on the site is still underway, and is expected to be completed in December, according to Gustavsen.

Oldest Viking Crucifix Uncovered In Denmark

Oldest Viking Crucifix Uncovered In Denmark

The tiny gold items, created in the picture of Christ on the cross, are thought to make up Denmark’s oldest crucifix.

This newly Found crucifix will show that Danes adopted the Christian faith earlier than previously thought.

An uncommon Viking crucifix pendant was Found in a Danish field by an amateur metal detectorist two weeks before Easter.

The small gold item, created in the shape of a man with outstretched arms, resembles the Picture of Christ on the cross.

It’s approximated to be Denmark’s oldest crucifix.

Dating back to the first half of the Tenth century, the pendant is evidence of early Christianity in Denmark, according to experts at the Viking Museum situated at Ladby, where the crucifix is currently kept.

It is said by the museum to be older than Harald Bluetooth’s runic stone in Jelling.

The stones in the town of Jelling have a figure on the cross to demonstrate respect to Harald Bluetooth’s conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Up until now, the large rune stones were calculated to date back to 965 AD.

They were thought to be the earliest Images of Jesus on the cross in Denmark.

The precious item was Found by Dennis Fabricius Holm in the fields near a church village of Aunslev, on the Danish island Funen.

It is very lucky that a piece of jewelry this small persevered for the last 1,100 years in the earth.

The figure measures only 1.6 inches in height and weighs about 0.45 ounces.

While the back surface is even, the front is made of finely jointed gold threads and small filigree pellets. Located at the top is a small eye for a chain to be attached.

It is stated by the museum that it looks similar to the gilded silver cross that was Found in 1879 in Birka, close to Stockholm in Sweden. It was in a female’s grave from the Viking Age.

This silver cross dated back to the first half of the Tenth century. Yet the Aunslev cross is the first Danish specimen that is in full figure.

It was most likely worn by a Viking woman. It has not yet been decided if the cross was to display that she was a Christian or if it was just a part of the pagan Vikings’ style.

As indicated by the Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist, who first announced the discovery on his blog, the crucifixes are too much alike for more than 1 or 2 people to have created them.

The first crucifix was Found at Birka close to Stockholm. Yet the second, third, and the fourth one were discovered close to Hedeby, Denmark. This is probably where all of them were produced.

The Aunlev cross will be placed on exhibit at the Viking Museum in Ladby, until the Easter holiday. Then it will be conveyed to a lab for further preservation.

In the summer it will become part of an exhibit in the exhibition that will display several recent Viking Age discoveries that were made using metal detectors.

Jelling stones
A stunning, solid gold crucifix unearthed by a hobbyist with a metal detector may be the oldest Jesus on a cross in Denmark.

Viking sword found in a grave in central Norway

Viking sword found in a grave in central Norway

A 9th century Viking sword has been unearthed by archaeologists in central Norway.

Viking sword found in a grave in central Norway
It’s been more than 1000 years since someone held this sword. It belonged to a warrior who lived in Trøndelag in Viking times. But why was the sword placed on the opposite side of what was common practice?

During the Viking Age, a man was buried with a full set of weaponry at Vinjeøra in the south of what is now Trøndelag county in central Norway. An axe, spear, shield and sword were placed alongside his body in the grave.

Archaeologist Astrid Kviseth recently became the first person to hold the rusty sword in their hands for approximately 1,100 years:

Astrid Kviseth carefully carries the sword away from the site. Now it will be investigated further.

“I’m a little surprised at how heavy it was. I don’t exactly know ​​how heavy a sword is, but it had some heft to it. You would have had to be pretty strong to be able to swing this sword!” she said.

An area rich in Viking history

The grave was the latest in a series of archaeological finds in connection with the improvements to Norway’s E39 highway.

By law in Norway, archaeological surveys must be conducted in connection with all new construction projects, including roads. This is so that important cultural heritage can be preserved. The rule has led to many fascinating finds including the remains of a historically important church in downtown Trondheim.

A team is now excavating what appears to be a burial ground on a former Viking farm. Last year, remains of a burial house and an unusual double grave was found in the area.

