Anglo Saxon and Viking Ship Burial – The British Museum
Gareth Williams (The British Museum)
Sue Brunning (The British Museum)
Jan Bill (Viking Ship Musuem, Oslo)
I was fortunate (yet again!) to snag a spot at another one of Dr. Sue Brunning’s talks, this time, at the British Museum. The topic: Anglo-Saxon and Viking ship burial. This came straight on the heels of her recent presentation about the renovations and refurbishment of Room 41 at the British Museum which houses the majestic Sutton Hoo collection. At this session, the British Museum invited renown Norwegian archaeologist, Jan Bill from the Kulturhistorisk Museum in Oslo. He spoke at length about various Viking burials and attempted to compare and contrast English and Norwegian funerary methods.
Ship Burial in Anglo Saxon England
Ship burials occurred between the 5th – 11th centuries in several competing kingdoms. Until the end of the seventh century, Anglo-Saxons cremated their dead, and used burial rites in different types of watercraft.
- Parts of timbers from boats
- Entire riverine or marine vessels
- Small craft (dugout longboats)
There are three confirmed ship burials in England: East Anglia, Snape in Aldeburgh, and two at Sutton Hoo.
Snape is the site of an Anglo Saxon burial ground found by Septimus Davidson in 1862. Davidson found a seventeen metre long ship in Snape, Suffolk. It was the first Anglo Saxon burial recognised in England but the records of this find are sketchy and incomplete. Davidson’s accounts indicate the boat was pointed at both ends, and a clinker built construction (overlapping). Unfortunately, the burial was robbed and very little was left behind. Archaeologists managed to find ship rivets, a shaggy cloak that they believe was hair, pieces of Jasper, two fragmentary spear heads, and claw beaker fragments.
Sutton Hoo is a World famous Anglo Saxon ship burial. In the late 1930s, Edith Pretty invited archaeologists to investigate her land which contained several large burial mounds. The excavation was better documented than Snape. It had also been robbed in mound two, but they did manage to find: a shield, knives, silver buckle, five hundred rivets from the ship, copper alloy basin, and gilded mounts.
The ship was placed on top of the burial chamber. (Sutton Hoo mound 2). The largest mound is mound 1, and incredibly, it wasn’t raided. There was an imprint of a twenty seven metre long ship, that’s roughly three double decker buses. The burial chamber in mound 1 was contained inside the ship. It contained drinking horns, a heavy gold buckle, helmet, coins, and a cauldron. The treasures were donated to the British Musuem in 1939. This grave was for someone of very high standing. The labour involved in dragging the ship to the burial ground, and filling and burying it meant his was a person that was meant to be remembered. It is believd that this was a king of East Anglia.
Oseberg and Gokstad situated at the Oslo Fjord. These ship burials were monumental in size, 40-50m in diameter.
Oseberg is the oldest burial; it was excavated in 1904. Documentation was not up to modern standards but was a good excavation for its time and there is an abundance of information on this burial. It is the best preserved Viking ship that we know of at 21.5m long and built in Western Norway, in 820 AD.
Contents of Oseberg Ship Burial
The Aft – objects that relate to food, farming production, cooking and eating.
Central area – where the dead bodies were placed; in Oseberg’s case it was two women. This centre portion contained personal belongings, textiles, weaving equipment, treasures, and some food and drink as well.
Fore – ship equipment, wagon, three sledges, things related to travel activities, fifteen horses, beds, an ox head, dogs.
One of the four sledges found in the Oseberg ship. Three of the four sledges were highly decorated, with one used as a working sledge. The Oseberg wagon: the only preserved Viking age wagon in the world. It is decorated with wood carvings, it has a turning radius of 12m. The wood carvings are of cats, snakes, human figures and rope carvings.
It also contains five animal head sculptures, they were found with a rope from a rattle in their mouths, witha 2.7m handle and could have symbolised a need to keep away evil in travels. The ship was placed in a trench and was moored to a huge stone so that it wouldn’t move.
Situated twenty km away from Oseberg. Gokstad mound was constructed around 900 AD. It is much better developed than the Oseberg ship. It was excavated in 1880 by Nicolay Nicolaysen. It contained one man who had been killed in battle. It was robbed but still had many objects.
Contents of Gokstad Ship Burial
The Gokstad Ship was filled with equipment, a tent, 3 boats, a copper alloy cauldron, 2 peacocks, 6 dogs, horse gear, a gaming board and pieces, 12 horses, hunting equipment, beds, and textiles including silk. It is assumed the man placed in the ship was a king due to the exotic and expensive items buried with the body. It contains the largest collection or Arabic coins in Norway. It also contains beads, crystals from Central Asia, pearls, and weights all which indicate a high level of trade.
The oldest ship burials were in East Anglia, then, in the eighth century in Western Norway, and in Eastern Norway in the ninth century. Bill explained that these ships were monuments built to promote a certain ideology. Burial mounds had to have an audience, the landscape around the burial has to be viewed as part of the explanation for the burials themselves. Gokstad is situated at an important trading place, another Norse Viking ship is situated at a burial place for kings. These are arguments in soil meant to convey political significance. Sutton Hoo was also situated on an older burial site and was also trying to transmit the importance of the person buried with it. The amount of labour and investment involved in Sutton Hoo indicates it would have been at the very least, a semi-public event. The poem Beowulfgives us some insight into the burial practices of the day. It was most likely a substantial funerary ritual.
According to burials can be read as reenactments of a mythological past and link the deceased individual to the Gods, like Odin. Germanic kingdoms used foundation myths to cement royal power; these burials were part of this proof that this person was connected to the Gods. Boat burials were common in Norway but massive ship burials were not so common.
Ship and boat burials are used in different contexts and were usually linked to high status individuals. In Uppland Sweden, there are dynastic ship burials. When you look at Norway, the pattern differs. Boat burials were common in the western part but virtually non existent in the east until the massive ship burials.
Brunning pointed out that we have very few examples of ship burial in England. It’s difficult to extrapolate with so few examples but for the ones we do have, they seem to be associated with high status individuals. Sadly, most sites have been robbed.
Also, there are no records of these burials being tied to the religious belief of ferrying the dead to the afterlife. This idea is unlikely in the case of Anglo Saxon England because the individual was buried outside the ship in one of the mounds. For the Vikings, the idea of ship transporting the dead to the afterlife, was also questionable. There are no records of this being the case. However, there were wagons, horses and sledges placed in the ship so the notion of travelling someplace was definitely there.
Were there any major differences between the two burials? There appear to have been more animals in Norway’s burials. Animals were uncommon in Sutton Hoo and there were not generally as many animal sacrifices in England. The layout of the burials in Anglo Saxon England were also not as distinctive as in the Viking ship burials where there were definitive sections for specific items. There is a difference of at least 150 years between Sutton Hoo and the earliest burial in Norway. That gap makes a difference.
Was the burial cosmological at all? The tendency in Norway was to bury their dead pointing south with little deviation and often pointing towards water. This may have some kind of meaning but we can’t make sweeping generalisations about it.
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