A cemetery of small ship settings at Lindholm Høje in Denmark. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The phrase ‘a Viking burial’ will, for most people, conjure an image of a flaming dragon-prowed ship floating down an Arctic fjord. In reality, this specific form of funerary ritual is not known from the archaeological or literary evidence but appears to be an amalgamation of more concretely documented traditions. The impression we get from both archaeology and literature is that there was no uniform burial practice across pre-Christian Scandinavia. There were many different ways of burying the dead, and different communities seem to have had their own preferred methods. There was no consistency even with the treatment of the body: some parts of Scandinavia favoured cremation (the burning of the body) and so we find the ashes of the deceased placed in the graves. In other areas inhumation (the burial of the body intact) was the norm. This lack of consistency even puzzled medieval Christian authors, who were used to rigid funerary practices. Writing in the 1200s, the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson suggested that funeral pyres were the earliest burial practice, with a cairn of stones being raised over the ashes. This ‘Age of Burning’ was replaced by the preference for erecting burial mounds. Unfortunately, archaeological evidence does not suggest that the reality was anywhere near this straightforward.
The burial mound is perhaps the most recognisable feature of Norse pre-Christian burial traditions. There are thousands of burial mounds strewn throughout Scandinavia, to say nothing of the other places that the Norse settled. Not all burial mounds were the same, however. They varied dramatically in size. Among the largest Viking Age mounds are those at Borre in Norway, which reach heights of 6m and diameters of 45m, and the north mound at Jelling, which is close to 10m tall and 70m in diameter. Larger mounds can be found in Scandinavia (such as Anundshög in Sweden or Raknehaugen in Norway), but are likely to predate the Viking Age. The vast majority of mounds are far more diminutive, and have decreased in height over time, making them barely noticeable in the landscape. Some can now only be found by aerial photography. As is discussed below, the size of a mound reflects the power of the person who commissioned it.
The Ladby ship in Denmark, still contained within the burial mound that was raised over it (now hollowed out to allow access by the public). Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Burial mounds did not all cover the same type of burial: instead they amount to the icing on the cake. Some mounds covered simple cist burials (a small stone box containing the (often burnt) remains of the deceased. Others covered chamber graves, as is typically the case for the burials at Birka in Sweden. Others were erected over entire buried ships, such as at Oseberg and Gokstad in Norway or Ladby in Denmark.
The association between Viking Age burials and ships is well established in popular perception. This went beyond simply the nautical lifestyle of the typical Viking. An association between boats and the journey to the afterlife is a common motif found throughout folklore all over the world. The sea, seemingly endless, mysterious and dangerous, naturally lends itself to an association with death and the beyond. By introducing boat imagery into burial practices, mourners provided the deceased with the means of travelling into the next life.
Perhaps the most evocative (certainly the most frequently quoted) literary description of a flaming boat burial comes from the tenth-century Arabic writer ibn Fadlan. Ibn Fadlan described the funeral of a chieftain of the Volga Vikings which he observed first-hand. The body of the chieftain was placed in a boat that had been drawn up on land. He was surrounded with goods and a human sacrifice was carried out. Then the entire boat was burned. In Norse Mythology, the funeral of the god Balder also involved placing the deceased in a burning boat. However, there is no other evidence for this practice (unsurprisingly, as the evidence would have been burned), thus making it hard to verify whether this was a genuine Norse practice.
Nevertheless, the association between boats and burials is well established by archaeological evidence. A number of boat burials have been found throughout Scandinavia, where the deceased was placed in a boat that was covered by a mound. The most famous examples are the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials in Norway. Recently, another boat burial has been discovered by scans of a burial mound at Viksletta in Norway.
Burning and burying real boats were not the only way to introduce boat imagery into one’s funerary rites. Another common Viking Age burial practice was to create the outline of ship using large stones: these are referred to as ship settings. Often these ship settings were small. One cemetery at Lindholm Høje in Denmark contains as many as 700 burials marked by small ship settings of 1–2m in length. Other ship settings are far larger. The largest was at Jelling and measured some 360m from end to end. Sweden has also yielded a series of huge ship settings at Anundshög, Ale Stenar and Askeberga.
The imagery of a burning boat was adopted in the late-nineteenth century for annual Up Helly Aa celebrations in the Shetland islands, inspired by the islands’ Norse heritage. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Two vast ship settings at Anundshög in Sweden, totalling 100m in length. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Wealthy pre-Christian burials in Scandinavia often contain arrays of objects that are referred to as burial goods. These are objects which may have been of personal importance to the deceased or their family, items which symbolised the social role of the deceased in life or equipment that would assist them in the afterlife (or a combination of the three). These items would be positioned around the remains of the deceased (whether cremated or simply inhumed) in a burial chamber. Many Viking burials consisted only of a chamber, often with a mound raised over it. In boat burials, the shape of the boat created a convenient chamber. For vast boat burials such as the Oseberg ship, wooden burial chambers were erected on the deck of the boat.