“The fact that he was buried with a full set of weapons tells us that this was a warrior. In Viking times and the early Middle Ages, most warriors were free men who owned their own farms,” said Raymond Sauvage, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and project manager for the excavation.

A left-handed owner?

An unusual aspect of the find was that the sword appears to have been placed on the left side of the deceased. Typically, swords are placed on the right-hand side of the body.

Swords are usually placed on the right side of the body in weapon graves like this. In this grave, it was laid on the warrior’s left side. One explanation may be that the warrior was left-handed.

The custom itself is a little odd. That’s because warriors would typically carry their sword on their left, in order to allow the right hand to access it easily.

“Why the swords are almost always placed on the right side is a bit mysterious. One theory is that the underworlds you go to after death are the mirror image of the upper world,” said Sauvage.

He suggested the sword in the Vinjeøra grave may have been placed on the left to signify the warrior was left-handed.

A ditch burial

The warrior’s grave partially overlapped three other graves. They were laid to rest in a ditch surrounding a large burial mound. Sauvage explained that using a grave more than once appears to have been common in the area:

“People were buried in the same grave or partly inside older graves. It was obviously important to lie next to or in the burial mounds and the ring ditches around them.”

“We can imagine that this burial practice is an expression of how important the family’s ancestors were on a farm in Viking times. In addition to being present on the farm as companion spirits – fylgjur – the ancestors could continue to live physically in the burial mounds.”

Another grave with burial gifts

Archaeologists found a fourth grave most likely to have been for a cremated Viking woman. One of the beads found in the grave. Photo: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU University Museum. Burial gifts included an oval brooch, a pair of scissors and beads. But there was a strange addition: a large number of bones.

In the same area, archaeologists discovered what they believe was a woman’s grave, based on the artefacts they found – like this bead.

“A study done several years ago showed that cremation graves from the Iron Age on average contain only about 250 grams of bone. A dead human body that is cremated, on the other hand, burns down to about 2 kilos of bones,” Sauvage said.

So while the cremated woman was buried in her entirety, archaeologists also found bird bones in the material. The team believes this could have been part of a burial ritual.

Lab work to follow

Sauvage said that the sword will now be examined in a Trondheim lab to see what remains under the rust:

“It will be exciting to get the sword into the conservation laboratory and have it x-rayed so we can see what’s hiding under the corrosion. Maybe it has ornamentation or pattern welding in the blade,” he says.

1,200-year-old pagan temple to Thor and Odin unearthed in Norway

1,200-year-old pagan temple to Thor and Odin unearthed in Norway

The remains of the 1,200-year-old pagan temple were dug up in Norway and provide a rare insight into the Viking religion. Archaeologists have dated the remains of the large wooden building to the end of the 8th century.

The Old Norse “god house” was built from wood about 1200 years ago to worship gods like Odin, Thor, and Freyr. Post-holes that show its distinctive shape, including its central tower, have been unearthed at the site.
1,200-year-old pagan temple to Thor and Odin unearthed in Norway
The god house (shown here in a digital reconstruction) was strongly built of beams and walls of wood; some lasted for hundreds of years. It included a central tower, patterned on Christian churches seen in lands further south.

They think it would have stood 40 feet high and was 45 feet long and 26 feet wide.

That’s just over half as tall as Buckingham Palace. It’s thought sacrifices and feasts would have occurred inside to honour the gods during the midsummer and midwinter solstices.

A large white penis shaped stone was previously found near the site and was linked to ancient fertility rituals. This is the first Old Norse temple to be found in Norway.

Old Norse is the ancient language associated with the Viking’s Archaeologist Søren Diinhoff of the University Museum of Bergen told Live Science: “This is the first time we’ve found one of these very special, very beautiful buildings.

“We know them from Sweden and we know them from Denmark. … This shows that they also existed in Norway.”

He added: “It is a stronger expression of belief than all the small cult places.

The temple was unearthed during a dig taking place before planned housing work

“This is probably something to do with a certain class of the society, who built these as a real ideological show.”

