Inch per inch, they pick gently through the soil in search of thousand-year-old traces. In Norway archaeologists race against crystalline rot but with extreme precision, they dig up a rare Viking ship tomb in hopes of revealing the secrets inside.
Who is buried here? Under what rituals? What is left of the burial sacrifice? And what can they tell us about the community that lived here?
Now that it has been reduced to tiny shards that are almost indistinguishable from the grass covering it, the 20 meters (65 feet) long wooden ship raises a slew of questions.
The team of archaeologists is rushing to solve at least some mystery before microscopic fungi completely destroy the structure.
It’s an exhilarating mission: There hasn’t been a Viking ship to excavate for over a century.
The last of them was in 1904 when the long ship Oseberg, on the other side of the Oslo Strait, was excavated, and the remains of two women were among the finds.
“We have very few burial ships,” says excavation chief Camila Cecilie Wayne of the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo.
“I am very fortunate, very few archaeologists get such an opportunity in their careers.”
Under a gigantic gray and white tent placed in the middle of ancient cemeteries near the southeastern town of Halden, dozens of workers in high-visibility jackets or lying on the ground kneel to check the ground.
Buried underground, the features of the tall ship were discovered in 2018 by geological radar equipment as experts searched for the well-known Viking site.
When the first test excavations revealed the advanced ship’s state of decay, the decision was made to quickly drill it.
– Viking VIP –
So far, only parts of the keel have been excavated in reasonable condition.
Cut analyzes determined that the ship may have originated on Earth around the ninth century, and was placed in a pit and buried under a mound of earth as a place of final rest.
But for whom? “If you were buried with a ship, it was clear that you were one of the most senior figures in your life,” says Wayne.
king? Queen? A nobleman from the Vikings, better known as the Jarl? The answer may lie in the bones or yet to be found – weapons, jewelry, utensils, tools, etc. – that are typical of tombs from the Viking Age, from the middle of the eighth to the middle of the eleventh century.
However, the site was disturbed several times, which speeded up the ship’s disintegration and reduced the chance of finding relics.
At the end of the 19th century, the burial mound was demolished to make room for farmland, completely destroying the top of the structure and damaging what is believed to be the funeral room.
It is also possible that the tomb was looted long before then, by other Vikings who are keen to get some valuable burial offerings and symbolically assert their power and legitimacy.
– Animal bones –
So far, the archaeologists’ reward is very meager: lots of iron nails used to assemble the boat, which have worn away badly over time, plus a few bones.
“These bones are too big to be human,” says Field Assistant Karen For Andreasen, as she leans on a large, orange bone.
“This is not the Viking leader we are looking at unfortunately, it might be a horse or a cattle.”
“It is a sign of strength,” she explains. “I was so wealthy that an animal could be sacrificed to be placed in your grave.”
Next to the tent, Jean Berg looks like he’s looking for gold. He sieves the soil and sprinkles it with water, hoping to find a small nugget from the past.
The archaeologist admits: “Did you make an exceptional discovery? I doubt it.” “Perhaps the most valuable things have already been taken. Anything made of iron or organic matter has eroded over time or disappeared altogether.”
But Berg, whose thick beard gives him a Vikings atmosphere, is not easily discouraged.
He says, “I’m not here to look for treasure.” “What interests me is to know what happened here, how the funeral took place, and how to explain the behavior of that time.”
phy / po / kjm