What Viking Ship Secrets Have We Recently Discovered?


A keen interest in Viking culture and Norse mythology remains firmly planted in today’s pop culture with blockbuster movies such as Thor and the hit TV show, Vikings. A ridiculously good-looking cast, lots of violence and sexual themes might also explain the rabid interest. However, several recent findings have yielded not only a treasure trove of artifacts but provided startling new insights about the people best known for pillage and plunder. 

Inhabitants in the Viking Age, roughly 800 AD to 1100, left behind only scant written records. Some stone and wood carved runes have managed to survive, but detailed stories called The Sagas are not considered reliable accounts, penned mostly by victims of brutal raids centuries after the fact. Fortunately, new scientific analysis, radar scans, and documentation techniques are shedding new light on old mysteries.

Grave Goods

The Vikings held a strong belief in the afterlife and conducted elaborate funerals, giving the dead a proper send-off for their journey to the other side. The sites included various materials known as “grave goods” and consisted of items ranging from mundane to exquisite. As for the people honored in these tombs, a re-examination of bone samples is helping to determine a person’s wealth, social standing, and even what they (probably) ate for breakfast.

While most Norse people were either buried or cremated in simple graves, large ships served as coffins for the remains of the highly privileged. The best-preserved excavations have produced an assortment of personal effects such as swords (both decorative and battle-worn), clothes, jewelry, tools, and art. 

The placement of the cargo also carried significant meaning and underscored the detailed planning and ceremonial customs. Contrary to the popular myth, the ritual didn’t always end with the vessel set on fire.

Old Uppsala

In the fall of 2018, archaeologists detected two Viking boat burials near the town of Uppsala, Sweden. The discovery occurred by accident during an inspection by Arkeologerna, an agency of Sweden’s National Historical Museums, during a planned renovation of a church about 50 miles north of Stockholm. The team expected only a routine dig but were stunned to unearth the ships, including one found entirely intact.

From an archeological standpoint, finding a site not previously looted or ravaged by time and the elements is like finding an Action Comics #1 hidden in your attic and winning the lottery on the same day. The team unearthed the remains of a man located in the stern of the boat along with bones of a horse and dog in the bow. They also stumbled upon a cache of weapons, including a sword, spear and shield, and an ornate comb in the well-preserved grave. Unfortunately, they found the second boat badly damaged, most likely resulting from construction on the site in the 16th century. 

To date, only around ten boat burial sites of this kind are known to exist in Sweden, mainly in the provinces of Uppland and Västmanland. “It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated,” said Anton Seiler of Arkeologerna. “We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers.”

Riding High

The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway is a popular tourist attraction, where crowds flock annually to see one of the most well persevered and spectacular artifacts: The Oseberg. Built around 820 AD in southwestern Norway, the 70-foot long boat featured exceptionally decorative features and the grave of two significant women of either royal or religious status between the ages of 50 and 80. They also received an impressive cache of burial booty, including a pouch of cannabis.

Dense clay and peat had helped to preserve the vessel when archeologists first stumbled upon the burial mound in 1903. The richly carved oak ship had 15 oars on each side and a pine mast over 30 feet high, allowing for the versatility of being rowed or sailed. But a voyage to a different world warrants all the attention of this craft. In addition to the stash of wacky tabacky, the party boat contained a feather mattress, an assortment of ornate beds, 15 horses, six dogs, and three sleighs. Clearly, these ladies knew how to travel in style. 

Interestingly, the boat had been looted by ancient grave robbers, who made away with most of the precious metals on board — but not the weed. That prize wouldn’t be found until 2007. Recent studies indicate that farmers in Norway cultivated hemp as early as 650 AD. None of the materials found on the Oseberg, however, were made from the plant, suggesting a recreation use of the cannabis and seeds. Additionally, the more elderly of the two women may have been a Völva (“priestess” or “seeress”), a high position in Viking society, and known to conduct ritualistic ceremonies using psychoactive substances. 

Extended Stay

Roughly 500 years before Christopher Columbus found himself hopelessly lost in the Caribbean, seafarers from Scandinavia became the first Europeans to set foot in North America. Archaeologists initially discovered the site at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in the 1960s, uncovering evidence of what appeared to be a short-lived settlement. A new study, however, suggests that the Vikings, led by the famous explorer, Leif Erikson, may have taken a much later check out in their timber-and-sod Oceanview rooms. 

While conducting experiments  in the area, Canadian researchers found sediment cores of compacted organic material similar to Viking camps in Greenland and Iceland. Nothing about the trampled debris (a mix of mostly plants, insects, mud, and charcoal) appeared unusual. But after applying advanced radiocarbon dating methods, the samples indicated a Norse presence in the area as late as the early 1200s.

The revelation, if accurate, is significant because it dispels the notion of a failed Viking colony there. Additionally, it now seems possible that European descendants might have settled other areas of North America. Until now, most historians believed that Erickson and his crew either abandoned the location or were chased away by indigenous Native Americans. According to the Sagas, Erikson called the faraway land Vinland meaning “land of grapes” in Old Norse — an odd name given that grapes don’t grow in Newfoundland. But to be fair, Columbus is guilty of a far worse blunder when he labeled the natives he later encountered “Indians” because he thought he had landed in India.