The foundations of the ancient building, or “god house” as they’re often called, were unearthed last month in a Norwegian riverside village called Ose.

Digging was happening there in preparation for new houses. Traces of early agricultural settlements were also found nearby. They dated to the earlier time of around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago.

The remains of the temple date to a later time when the area is thought to have been dominated by elite wealthy families. It is thought the families would have led the cult worship.

Experts think the elite likely wanted a “god house” built based on more Christian structures with a high tower on top. Before this time, Viking gods were more commonly worshipped in simplistic settings.

The wood of the temple no longer remains but you can see the postholes where the main beams would have stood and the area where the tall tower would have been.

Evidence of cooking pits and animal bones fit in with the theory that feasts and sacrifices occurred there. Food, drink, animal sacrifices, and precious metals were often offered to Old Norse gods.

The worshippers would then feast and enjoy the goods themselves because they knew the gods couldn’t come and join them. Instead, wooden figurines may have been used to represent the gods.

Popular Old Norse gods include storm god Thor and war god Odin. Norway’s kings enforced Christianity from around the 11th century so burned down a lot of Old Norse temples and religious sites. There’s no current evidence to suggest the Ose temple was burned down.

Scans of Viking pot reveal hidden brooches, gold ingots, and beads

Scans of Viking pot reveal hidden brooches, gold ingots, and beads

Since researchers conducted a CT scan of the old artefact, the mystery around the contents of a Viking pot has been resolved. Archaeologists had been unable to open the pot to see what was inside, but its weight suggested it was full of treasure. 

Experts were unable to open the 9th-century Carolingian pot (pictured), which was found on church land in Dumfries and Galloway in September

After undergoing a series of scans, the 1,200-year-old pot was found to contain up to at least five silver brooches and an ornate bead. It was among more than 100 objects discovered by metal detectorist Derek McLennan. 

Other items include solid gold jewellery, armbands, and silver ingots. The find was deemed one of the most significant Viking hoards ever discovered in the UK, but the pot’s contents were a mystery.

Experts were concerned about damaging the 9th-century Carolingian pot when attempting to see what was inside. But now, the CT scanner at Borders General Hospital, Scotland, has revealed the ornate box contains around 20 silver, gold, and ivory items.

Mr McLennan, a retired businessman, said the latest discovery was ‘beautiful and exciting’.

‘It brought it all back to me when I saw what was inside the pot,’ he continued. I was like a kid looking in the sweet shop window unable to touch anything being on the other side of the glass.

‘Nothing else had been on my mind for two-and-half-months than seeing what was inside the pot, and then seeing it, there was a rush of emotion and was incredibly exciting. I was absolutely amazed by what was inside the pot. There seem to be 20 plus artifacts in the pot, while most of them seem to be broaches of some sort.

‘It’s a real mishmash of artifacts. Not everything comes across clear as there are different types of metal in there. There is hopefully something beautiful and exciting to look at when it comes out because [the owner] took the time to wrap these items.

‘I’m now waiting on the pot to be emptied, but I understand these things take time and it’s in the hands of the experts.’ A scan of the Carolingian pot was conducted by Dr. John Reid, a consultant radiographer at the BGH, who is also a keen amateur archaeologist. 

Experts used a CT scanner to inspect what is inside the Viking pot. The circular shape in the upper right corner is said to be an ornate bead. The dome object to its left is a bone or ivory bead, and the coil curling from the bottom left to the center is five brooches. But the rectangular shape at the center remains a mystery
Derek McLennan, who found the trove, was approached by Richard Welander, head of collections with Historic Scotland, who was aware of the previous use of the hospital’s CT scanner for research. With the permission of the hospital chief, the pot was brought in for an evening scanning session (pictured)

He was approached by Richard Welander, head of collections with Historic Scotland, who was aware of the previous use of the hospital’s CT scanner for archaeological research. With the permission of hospital chief Calum Campbell, the pot was brought in for an evening scanning session.

