Norway to excavate Viking ship

Gjellestad is the first Viking ship excavation in over 100 years

Viking Ship

Photo: Madison Leiren
The Gokstad ship is a ninth-century Viking ship currently on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. It is the largest preserved Viking ship in Norway.


Norway’s government has agreed to fund the first excavation of a Viking ship burial in over 100 years, launching a race to pull the vessel out of the ground before it is destroyed by fungus.

On May 11, the Norwegian government announced that it was allocating NOK 15.6 million to excavate the Gjellestad Viking Ship, which was discovered during georadar studies in 2018, and from which part of the keel was pulled up last year in a test study. 

“For the first time in 100 years, we will now excavate a Viking ship. We are very excited about this,” Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s minister for climate and environment, told state broadcaster NRK. “It is urgent that we get this ship out of the ground.” 

The announcement follows a warning in January from Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History, that the structure had suffered fungus attacks since air has gotten into the burial mound. 

“When we did that trial last year, we only found preserved wood at the very, very deepest level, the lowest part of the keel,” he told The Local. “Everything above that had rotted away, and as we looked at that keel we could see that there was soft rot in it, so it was actively decaying as we looked at it.” 

Bill said that researchers hoped that parts of the ship farthest from a drainage ditch dug above the vessel would be better preserved. 

He said that even if the vessel was less well preserved that the team hoped, it could still provide important new information on Viking ship burials, as the Tune, Gokstad, and Oseberg ships, which were excavated in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, were not carried out to modern standards. 

“It’s important, because it’s more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this,” he said. “With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place.” 

“These were very early excavations, so there’s a lot of information that we just don’t have, because of the way it was done at the time.” 

He said that in addition to the keel of the boat, there were also signs of burial goods and other matter inside the ship. 

“We know that when we excavate, we will be able to examine some of those objects,” he said. 

“I think perhaps the most exciting thing about this find is the date: we know for sure that it’s not earlier than the middle of the eighth century, and it could be considerably later.”

He said the keel appeared to be much less massive than those of the Oseberg ships from the ninth and early 10th centuries. 

If the Gjellestad Ship turns out to be 100 years older, it might provide information about the evolution of ship design, he said. 

If Norway’s parliament votes through the funding, the team, which is being led by the museum’s Christian Løchsen Rødsrud, intends to start excavating in June. 

The team has had to adapt its procedures to take into account current social distancing and hygiene measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

This article first appeared in The Local.

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.