Two rare Viking boat burials are currently being excavated in Uppsala, the old political and religious centre in Sweden from c. 550 – 1000
A sensational find of two boat burials from the Viking Age have been excavated in Uppsala. One of the two graves was intact with the remains of a man, a horse and a dog.
“This is a unique excavation, the last excavation of this type of grave took place in Old Uppsala almost 50 years ago,” says the archaeologist Anton Seiler.
The two boat burials were found last autumn during an excavation at the vicarage in Old Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala), an area outside the town of Uppsala. A cellar and a well dating from the Middle Ages were being excavated. Suddenly, one of the boats was observed beneath the more modern structures. The two boat burials have been excavated during the last month and the results are sensational. Not least, because they offer a possibility of using a plethora of new scientific methods, which has become available since the last such excavations took place decades ago.
A boat burial or ship burial was a specific funeral practice in which the dead person was placed in a ship or boat often along with rich gifts like jewellery or sets of weapons and other objects. These kinds of graves can be dated to the Merovingian or Vendel Period (around 550–800 AD) as well as the Viking Age (800–1050 AD). Usually, the dead were cremated, but occasionally people were buried in furnished ships and uncremated. Such graves may be very well preserved. This custom was probably reserved for people of a higher social standing in society.
In Sweden, only ten boat burial sites of this kind have been previously been discovered, mainly in the provinces of Uppland and Västmanland, more precisely at Vendel, Tuna, and Old Uppsala.
“It is a distinct group of people who were buried in this way. We suspect that they somehow represented the elite,” says Anton Seiler, who works at The Archaeologists, part of the National Historical Museums in Sweden.
One of the two newly discovered graves was intact while the other was damaged, probably when a much later cellar, dating from the 16th century, was built. Remains of a man were found in the stern of the intact boat burial. A horse and a dog found in the bow of the boat accompanied him in death. Archeologists have also excavated personal items including a sword, spear, shield, and an ornate comb. Wood and clinch-nails of iron, which were used in the construction of the boats were also uncovered.
The fact that it’s an intact grave undisturbed by plundering, makes this a particularly interesting opportunity to study this kind of rare burial traditions with modern scientific analysis methods and documentation techniques. In Sweden such methods have hitherto not been been applied to this particular and very rare type of burials.
”It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated. We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers. this will allow us to place the boat burials in a wider context provided by the older excavations at Old Uppsala”, says Anton Seiler.
Other Boatgraves at Old Uppsala
The newly found boat-graves belong to a group of four other such graves excavated at the same location since 1972. The first of these graves had been robbed soon after the bural. Nevertheless, archaeologists succeeded in dating the burial to c. 900. The buried man, 35 – 45 years old, had been buried with fire steel, a knife, pieces from a game, a wooden box with a comb, an awl, an iron bar, some ceramics and wooden bowls, and a Thor’s Hammer. The man had been buried on top of a bearskin together with a horse, two dogs, and the remains of meat from boar, cattle, sheep, and birds.
The second grave was seriously damaged and no human remains were found. But bones from a horse and a cat was excavated as well as some artefacts of no particular value. Difficult to date, it has been assigned to the Viking Age. The same dilapidated character met the archaeologists when excavating the third boat-grave, which was also broadly assigned to the Viking Age.
The fourth grave, though had not been plundered and revealed a better idea of the burial practice. The individual was an elderly woman, at least 45 years old. She had been buried with a full set of jewels, two oval buckles, a two-armed fibula, a chain of bronze, necklace consisting of 60 glass peals, a ring, two coin pendants, and one in the form of a small statuette. She had been buried together with a dog and a hen. Of particular interest were the fragments of textiles preserved in the grave, indicating she wore a linen slip, a tunic of linen, and an apron-gown. Further, she wore a jacket of wool decorated with applications of silk. Finally, on top, she wore yet another jacket or perhaps cape made of silk. The date was c. 800 – 900.
So far, no more is known about the newly found graves, the boats, the buried man, or his personal objects. Particularly, no approximate date has so far been provided. Might we presume, however, the newly found graves can be dated to the same Viking period as the earlier finds?
Bosättning och Kykogård vid Gamla Uppsala Kyrka.
Upplandsmuseets Rapporter 2008: 07.
Båtgravar i Gamla Uppsala. Spår av en vikingatida högreståndsmiljö
By Else Nordahl
Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, 2001 2001. Aun 29