‘This work takes place outwith normal hours and in no way impedes the important work we do for our human patients,’ said Dr. Reid. The scanner is both rapid and accurate, with the ability to produce 120 visual slices, and is accurate to within half a millimeter.’

The monitoring screen revealed the presence of five silver broaches, smaller gold ingots and ivory beads coated with gold – all wrapped in organic material, possibly leather.

Dr. Reid added: ‘The conservationists did not want to [grope] about and compromise this precious object. The discovery was made in early September by Mr. McLennan.  Fellow metal detectorists Reverend Dr. David Bartholomew, who is a Church of Scotland minister of a rural Galloway charge, and Mike Smith, the pastor of an Elim Pentecostal Church in Galloway were also in the vicinity at the time. 

The protected pot is shown being scanned in Borders General Hospital. The CT scanner consists of an X-ray tube that rotates around the object. These rays are received by a detector on the opposite side of the object, and an image of the scan is created. It produces 120 visual ‘slices’, and is accurate to within half a millimeter

Rev Dr. Bartholomew said: ‘We were searching elsewhere when Derek initially thought he’d discovered a Viking gaming piece. 

‘A short time later he ran over to us waving a silver arm-ring and shouting ‘Viking’! It was tremendously exciting, especially when we noticed the silver cross lying face-downwards.

‘It was poking out from under the pile of silver ingots and decorated arm-rings, with a finely wound silver chain still attached to it.

The discovery was made in early September by retiree Derek McLennan. I was made on the Church of Scotland land, but the exact location hasn’t been revealed. A gold ring found in the hoard is pictured
An early medieval cross was also found among the hoard of Viking treasure. The cross is engraved with decorations that experts claim are highly unusual, and which finder Mr. McLennan believes may represent the four Gospels

‘It was a heart-stopping moment when the local archaeologist turned it over to reveal rich decoration on the other side.’

The hoard falls under the Scots law of treasure trove and is currently in the care of the Treasure Trove Unit. The law states that a reward must be made to the finder, and the reward is judged equivalent to the market value of the items. The Church of Scotland General Trustees, as the landowners, have reached an agreement with Mr McLennan about an equitable sharing of any proceeds, which will eventually be awarded.

The location of the find is not being revealed.

The Scottish Government, Treasure Trove Unit, and Historic Scotland are all involved in ensuring the area is properly protected while the full historical significance of the site is established.

Vikings blacksmith tools and weapons found in the grave, ca.800 A.D Norway

Vikings blacksmith tools and weapons found in the grave, ca.800 A.D Norway

Last autumn, farmers Leif Arne Nordheim borrowed a backhoe from his neighbor to remove some pesky flagstones from his garden in Sogndalsdalen on the southwestern coast of Norway.

Lifting the last flagstone revealed tools — a hammer and tongs — which Nordheim first assumed were of relatively recent manufacture.

When he found a bent blade, he realized it was likely archaeological and called in the county Cultural Department.

Archaeologists from the University Museum of Bergen soon followed and an excavation of the find site ensued.

The find turned out to be far greater than originally realized, and the ancient blacksmith tools were impressive enough already.

Archaeologists unearthed a large collection of forging tools and weapons, including three hammers of different sizes, two anvils, blacksmith tongs, coal tongs, a rake to remove coals, a tray used to add coals, a chisel, a scythe, a sickle, a drill, pieces of a grindstone, nails, a single-edged sword, an axe, two arrows, and a knife.

Underneath the tools and products of the blacksmith trade archaeologists found more personal items: a razor, beard trimming scissors, tweezers, a frying pan, and a poker.

The deepest layer of excavation contained ashes, charcoal, and small bone fragments. The pieces of bone haven’t been identified yet, but archaeologists believe they are human remains, likely the blacksmith owner of the marvelous tools above.

Between the ashes and bones fragments, researchers found the objects that the deceased was probably wearing when his body was cremated: beads and a bone comb.

In total, the excavation yielded about 60 artifacts and 150 assorted fragments. Forging tools have been found in graves before, but this is an exceptionally rich collection for a blacksmith burial. Indeed, it’s the richest burial, blacksmith or not, found in the area in years.

