Strake from the Gjellestad Ship. Photo: Sigrid Mannsaaker Gundersen 2019

New Viking Ship at Gjellestad is Being Excavated

For the first time in more than a hundred years, archaeologists are uncovering what is definitely a buried Viking ship

Gjelestad ship being excavated © Frederik Morland/Østfold Fylkeskommun
Gjelestad ship being excavated © Frederik Morland/Østfold Fylkeskommun

Last year archaeologists discovered a Viking ship on the farm Gjellestad near Halden in Norway. The find was located with ground-penetrating lidar. Now, excavations have confirmed the buried ship.

No buried Viking ship has been excavated since 1903. This turns the discovery into a unique opportunity for the involved archaeologists.

On Monday, the 26th of August, the Museum of Cultural History (UiO) and the Cultural heritage section in Østfold County Council began to explore the sensational Gjellestad site in Halden Municipality. The Directorate of Cultural Heritage is providing the project with financial support. What does the area hold, in which condition will eventual artefacts be in? And what might we learn about shipbuilding techniques? Is there anything left of the ship itself?

At present, the ship will not be fully excavated. Instead, the archaeologists will dig two trenches towards the middle of the ship, to investigate the condition. The measurements show that the ship is about 20 meters long, and thus about the same size as the Viking ships on display at the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo. The ship is likely in a quite poorly state, but there is hope that the lower parts of the boat are well preserved. The archaeologists consider it likely there will be remains of wood, animals and objects. Maybe even bones originating from the persons, who were buried in the ship, will have been preserved offering opportunities for studies of aDNA, diet etc.

At least ten other burial mounds, as well as as many as five long houses have been located in the same area. A preliminary survey of their traces in the landscape will take place. It appears, the area to be excavated is rich in ancient history, and there are finds dating back to Roman times in the same field in which the ship is buried.

Georadar Technology

Gjellestad Ship. Notice the modern drainpipe cutting through the ship. This is where the archaeologists are currently digging. © Niku
Gjellestad Ship. Notice the modern drainpipe cutting through the ship. This is where the archaeologists are currently digging. © Niku

The Gjellestad ship was discovered in 2018 using a newly developed georardarsystem. The discovery was made because the mound had been ploughed away in modern times, leaving a flat surface. As yet, the technology is not suited to studying the many ancient mounds still littering the Norwegian landscape. Also, the quality of the results depends on the soil, the moisture in the soil, as well as the depth. But archaeologists are currently working to develop the technology to survey the riches of the ancient Norwegian landscape.

Approximately 350 ships and boats are estimated to be buried in Norway. Of these, thirteen are regarded as ship burials (vessels over twelve meters in length). Recently another ship was located at Borre also using ground penetrating radar. Both men and women have been found in ship burials, but there is currently no evidence to determine the gender of any human remains in the Gjellestad ship. However, taking into consideration other ship burial sites, human remains usually belong to a person of power from an exclusive elite.

First Finds

During the last few days, the archaeologists have been able to confirm that the mound did indeed hold a buried ship. Two rows of nails have been found but with no traces of wood. However, the archaeologists are expecting to get to a level of richer finds when they dig deeper than the current 60 cm.

– The bottom of the trench is 60 centimetres. Here the masses are sandy, and the conservation conditions are bad. But, as we dig deeper, we hope for clay where conditions are better. We don’t know, but it looks pretty good, says archaeologist and project manager Christian Rødsrud.

Today, the 29th of August, the archaeologists have reported the discovery of some fragile remains of a strake, a course of the planking or plating of the hull of the vessel. See the remains of the strake in the featured phot above.

– We also see remains of degraded biological material, perhaps from other grave goods or details on the ship, says archaeologist and project manager Christian Rødsrud.

Rødsrud hopes that the ship is better preserved under the drainage pipe that goes through the field.

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We are investigating the new Viking ship
Daily reports from Kulturhistorisk Museum by By Tea Kristiansen og Mari Parelius Wammer