Inch by inch, they gently pick through the soil in search of thousand-year-old relics. Racing against onsetting mold yet painstakingly meticulous, archeologists in Norway are exhuming a rare Viking ship grave in hopes of uncovering the secrets within.
Reduced to tiny fragments almost indistinguishable from the turf that covers it, the 20m wooden longship raises a slew of questions.
The team of archeologists is rushing to solve at least some of the mystery before the structure is entirely ravaged by microscopic fungi.
Photo: AFP / The Museum of Cultural History / Margrethe K.H. Havgar
It is an exhilarating task: There has not been a Viking ship to dig up in more than a century.
The last was in 1904 when the Oseberg longship was excavated, not far away on the other side of the Oslo Fjord, in which the remains of two women were discovered among the finds.
“We have very few burial ships,” said the head of the dig, Camilla Cecilie Wenn of the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History.
“I’m incredibly lucky; few archeologists get such an opportunity in their career,” she said.
Under a giant gray and white tent placed in the middle of ancient burial grounds near the southeastern town of Halden, a dozen workers in high visibility vests kneel or lie on the ground, examining the earth.
Buried underground, the contours of the longship were detected in 2018 by geological radar equipment, as experts searched the known Viking site.
When the first test digs revealed the ship’s advanced state of decomposition, the decision was taken to quickly excavate it.
So far, only parts of the keel have been dug out in reasonable condition.
Analyses of the pieces have shown that the ship was probably raised on land around the ninth century, placed in a pit and buried under a mound of earth as a final resting place.
“If you’re buried with a ship, then it’s clear you were a VIP in your lifetime,” Wenn said.
Do the remains belong to a king? A queen? A Viking nobleman, known as a jarl? The answer might lie in the bones or objects yet to be found — weapons, jewels, vessels and tools — that are typical in graves from the Viking Age, from the mid-eighth to mid-11th centuries.
The site has been disturbed several times, accelerating the ship’s disintegration and reducing the chance of finding relics.
At the end of the 19th century, the burial mound was razed to make space for farmland, entirely destroying the upper part of the hull and damaging what is believed to have been the funeral chamber.
It is also possible that the grave might have been plundered long before that, by other Vikings keen to get their hands on some of the precious burial offerings and to symbolically assert their power and legitimacy.
So far the archeologists’ bounty is pretty meager: lots of iron rivets used for the boat’s assembly, most heavily corroded over time, as well as a few bones.
“These bones are too big to be human,” said field assistant Karine Fure Andreassen, as she leaned over a large, orange-tinged bone.
“This is not a Viking chief we’re looking at unfortunately. It’s probably a horse or cattle,” she said.
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