“We think that the blacksmiths’ contemporaries wished to show how skillful he was in his work by including such an extensive amount of objects. He might have forged many of these tools himself.”

“The grave gives the impression that this was a local blacksmith and he enjoyed a high status in his society beyond being his trade,” says [co-leader the excavation Asle Bruen] Olsen.

The design of the axe and some of the other metal objects dated them to the 8th or 9th century A.D. Subsequent radiocarbon dating confirmed the date of the burial to be around 800 A.D.

The artifacts are currently being conserved by experts at the University Museum of Bergen. Once they’re stabilized they will go on display, possibly in a dedicated exhibition.

Extinction of Icelandic walrus coincides with Norse settlement

The Vikings may have caused one of the earliest animal extinctions associated with humans

In Iceland, there are no walruses, but there were hundreds at one time . The time of the disappearance of the walruses indicates the loss of population may be one of the earliest known examples of people leading a sea species to local extinction.

The ghost of walruses past

Walruses used to be a major feature of life in Iceland. Several settlements and landmarks along Iceland’s coast still bear names that refer to walruses, and a few of the medieval Sagas (the stories of the island’s early settler families) even mention them.

The Saga of Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson, written down sometime in the late 1100s, tells the story of a chieftain who killed a walrus and brought its tusks and skull to Canterbury Cathedral in England. But the walruses themselves have been reduced to only a few ancient bones and tusks.

A crosier carved from walrus ivory found in Scandinavia dating to around 1100 AD.

Did the walruses disappear before or after the Norse arrived? In other words, did the Norse kill off Iceland’s walruses, or did the population die of natural causes? Because Iceland has no living walruses today, historians have debated whether the place names referred to places where walruses were living when people arrived or just places where settlers found the skulls and tusks of long-dead animals.

The walrus tusks that Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson delivered to England could have been part of a thriving Icelandic walrus population, but it could also have been only a lost wanderer from more distant shores.

To learn more about Iceland’s pinniped past, evolutionary genomicist Xenia Keighley of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues’ radiocarbon dated and sequenced DNA from 34 samples of bones and tusks from walruses in the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.

The DNA studies also showed that Iceland’s long-lost walruses were a distinct branch of the walrus family. The oldest walrus remains in the museum, dating to 5502-5332 BCE, were related to the ancestors of today’s Atlantic walrus population.

More recent samples, though, belonged to a separate mitochondrial branch of the walrus family tree, genetically distinct from every group that’s known in the North Atlantic—including the older Icelandic walruses.

“I would suspect that the most recent clade represent a colonization event that replaced the lineage represented by the old sample, rather than the old sample being a direct ancestor to the more recent clade,” co-author Morten Olsen, also an evolutionary genomicist at the University of Copenhagen, told Ars.

Radiocarbon dates of the bones, combined with the walruses’ genomes, provided an estimate of the size of their breeding population, which suggested that walruses had lived on Iceland’s coasts for around 7,500 years.

Although their numbers had been small—perhaps around 1,000 walruses at any one time—their foothold on the island had been pretty stable until around 1213-1330 CE, well after Norse settlement began in 870 CE.

Blame the Vikings

So what happened to Iceland’s walruses? As always, the answer is complex, but much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Norse.

Settlers arrived in Iceland and began hunting walrus for the European ivory trade at a time when Iceland’s walrus population was already struggling with a shifting environment and a series of volcanic eruptions.

Painting depicting the Vikings landing in Iceland.

Walrus ivory was a major trade commodity in markets across Europe for much of the early Middle Ages, and the Norse hunted walrus around most of their territory in the North Atlantic. 

According to a 2020 study of DNA from walrus skulls and tusks found in Western European archaeological sites, most of Europe’s supply of walrus ivory came from a walrus clade (a group of related animals with a common ancestor) living in Greenland, which was home to tens of thousands of walruses.

Iceland’s much smaller walrus population would have been a drop in the bucket by comparison, but the ivory trade would still have put pressure on Iceland’s small population.

When the first Norse hunters reached them, Icelandic walruses were already facing challenges from the Medieval Warm Period (700 to 1100 CE).

