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Norwegian farmers discovered a Viking burial ship at Gokstad

Posted in Archaeology, Boats, Conservation, Historical articles, History, Ships on Wednesday, 5 June 2013

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This edited article about the Vikings originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 280 published on 27 May 1967.

Viking burial ship, picture, image, illustration

Viking burial ship by Graham Coton

From the high cliffs, bonfires blaze out in the dark night. The water far below catches the red light, and the blades of many oars send it circling and spinning towards the black rocky shores. The Vikings are home.

Their long, low ships glide into the fiord. Laughter and shouting echo across the water, and above all comes the measured call of the crewmaster, giving time to the oarsmen.

Another raid is over.

“The Scottish men, eh! Did you see them run?” “The fat one – he tripped over his sword . . .” “Aye, and guess who now has the gold goblet he carried . . .” So the men boast and joke among themselves as they approach their village.

But something is wrong. The village, whose huts crouch on the sloping shore, is still. No answering shouts come from the water’s edge, and the guiding bonfires burn in silence. Even the dogs are quiet.

A scraping of the wooden keel on pebbles, and the first Vikings are ashore. They laugh, uncertainly now, as out of the night steps an elder of the village.

“What news, wise one?” the raiders ask.

The elder sighs, and whispers, “The King is dead . . .”

And they take the King’s ship, and at the head of a narrow fiord they bury it. In it they lay to rest Olav, King of Vestfold, son of King Gudr√∂d. On his chest is his sword; at each side of his ship hang his warriors’ shields, 32 a side, yellow and black.

Then the thick clay soil is piled above . . .

Over the centuries, a small group of farms grows up by the royal grave. The place is called Gokstad, and there a tale becomes a legend, passed from father to son. Here is the King’s Mound. But what king, they cannot say . . .

Now it is early in 1880, and in Gokstad, as in the rest of Norway, the winter days are short and bitterly cold. Around a blazing fire, a farmer and his sons while the long evenings away with tales of heroes long gone, of the Vikings and their deeds in war.

So the talk turns to the mound, which the farmers own. Every year, as for so many years past, the plough has sliced its furrow in the strange, man-made hill. But such a monument cannot be easily reduced. It still stands 15 feet high, and is 150 feet long from end to end.

The farmer’s sons are fascinated by the legend which surrounds it, for the story goes that here, in ancient times, a King was buried with all his treasure.

“We will dig and see if it is so,” they declare.

They did. On and off, throughout January of that year, they hacked and shovelled at the stubborn, frozen soil, sinking a shaft down through the centre of the mound. Their only reward was a few pieces of timber.

And there they might have left the matter, had they not talked quite openly about it. As it was, the news reached the ears of a merchant in a town nearby. His hobby was archaeology.

“All these goings-on at Gokstad sound to me like work for an expert,” was his verdict, and he promptly got in touch with one – Nicholas Nikolaysen, President of the Antiquarian Society at Oslo, capital of Norway.

The President was interested. A mound of that size could well be the result of a Viking ship burial, and with luck it would still contain enough fragments and relics to add something to the small stock of knowledge on the subject.

For other mounds had already been found and opened up – indeed, Nikolaysen himself had dug at Borre, where a Viking ship, admittedly in poor condition, had been uncovered.

Nikolaysen travelled south.

His first action on reaching Gokstad was to stop the farmer’s sons digging.

“Wait until the ground is unfrozen,” he told them. “Then I will come back and help you do this in the way it should be done.”

True to his word, Nikolaysen was back at the end of April, examining the huge mound from all angles, wondering where to begin. There? From the top down? Or at the side?

The archaeologist shrugged his shoulders and chose at random.

The first day passed laboriously, with nothing to show but a pile of heavy clay from the trench in the south side of the mound. Then came the second day . . .

One of the farmer’s sons, breathing heavily, straightened up and brushed the hair out of his eyes.

“Hey! Mr. Nikolaysen! I’ve hit something!”

The expert from Oslo stooped to look. In the face of the trench was a large, upright beam of wood.

It was the bow of a ship.

Now came the back-breaking task of laying the vessel bare. Inch by inch it appeared as they dug throughout the early summer. Here was the anchor, here the oars. There were the shields at the ship’s side, as the Vikings had left them.

Then the mast was revealed, and behind it a deckhouse built of sturdy planks. This, Nikolaysen knew from his previous experience, was the burial chamber.

He knew, too, that he was not the first to find it since its occupant had been laid there for his lone voyage to the next world. Someone, sometime, had dug a shaft down into the mound; traces of it still remained.

The burial chamber had been plundered very thoroughly, but out of it Nikolaysen was able to take what the thieves in their hurry left behind: gold-threaded cloth, a purse, metal clasps that had survived decay – more than 100 objects in all.

But the greatest treasure was the ship itself, nearly 80 feet long from stem to stern. Hauled from its clay bed, it went back, after a thousand years, to the sea – on a barge bound for Oslo.

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