Boats and the Afterlife

Archaeologists unearth two well-preserved Viking boat graves in Sweden
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In the Viking era, the politically elite were buried with their prized possessions and boats, including craft like this ship dated 890 AD. 

In the Viking era, the politically elite were buried with their prized possessions and boats, including craft like this ship dated 890 AD. 

How many planks were in a boat during the Viking Age in 800 AD? How wide was each plank? What kind of wood was used to make the planks? Was it the same kind of wood used to build the keel? And what material became the boat’s sealant? Horse hair, cow hair or something else?

Archaeologists believe they might be able to answer these questions and more after a rare find during an excavation in Sweden. 

In July, teams from a group called The Archaeologists, which is part of the Swedish government’s National Historical Museums agency, unearthed the remains of two boat graves, the first find of their kind in about a half century. One of the boats looks to be about 30 feet long with the traditional, slender shape of a Viking boat. The other appears to be as long as 40 feet and is wider, suggesting that it may have been used to carry cargo—and making it an extremely rare find on its own. 

Some of the areas within the remains are so well preserved that the archaeologists are seeing things they’ve never before been able to make out, in any excavation of a Viking-era boat grave.

“You can almost see the planks,” says Johan Anund, regional manager for The Archaeologists. “Usually, when we find this kind of grave, you can’t find any trace of the planks. Only the iron rivets that held them together. We are extra lucky because in our case, the wood is preserved. It’s in very bad shape, but you can see the planks. We can’t lift them—they disintegrate—but we can take samples and properly tell what kind of wood is in the planks, what kind of wood is in the keel, and so on.”

The sites date back to a time when politically elite and financially successful people were buried with their boats, as well as with prized possessions, animals and, in at least one known case, another human being who may have been a servant or a slave. Anund says the idea is that after the elite people died, they were moved down a river by boat. The boat containing the deceased was then carried by hand around 150 or 200 feet inland from the water’s edge, the way
pallbearers carry a coffin today. The final resting place for the person and boat was the gravesite surrounded by other boat graves, the same way today’s cemeteries contain multiple gravesites for coffins.

One of two boat graves recently found in Sweden; scientists believe the remains of as many as 10 to 30 boats are still buried at the site.s

One of two boat graves recently found in Sweden; scientists believe the remains of as many as 10 to 30 boats are still buried at the site.s

The condition of these boat graves is so unusually good, Anund says, that the team has been able to make out some kind of a superstructure on each vessel. Vikings had open boats, but these two boats had structures atop them—perhaps some type of a viewing platform where the deceased may have laid in state, so to speak, so others could come and pay respects. “This is something that we don’t know very much about,” he says. “These boats didn’t have decks. They were open. But in our two cases, it looks like there was either a flat deck or perhaps cabins or even a house for the dead person. That’s very new information.”

Anund says the team thinks the site was so well preserved because it had an unusually thick layer of soil placed atop it right after the funeral. Even though the remains have been disintegrating for a number of centuries, the team was able to make out skeletons of horses, dogs and birds, all things that a Viking warrior would want to enter the afterlife with, along with a boat, sword and shield.

The team expects it to take about a year to get full results from the samples that were still being collected as of mid-July. And, while the digging continued, team members also were doing 3-D photo scanning of the boat graves. “That means we can publish 3-D models very soon, I hope,” Anund says. “That has not been done for boat graves. It’s totally new. When we publish the 3-D models, you will get a much more accurate picture of the boat than in earlier cases. It also means that if you want to, you can make a 3-D print in any scale of these ships. Just ten years ago, that idea would have been science fiction.” 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.