A few centuries of relatively warm climate in the North Atlantic were helpful to human explorers, but not so great for walruses, which rely on sea ice as a place to haul themselves out of the water. And at the same time, volcanoes erupted several times near some of the walruses’ key haul-out sites on land. It’s no wonder the walruses couldn’t survive all of that and Vikings.

Some evidence suggests that a Roman fishing industry may have wiped out grey whales in the North Atlantic a few hundred years before the Viking Age, but otherwise, the Norse may have been the first to wipe out a whole population of animals for profit.

Ancient ships of death: Were they on a mission of politics or plunder?

Ancient ships of death: Were they on a mission of politics or plunder?

For more than a thousand years the ships of death moldered unseen on the shore of the Baltic Sea, sheltering the bones of dozens of Viking-era young men and a trove of rich possessions.

Now, after analyzing the ships and skeletons, researchers have a chilling new idea to explain how so many men died at the peak of their strength: they were diplomats from central Sweden, killed while on a mission to talk rather than fight.

The proposal, outlined in a study in the current issue of Antiquity, runs counter to previous interpretations that the men were raiders or warriors. Whoever they were, their bones give researchers a priceless window into life at the dawn of the Viking era.

Skeletons found on ancient ships on the edge of the Baltic Sea

The “graves give us a rare – if not unique – glimpse of a Viking Age drama,” Ole Thirup Kastholm, a curator at Denmark’s Roskilde Museum who was not involved in the new study, says via email. “It (poses) the most intriguing mystery with plenty of questions to investigate: Who are the dead men? What was the purpose of their journey? … And perhaps the most interesting question: Who did it?”

Whoever interred the dead aboard two ships in what is now Salme, Estonia, in about 750 AD went about their work with great care and respect.

Many of the 41 bodies were carefully positioned, and valuables were scattered among the remains.

Researchers found swords bedecked with gold and jewels and hundreds of elaborate pieces from a chess-like strategy game called Hnefatafl, or The King’s Table. They also found two decapitated hawks and the skeleton of a large dog, which had been cut in half.

In life, men must have been fearsome figures. They were young and tall, at least one nearly six feet.

Analysis of their teeth, combined with the design of the buried artifacts, suggests that they came from central Sweden, not Estonia, says study co-author T. Douglas Price, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The skeletons on the larger of the two ships showed signs of violent death: stab wounds, decapitation marks, and an arm bone cleaved by a blade.

A selection of different sword handles parts and scabbard plates of gilded bronze.

Following the discovery of the smaller ship in 2019 and the larger in 2020, researchers thought the men died on a mission of conquest or plunder. But the evidence didn’t quite fit.

The blinged-out swords seemed more suitable for projecting power than for fighting, and Viking-era warriors generally relied on spears and battle-axes rather than swords, study co-author Jüri Peets of Estonia’s Tallinn University says via email.

Game pieces and animals seem impractical for a military expedition but would’ve provided welcome amusement on a diplomatic trip. The men may have been on a voyage to forge an alliance or establish kinship ties, Peets says, when unknown parties set upon them.

Gaming pieces.

Outside opinion on this explanation is mixed. The theory is “a far better solution than … (a) the military expedition has gone bad,” Kastholm says via email.

But Jan Bill of Norway’s Museum of Cultural History argues that the gaming pieces don’t rule out a voyage devoted to battle. “Soldiers have always had lots of waiting time, and games with them to shorten (this) time,” he says via email.

“Whether this group was on a diplomatic mission, or raiding, or both, I don’t think we can decide from the evidence of what was used as grave goods.” Study co-author Peets says the idea of a diplomatic mission is a “working hypothesis,” and research continues.

Sword or axe marks on a victim’s skull

Young aristocratic men of the day routinely took part in warbands, says James Barrett of Britain’s University of Cambridge via email. Whether the men were intent on diplomacy or bloodshed, he says, the burial site “shows the cosmopolitan, albeit very dangerous, the character of the Baltic Sea area even before (or at the very start of) the Viking Age.”