The 12 most exciting finds from the Gjellestad Viking ship dig
A large amber bead, an axe placed under the ship, 25 horse teeth and pieces of wood that will tell us exactly when it sailed are among the results from Norway’s first excavation of a monumental Viking ship burial in a century.
The Gjellestad Viking ship dig is officially over. So what did they find?
As the ship and its contents were very dilapidated, a fair amount of the findings have been brought in to the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo as large blocks of soil that await scanning and careful lab-excavation.
“We don’t have a full overview of what we’ve actually found, there might still be some surprises here”, says archaeologist Christian Løchsen Rødsrud, project manager of the Gjellestad ship excavation.
For instance, a total of more than 8000 fragments of various items, pieces of iron and copper alloy, were found in the burial chamber. An 8000-piece puzzle that the archaeologists will try and piece together to actual objects and artifacts over the coming months and years.
But although grave robbers presumably got away with most of the large and fancy objects, and farmers later deleted the mound to make space for agriculture, some grand artifacts were found.
And the meticulous work of removing ship nails in blocks of soil will eventually lead to a full-blown 3D version of what the ship actually looked like.
But for now – here are the top 12 treasures from the Gjellestad Viking ship dig.
1. A large amber bead
"The most grand find we’ve had is probably the large amber bead”, says Christian Løchsen Rødsrud. “This has most likely been a decorative bead, but it’s very special as it is unusually large.”
The hole in the bead is also large, suggesting that something more than a thin thread has gone through it. Løchsen Rødsrud suggests that it might have been attached to clothing, or to an important symbolic object such as a sword. So-called sword beads, which are known from pre-Viking times, were attached to the sheath of a sword.
“We don’t know for certain what it was used for, but it is a decorative bead– and we rarely find amber beads of this size. Amber has also fascinated people for centuries and typically objects like this would be considered a charm of protection, perhaps placed in the grave to help face off the liminal dangers of the afterlife passage.”, the archaeologist says.
A search in the databases of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo found no beads that match the Gjellestad-bead in proportions.
“So this is right at the top of what you might expect to find in such a grave”.
2. Perhaps a second large bead – or a spindle whorl
“We haven’t gone too public about this yet, because we don’t know exactly what it is”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
This is in one of the mentioned blocks of soil which awaits CT-scanning.
The educated guess then, is that it is another large bead - or a spindle whorl. Spindle whorls were used to weight spindles when hand-spinning yarn. They have been made of many different materials, such as amber, bone, clay, stone, wood and metal.
“In any case, this and the large amber bead are two grand items that we have found”, he assures.
3. Most likely a bracelet, or a collection of valuables
Another block of soil contains a collection of smaller beads.
“These are also very beatiful beads, most likely they stem from a small necklace, or a bracelet”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
The beads are in the same spot and may have been stored in a small pouch or something similar.
“So far we can see that there are six white beads, one amber bead, and three segmented beads – the latter meaning that they’re actually three connected beads in one”.
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4. One unusually large axe
Well, not the axe per se, but the imprint of an axe.
This finding is interesting because it tells the tale of folks who have disturbed the grave. The archaeologists believe the axe was most likely removed by robbers. “We see the imprint, the rust from it, we can see that this was its place in the ship. But it is no longer there”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
“Somebody has been here and disturbed the grave, and this is one of few finds where we have observed clear traces of all that has been lost. This burial most likely contained many more artefacts than what we are left with today”, he says.
The block of soil containing the imprint was recently compared to other similar axes in the Museum’s archives, which revealed another interesting fact: The Gjellestad axe was unusually large and heavy.
5. Another axe – found underneath the ship
While removing blocks of soil containing remains of wood from thestrakes (planks), the archaeologists hit something hard underneath the ship.
What was first believed to be a stone turned out to be the remains of an axe.
“This was a really big surprise to us”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
“We’re still not 100 per cent sure, but our interpretation clearly points towards an axe”, he says.
The remains today are a very corroded lump of rust, although the shape is fairly clear.
“As with all other objects from the burial, the blocks of soil will be x-rayed and CT-scanned before we excavate this item from the surrounding soil”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
The fact that the axe was found underneath the ship has given food for thought to the archaeologists. Løchsen Rødsrud is currently playing with four theories of what this means:
1: The reason could be purely practical. Once the ship is placed in the ship grave, the axe was needed in order to stabilize it. Usually this would have been done using stones, as there are several in the burial, but perhaps an axe was put there as a wedge to fasten the ship.
2: When preparing the grounds for the ship, which is to be the burial site of someone important, it might have been a part of a ritual to stake an axe into the ground, a sort of sacrifice before placing the ship on top.
3: Perhaps more spectacularly, Løchsen Rødsrud says that axes and other weapons have been planted in the ground in other known graves and may thus have been a part of the ritual act of placing things in the grave chamber. Perhaps staking an axe through the ship and into the ground was the last part of the ceremony?
4: It may be from the robbery of the ship. Both the Oseberg and the Gokstad ships had been robbed in a similar manner, and an axe would have been an efficient tool when grave robbers found their way into the burial chamber. This theory will either prove to be correct or wrong when a CT scan and further studies can date the object.
6. Horses and cattle
Although the pandemic has prevented the Swedish experts on the topic, the osteologists, from travelling to Norway to determine what bones had been found in the grave, some work has been possible to do remotely, using images.
Some large bones found early in the dig, have been determined to come from a horse.
“This fits with what we know about these kinds of burial rituals”, says Løchsen Rødsrud. “Several horses were slaughtered as part of the ceremonies for the Oseberg and Gokstad ships.”
