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Two Viking Age ship burials discovered in Sweden

A unique find of two boat burials from the Viking Age have been discovered in Sweden. One of the two graves was intact with remains of a man, a horse and a dog.

The two boat burials were found during an excavation at the vicarage in Gamla Uppsala last autumn. A medieval cellar and a well were excavated and then one of the boats was observed beneath the more modern structures. The two boat burials have been excavated during the last month and the results are sensational.  “This is a unique excavation, the last burial ship here was excavated 50 years ago,” says archaeologist Anton Seiler.

A ship burial was a specific funeral practice in which the dead person was placed in a ship or boat often along with rich gifts like jewellery or sets of weapons and other objects. This kind of grave typically dates back to the Vendel Period (around 550–800 AD) or the Viking Age (800–1050 AD), when it otherwise was common to cremate the dead. The graves can therefore be very well preserved. This custom was probably reserved for people of a higher social standing in society.

Paleontologist Ola Magnell and archaeologist Anton Seiler at the site. Photo credit: The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums

In Sweden, only around ten boat burial sites of this kind have been discovered previously, mainly in the provinces of Uppland and Västmanland in central Sweden.

“It is a small group of people who were buried in this way. You can suspect that they were distinguished people in the society of the time since burial ships in general are very rare,” says Anton Seiler, who works at The Archaeologists, part of the National Historical Museums in Sweden.

One of the two newly discovered graves was intact while the other was damaged, probably when the much later cellar, dating from the16th century, was built. Remains of a man was found in the stern of the intact boat burial. A horse and dog, that probably belonged to the man were found in the bow, they might have been sacrificed to accompany him in death. Archeologists also found personal items including a sword, spear, shield, and an ornate comb. Wood and clinch-nails of iron that were used in the construction of the boats were also found.

The fact that it’s an intact grave undisturbed by plundering, makes this a particularly interesting opportunity to study these kind of rare burial traditions with modern scientific analysis methods and documentation techniques. This is the first time in Sweden these kind of methods are used in relation to this grave type.

The horse skeleton. Photo credit: The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums

”It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated. We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers. We will also put the boat burials in relation to the very special area that is Old Uppsala and the excavations done here before”, added Seiler.

Selected parts of the find will go on display at Gamla Uppsala Museum and Stockholm’s Swedish History Museum.



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