Gender Bender

Near the town Birka, Sweden, archaeologists unearthed a prominent burial site situated next to an ancient garrison. The late 19th-century dig would be hailed as the world’s “ultimate warrior Viking grave” and yield a spectacular bounty of grave goods. The bonanza included weaponry and two horses — all of which indicated a tribute to an essential and well-seasoned military leader. A re-examination of bone samples in 2017 would reveal an even more stunning revelation: the fallen soldier was a woman

The groundbreaking results, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, featured extensive osteological and DNA testing to prove the academic community had been wrong for over 100 years. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, a professor of archeology at Uppsala University, explains why the contents of the grave were always presumed to be the remains of a high-ranking male officer: “Aside from the complete warrior equipment buried along with her – a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses – she had a board game in her lap, or more of a war-planning game used to try out battle tactics and strategies, which indicates she was a powerful military leader. She most likely planned, led and taken part in battles,” she said.

Another intriguing layer to the story involves not only the impressive cache of arms but the person’s unusual uniform. Although graves of Nordic women found with weapons isn’t uncommon, the woman found in Birka wasn’t wearing typically female clothing or jewelry. Earlier this year, the same research team issued a follow-up report that suggests that the warrior could have been transgender. “In this grave, there is nothing that we archaeologically would interpret as female,” says Hedenstierna-Jonson. “It’s not a typically male costume either probably because it’s very high status…but there is nothing indicating a woman, there are no typical finds that we link to women.”

This revelation is unlikely to alter historians’ view of Viking society as being anything other than patriarchal. However, future findings must now address the complexity of gender in this period and approach binary assumptions with caution.

Swordle Bay

The Scottish Highlands is world-renowned for its breath-taking landscapes marked by majestic mountains, lustrous lochs, and a mysterious monster named “Nessie.” For connoisseurs of Scotland’s national drink (sorry, not Irn-Bru), a wee dram of smokey, peat-kissed whisky is undoubtedly well worth the trip. The area now features another compelling reason to visit following the discovery of the first undisturbed Viking boat burial on the UK mainland.

On the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, a team of archeologists found the remains of a ship from the late 9th or early 10th century. The burial mound, overlooking Swordle Bay on Scotland’s west coast, held the remains of an esteemed warrior replete with a spear, shield, sword, and ax. Nonmilitary goods included a whetstone (sharpening stone), a drinking horn, a pan, flints for making fire, and a bronze ring pin from Ireland. And for over 1,000 years, the gravesite remained untouched. 

After six years of work that involved cataloging hundreds of items, the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project released an in-depth report published in the Journal of Antiquity in 2017. The study highlights the relationship between Scotland and the Viking occupation in the area — as well as symbolic associations close to a Neolithic burial cairn, the stones of which may have been repurposed into the grave.

Family Road Trip

For many generations, mom, dad and the kids (and maybe Aunt Edna) would pile into the family vehicle for a road trip and an endless refrain of “are we there, yet?” It turns out the Vikings were no different during long voyages to new lands.

The northern seafarers had a well-earned reputation for being ruthless marauders with a penchant for destroying churches and monasteries. After all, the Old Norse word ‘Vikingr” refers to a “freebooter” involved in raiding. But ancient Scandinavians, like most people, also sought to provide a better life for their families. Plunder aside, they took to the open seas in search of new trading routes and territories with suitable farming. 

On paper, northern latitudes such as the Shetland and Orkney Islands may not seem like the most inviting climates to relocate. However, they make the frozen tundra of Scandinavia look like Miami Beach in July. In a recently published paper on migrations, a team of researchers used mitochondrial DNA evidence to show that Norse women often joined their men on these journeys. According to co-author and University of Oslo professor Erika Hagelberg, this finding “overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage.”

Luck of the Norsish?

The first recorded Viking raid on Irish soil occurred around 795 AD with the ransacking of a church. Thus began the official Norse influence on the Emerald Isle, which among other things, led to establishing a permanent settlement at the mouth of the River Liffey that came to be known as Dublin. But several new studies suggest the invaders may have arrived sooner than previously documented, creating a far more significant impact on Irish heritage.

Viking rule, although never a dominion in Ireland, effectively ended in 1014 AD following their defeat at the Battle of Clontarf by the Irish High King Brian Boru. Scientific advances in archaeology continue to shine a megawatt spotlight on ancient burial grounds, villages, and encampments. Elsewhere, more subtle Nordic traces are popping up in the genetics of the modern-day Irish people, as well as the world’s estimated 80 million people who claim Irish ancestry. In other words, a massive genetic cluster… you-know-what. 

A 2017 study conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin reveals a considerable underestimation of the Vikings’ genetic contribution to Irish DNA — especially bloodlines originating from the north and western coasts of Norway. Researchers at Trinity College Dublin confirmed the results in a similar 2018 report. They also found 23 new genetic clusters in Ireland not earlier identified, pointing to the likelihood of a much deeper Viking gene pool.

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