Enormous, rare Viking ship burial discovered by radar

Archaeologists in Norway using ground-penetrating radar have detected one of the largest Viking ship graves ever found.

ARCHAEOLOGISTS HAVE FOUND the outlines of a Viking ship buried not far from the Norwegian capital of Oslo. The 20-metre-long ship was covered over more than 1,000 years ago to serve as the final resting place of a prominent Viking king or queen. That makes it one of the largest Viking ship graves ever found.

An image generated by ground-penetrating radar reveals the outlines of a Viking ship within a burial mound.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NIKU

Experts say intact Viking ship graves of this size are vanishingly rare. “I think we could talk about a hundred-year find”, says archaeologist Jan Bill, curator of Viking ships at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. “It’s quite spectacular from an archaeology point of view”.

The site where the ship grave was found is well-known. A burial mound 9 metres tall looms over the site, serving as a local landmark visible from the highway just north of the Swedish border. But archaeologists thought any archaeological remains in the nearby fields must have been destroyed by farmers’ ploughs in the late 19th century.

Then, this spring, officials from the surrounding county of Ostfold asked experts from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research to survey the fields using a large ground-penetrating radar array. They were able to scan the soil underneath almost 4 hectares of farmland around the mound.

Underneath, they found evidence of ten large graves and traces of a ship’s hull, hidden just half a metre beneath the surface. Knut Paasche, head of the archaeology department at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research and director of the recent work at the site, estimates the ship was at least 20 metres long. It appears to be well-preserved, with clear outlines of the keel and the first few strakes, or lines of planking, visible in the radar scans.

The ship would have been dragged onshore from the nearby Oslo fjord. At some point during the Viking Age, it was the final resting place of someone powerful. “Ships like this functioned as a coffin”, says Paasche. “There was one king or queen or local chieftain on board”.

Using ground-penetrating radar mounted on the front of an all-terrain vehicle, archaeologists in Norway peered below farm fields and discovered the outlines of a Viking ship and long houses.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERICH NAU, NIKU

Whoever was buried in the ship wasn’t alone. There are traces of at least eight other burial mounds in the field, some almost 27 metres across. Three large longhouses—one 45 metres long—are also visible underneath the site’s soil, together with a half-dozen smaller structures.

Archaeologists hope future excavations will help date the mounds and the longhouses, which may have been built at different times. “We can’t be sure the houses have the same age as the ship”, Paasche says.

Paasche plans to return to the site next spring to conduct more sophisticated scans, including surveying the site with a magnetometer and perhaps digging test trenches to see what condition the ship’s remains are in. If there is wood from the ship’s hull preserved beneath the ground, it could be used to date the find more precisely.

The chances of finding a king’s treasure are slim. Because they were so prominent in the landscape, many Viking Age burials were robbed centuries ago, long before they were levelled by 19th-century farmers. But “it would be very exciting to see if the burial is still intact”, says Bill. “If it is, it could be holding some very interesting finds”.

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