In the disturbed part of the ship, the burial chamber, 25 horse teeth were found, as well as 560 fragments of hoofed animals – meaning they could be from both cattle and horses. In addition, ten fragments have been determined to come from cattle.
“In sum we can conclude that both horse and cattle have been slaughtered as part of this burial”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
From Oseberg and Gokstad, the archaeologists know that the heads were not always found with the bodies of the animals.
“The teeth in the Gjellestad ship were found in the disturbed section of the burial chamber, while the large bones that we found were in an undisturbed area close to the burial chambers. If these teeth came from this same animal, it might indicate a similar decapitation as seen in other ship burials”.
- RELATED Read more about the Gjellestad burial in this story from our archives: "We have many smaller boat graves in Norway. If we compare this to them, then clearly we are talking about a king or a chieftan, somebody who had a lot of power in this area, locally and maybe also regionally. It was clearly an elite burial"
7. Burnt remains of human bones
Just outside the northern wall of the burial chamber, a number of burned bones were found. These have now been established to come from a human.
”What are those bones doing there?”, Løchsen Rødsrud asks.
“Perhaps this was a secondary burial? The person(s) buried within the chamber have likely not been cremated, and that is why we haven’t found any remains of their bones. Burnt bones last longer, which is why these bones on the outside have survived”, he says.
Perhaps somebody was buried shortly after the main burial, or even at the same time.
Or perhaps the bones come from a different grave, and simply ended up here when soil was used to cover the ship and build the mound.
Dating the bones will give new answers, and perhaps new questions.
Remains of a comb were also found in this same area as the cremated human and may therefore be connected to this person.
8. A chest
The wooden remains in the burial are generally highly deteriorated, and this possible chest is identified as layers of decomposed wood stacked on top of each other as well as iron fittings. The possible chest is divided into two large blocks of soil awaiting further examination.
9. A piece of a whetstone
A whetstone, also known as a sharpening stone, was used in daily life but was also an important part of the equipment needed by a warrior. The whetstone sharpens items made of iron, like knives and swords. Løchsen Rødsrud and his colleagues believe this particular whetstone may have been destroyed during one of the disturbances of the ship.
The exciting thing about this finding is that it is possible, through geochemical examinations, to find out exactly where in Norway the whetstone once came from.
“When an archaeologist finds a whetstone of light grey slate his or her thoughts immediately travel to the famous whetstone quarry Eidsborg in Telemark”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
Whetstones from this site became a huge export during the Viking age, but it isn’t known when the production of these stones actually started.
“As we believe that the Gjellestad ship is from the early days of the Viking Age, a whetstone from Eidsborg, would be an important find not only to understand more about the person buried at Gjellestad, but also to understand the networks of trade he or she could access. And finally if the slate matches Eidsborg geochemically it would have relevance to understand the earliest quarrying at the site”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
10. The ship nails/rivets
A total of 1300 ship nails have been excavated from the ship as little blocks of soil, using a special technique in order to preserve the frail iron structures. The exact position of each nail has been meticulously logged and each nail is stored with a name tag and four measure points securing its correct geometry. Most of the nails are 5 cm long, holding two stakes together, while some are longer and placed at different angles. The latter ones contain important information about how the ship was constructed, as they were attached to the inner constructions of the ship.
At one point during the dig a nail with an anchor-shaped rove was found. “This was very important to us as it told us exactly where in the ship we were”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
The rivet with the anchor-shaped rove is 20 cm long. It would have been used to connect the strakes to the frames of the ship, and thus gives important details for the reconstruction.
Each and every nail will now be scanned, and all the information will be fed into a computer. This will then, together with other data collected during the dig, give a detailed 3D version of all the items, which will make out the starting point to create a digital reconstruction of the ship.
“All of these data are very precise, although some of the nails have probably moved sligthly, both due to disturbances by grave robbers, modern agriculture and also due to the pressure from the tons pressing down on the ship while it was in a mound”, Løchsen Rødsrud says.
A ship reconstructor will therefore be brought in to help adjust the model.
“In the end we will get a reconstruction of this ship which is as good as the ones which were better preserved when they were excavated some 100 years ago”, Løchsen Rødsrud promises.
11. The keel
“This is the most important part, this is the crown jewel”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.
When the pieces of the keel were taken out of the ground, both the media and representatives from the Government came to bear witness.
All in all, 9 metres of fairly well-preserved keel were lifted out of the ground, in pieces. The longest piece is nearly 6 metres.
This wood will give the archaeologists information about exactly when, and possibly also where the ship was built.
- RELATED Read more about the Keel: This piece of wood will help archaeologists reconstruct the grand Gjellestad Viking ship
12. Coniferous floortimber
The archaeologists also found other traces of the floortimber of the frame of the ship. To their surprise, the wood used here was not oak, as the rest of the ship and in most the other known Viking ships. Rather, the wood was red, and may be from a conifer.
“Tracing the wood allows specialists to find out where the actual trees used might have come from”, Løchsen Rødsrud explains.
60 annual rings are needed to make a good comparison with other well dated samples of the same wood species, but while the keel allowed a good interpretation it is quite unlikely that the remaining brittle floortimber could provide the data needed.
“The wood from the Oseberg ship and one of the small boats from the Gokstad ship were made in the Western part of Norway. They are the closest parallels to the timber of the keel in the Gjellestad ship. We can therefore be fairly certain that the Gjellestad ship also was made in Southwestern Norway”, Løchsen Rødsrud says.
“The coniferous wood however, might suggest that we have to go further north, where the forests were more mixed, perhaps all the way to Møre or Trøndelag to find the origin of the Gjellestad ship. Further research is needed before we can draw any conclusions, but the combination of materials is a highly interesting find”, says Løchsen Rødsrud.