Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have unearthed a 1,300-year-old ship burial at the Herlaugshaugen burial mound in Leka, Trøndelag County. The find predates the Viking Age and challenges previous assumptions about the timeline of ship burials in Scandinavia.
The mound, with a diameter exceeding 60 meters, was initially thought to be the resting place of the legendary Norse king, Herlaug, who chose to be buried alive rather than surrender to King Harald. However, recent investigations reveal a ship burial dating back to around CE 700, during the Merovingian period, centuries before the Viking Age.
According to Geir Grønnesby, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum, the site was constructed around 700 CE, making it the oldest known ship burial in Scandinavia. This revelation pushes back the tradition of ship burials in Norway, aligning it with early examples from Sweden, such as Vendel and Valsgärde, known for their ornate weapons and elaborate funerary practices.
The investigation, conducted in collaboration with the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Trøndelag County Authority, confirmed the ship burial through the discovery of substantial rivets and wooden fragments. This evidence supports the notion that the people of Leka were skilled seafarers, capable of constructing large ships far earlier than previously believed.
Lars Forseth, an archaeologist from Trøndelag County Authority, suggested that it represented power and affluence not derived from local farming practices.
Instead, the community likely engaged in extensive trade, possibly spanning considerable distances. The location of Herlaugshaugen along a historic shipping route adds weight to this theory, as it was a key stop in the trade of whetstones to mainland Europe from at least the mid-8th century.
The newfound ship burial challenges historical narratives, particularly those surrounding the Viking Age’s onset and motives. Grønnesby remarked, “This dating is really exciting because it pushes the whole tradition of ship burials quite far back in time.” While the discovery doesn’t definitively alter the understanding of when the Viking Age began, the construction of such a significant ship implies a purpose beyond mere tradition.
The burial mound itself has a complex history. Excavations in the late 1700s uncovered various artifacts, including iron rivets, a bronze cauldron, and a seated skeleton with a sword. However, these findings mysteriously vanished in the early 1920s, leaving behind an unresolved puzzle. Grønnesby lamented, “The skeleton was exhibited for a while at Trondheim Cathedral School as King Herlaug, but no one knows what happened to it.”