When people think of Vikings going on voyages, many imagine a bloodthirsty crew bent on evil and domination, and armed to the teeth for the looting and pillaging of helpless villagers. That may have been true of some Viking missions, but perhaps not all.
Researchers analyzing two apparent Viking ship burials from more than 1,000 years ago in the Baltic Sea have published a new article in the journal Antiquity. The authors speculate that this crew, who died violent deaths, was intent on more a more peaceful mission.
The men aboard the two ships were carefully buried on their ships, says an article about the research in USA Today:
They were young, tall men. One stood nearly 6 feet—which was much taller than average for the time. Chemical analysis of their teeth and the design of the rich artifacts they were buried with makes the researchers think the men were from central Sweden, according to archaeologist and co-author T. Douglas Price, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Whoever interred the dead aboard two ships in what is now Salme, Estonia, in about 750 AD went about their work with great care and respect. Many of the 41 bodies were carefully positioned, and valuables were scattered among the remains. Researchers found swords bedecked with gold and jewels and hundreds of elaborate pieces from a chess-like strategy game called Hnefatafl, or The King's Table. They also found two decapitated hawks and the skeleton of a large dog, which had been cut in half.
These elaborate, gilded sword handle parts found aboard the ships show the weapons may have been more for show than for battle. Photo by Reet MaldreThe remains of the men on the larger ship had stab wounds, decapitation signs and the arm bone of one man and another man’s leg bone were cut by a blade. Their fancy weapons may have been more ceremonial than practical war-making implements. Warriors of the Viking era usually used spears and battle axes instead of swords, co-author Jüri Peet told USA Today. Peet, who headed the excavations, is with Estonia’s Tallinn University.
“Game pieces and animals seem impractical for a military expedition but would’ve provided welcome amusement on a diplomatic trip,” USA Today says. “The men may have been on a voyage to forge an alliance or establish kinship ties, Peets says, when unknown parties set upon them.”But another expert on the Viking era, Jan Bill of the Norway Museum of Cultural History, told USA Today that gaming to pass the time was probably habitual on Viking battle voyages. “Whether this group was on a diplomatic mission, or raiding, or both, I don't think we can decide from the evidence of what was used as grave goods,” Bill is quoted as saying.
Workers laying electrical cables discovered the first ship, the smaller one, on the shore of Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea in 2008. Officials called a halt to work, and Peet began excavations.
This modern Google map show Saaremaa Island off Estonia’s coast.In 2010 the larger of the two ships was found. Researchers assumed the men died a-viking—plundering or conquering. USA Today says the evidence provided by the artifacts didn’t jibe. Whatever they were doing, they apparently were involved in a wild battle in which they were overpowered.
If they truly were Viking vessels, they are the oldest known Viking ships found in the region, says an article on World-Archaeology.com. They are about 100 years older than the Osenberg boat of Norway.
Prow of the Osenberg Viking ship in a museum in Oslo, Norway (Wikimedia Commons photo/Grzegorz Wysocki)Carbon-14 dating of the human and animal remains placed them in life about 1,250 years ago.
The men were buried in a sitting position within the ships. Animal bones from the site showed butchering. “Perhaps they were part of a funerary feast, or supplies the crew had brought along for themselves,” says World Archaeology. “Interestingly, several decapitated goshawks and a sparrowhawk were also found. These birds of prey would have been used for hunting fresh food for the crew as they travelled along the shoreline.”
Usually horse and dog bones are found in boat burials of prominent Vikings, but there were none of those at this one. “These, men were buried far from home, with only the possessions they carried aboard ship with them during their lifetime,” the article states.
Whoever they were and whoever killed them, their remains, the artifacts and the ships are providing researchers with vital information about the early Viking age.
Top image: Some of the skeletons found on one of the two Viking ships. Photo by Jaanus Valt
By Mark Miller