Excavating Viking Ships

Utgravning av Gokstadskipet 1880 / Excavation of the Gokstad Ship in 1880

(c) 2016 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO. CC BY-SA 4.0

Early Excavations

Some of the most impressive ship finds were made in late nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations of grave mounds containing ship burials. Pictured here is the Gokstad ship midway through excavation in 1880, with the timbers of this thousand-year-old ship freshly uncovered. The burial mound had been plundered and some valuable items probably removed, but at the time of excavation it contained the remains of a man in a wooden burial chamber, along with small boats, a tent and a sledge.

Photo of the Ladby Burial Mound

(c) Antoine 49. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Entering a Burial Mound

Whilst the Gokstad and Oseberg ships were carefully removed from the mounds in which they were buried, the more fragmentary Ladby ship was left in situ when the burial mound near Kerteminde in Denmark was excavated in the 1930s. Visitors now enter the mound itself to see the impression this 22 meter Viking ship made in the ground, along with its anchor, the remains of sacrificed animals, and the extraordinary 'dragon's mane' decoration on the prow.

The Viking Age boat burial at Balladoole, Isle of Man.

(c) Judith Jesch. CC BY NC

A shadow in the Ground

Sometimes all that remains of a ship in a burial mound are the iron rivets marking out the dimensions of the the clinker-built vessel. The late ninth-century Balladoole boat burial on the Isle of Man is one example. A high-status man and woman were buried alongside grave goods and animals in a clinker-built boat. This pagan burial overlies earlier Christian graves, and may have been a statement not only of the importance of Viking ships to Norse identity, but also of the dominance of Norse culture over this sacred space.

Aerial photograph of the Skuldelev excavations in the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

(c) Vikingeskibsmuseet Roskilde. Photo: TBirkett

Sunken Ships

Viking ships aren't only found in association with pagan ship burials. Five very different Viking ships were recovered from the bottom of the Roskilde Fjord near Skuldelev in 1962. They had been deliberately scuttled in the mid eleventh century to form part of a barrier controlling access to the lower part of the Fjord. The painstaking excavation involved creating a barrier around the site and draining it of water: the five ships that were uncovered changed our understanding of late-Viking-Age maritime history.