Two rare Viking boat burials have been unearthed in Sweden, with one of the boats harboring the body of a man in the stern, and those of a horse and dog in the bow.
Archeologists also uncovered personal items, including a sword, spear, shield, and an ornate comb.
The researchers describe the finds as sensational.
The two boats were found last autumn during an excavation at the vicarage in Old Uppsala, in an area outside of the modern-day city of Uppsala.
A cellar and a well dating from the Middle Ages were excavated and then one of the boats was observed beneath the more modern structures.
The two boat burials were only fully excavated in the last month.
One of the two newly discovered graves was intact while the other was damaged, probably when the much later cellar, dating from the 16th century, was built.
The remains of the man were found in the stern of the intact boat burial. The horse and dog who accompanied him in death were in the bow of the same vessel.
“This is a unique excavation,” archaeologist Anton Seiler says. “The last excavation of this grave type in Old Uppsala was almost 50 years ago.”
A boat burial was a specific funeral practice in which the dead person was placed in a ship or boat, often along with rich gifts like jewellery or sets of weapons and other objects.
This kind of grave dates back to the Iron Age (around 550–800 AD) or, in this case, the Viking Age (800–1050 AD), when it otherwise was common to cremate the dead. However, the individual in this boat was not cremated.
Such burials were probably reserved for people of higher social standing in society.
In Sweden, only around 10 boat burial sites of this kind have ever been found, mainly in the provinces of Uppland and Västmanland in the middle of the country.
“It is a small group of people who were buried in this way,” says Anton Seiler, who works at The Archaeologists, part of the National Historical Museums in Sweden.
“You can suspect that they were distinguished people in the society of the time since burial ships, in general, are very rare.”
Researchers suspect the decision not to cremate the grave may have reflected the influence of the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia.
Wood and clinch-nails of iron that were used in the construction of the boats were also found.
The fact that it is an intact grave, undisturbed by plundering, provides researchers with a particularly interesting opportunity to study rare burial traditions, with modern scientific analysis methods and documentation techniques.
This is the first time in Sweden these kinds of methods have been used in relation to this grave type.
“It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated,” Seiler says. “We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers. We will also put the boat burials in relation to the very special area that is Old Uppsala and the excavations done here before.”
Selected parts of the find will go on display at Gamla Uppsala Museum and Stockholm’s Swedish History Museum.