Oseberg had a truly huge grave assemblage, a testament to the importance of its two female occupants. Many of the items had a seemingly everyday function, such as a bed (upon which the bodies were places), buckets and sleds, although they were all highly decorated. They also contained textiles such as wool garments and imported silks. The burial also contained elaborate tapestries which appear to depict scenes from Norse mythology. A particularly notable feature was an elaborate cart that was clearly built only to go into the grave, as it could only move in a straight line. Besides this, the Oseberg ship contained a large number of animal bodies: 14 horses, an ox and three dogs. Animal sacrifices are a common feature of Viking Age Scandinavian burials. Dogs and horses are found particularly often: the former were associated with hunting and the latter with elite warfare. A large number of graves which contain a large amount of military equipment also contain the body of a horse. These are often referred to as equestrian graves (borrowing a Roman term for the aristocratic members of the Roman army who could afford their own horse).
The elaborate cart found in the Oseberg ship burial. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
In many cases, grave goods are the only things that can be found in a grave, the human remains having completely decomposed over the centuries. Traditionally, this has led people to try and draw conclusions about the identity of the grave’s occupant based solely on the grave goods. One category, known as smiths’ graves, contain sets of equipment used for metalwork, such as hammers, tongs and crucibles. It is largely accepted that such graves were constructed for deceased smiths, although some have argued that these are symbols of status, as many smith graves also contain high-status weaponry.
Traditionally, scholars have drawn a distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ graves based on the goods that are found in them. ‘Female’ graves are those that contain jewellery such as beads, necklaces and berdal brooches, which are associated with female clothing. They often also contain more everyday items such as buckets, pots and weaving looms, as well as textiles. ‘Male’ graves are those that contain sets of weapons, which are also classed as warrior graves. Warrior graves often include (besides the corpses of horses) sets of weapons such as spears, swords, shields and axes. They often also contain gaming pieces and boards. The larger the number of weapons in a grave, the more high-status it is assumed to be. An oft-quoted example of a quintessential warrior grave is this one from Birka in Sweden. It contained a sword, a spear, an axe, a knife, a bow and arrow, two shields and two horses. Yet this grave also contained a surprise for archaeologists: to find out what it was, click here.
What do burial practices tell us?
When we approach burial practices as archaeological evidence for the society that produced them, we have to be aware of a few things. Firstly, most of the practices that are well documented are associated with the richer members of society, whose family could afford to give them a lavish send-off. As with so many aspects of Viking Age Norse culture, the burial traditions of the lower echelons of society are virtually unknown to us.
The Oseberg ship is 20m long and had seen decades of service at the time it was interred and was undoubtedly highly valuable to the community that was prepared to part with it for this burial. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The nature of a burial can tell us about the social standing of those who commissioned it than simply the fact that they were wealthy; it can also reveal the relative wealth and status of the commissioner when compared to other burials. Take the size of burial mounds: the larger the mound, the greater the number of individual hours of labour required to build it and therefore the greater the number of people required to share this burden. Mounds like those at Borre, or Jelling in Denmark or Gamla Uppsala in Sweden must have required a huge number of people to construct them, reflecting the amount of people over whom the commissioner of the mound was able to exert their influence. Similarly, the contents of a grave indicate its relative wealth. Warrior graves with the greatest number of weapons are likely to reflect the wealthiest members of society. The Oseberg burial required the mourners to part with a highly valuable vessel.
Burial practices also inform us about religion. Christian burials are much smaller and simpler, rarely containing burial goods or being covered by monuments, although some may have been associated with rune stones. But this raises a problem. Does the religious affiliation indicated by a burial reflect the religion of the person who was buried, or the person who buried them? It is possible that someone could convert to Christianity, but their offspring remained pagan and thus buried them in a pagan fashion. Alternatively, Christian offspring could bury their pagan parents in a Christian fashion. This occurred with Harald Bluetooth, who disinterred his father King Gorm from his burial mound at Jelling and reburied him in a Christian church.
The North Mound at Jelling. The only mound of the two to cover a burial, it is thought that it was erected over the grave of King Gorm. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
This issue has broader implications than simply religion. Although we might assume that burials reflect the wealth and power of the person who was buried, in reality they are just a likely to reflect the wealth and power of the person who commissioned the burial (be they the spouse or children of the deceased). By commissioning a lavish burial for their predecessors, chieftains or kings could make a statement about their own power, asserting the fact that they had inherited the wealth and status of their forbears. Again, Jelling provides the best example of this. Although the burial mound at Jelling was constructed for Gorm, and Gorm is commemorated on the Jelling rune stone, both clearly express the power of Harald Bluetooth.