Who Was the Exceptionally Powerfully Built Viking Buried in the Gokstad Ship?
Ever since the publication of a scientific article in 1883, “everyone” has known that the skeleton found in the magnificent Gokstad ship in Eastern Norway belonged to Olaf Geirstad-Alf, the legendary Viking king of the House of Yngling. In recent years, however, research has shown that this must be wrong.
Dendrochronological datings show that the Gokstad ship was built about the year 890 AD, i.e. the height of Norwegian expansion in the British Isles, and in the year 901 it was buried in the so-called “King’s Mound” (Gokstad Mound) in Vestfold, Eastern Norway.
The vessel that is largely constructed of oak is 23.22 meters (76.18 ft) long and 5.18 meters (17 ft) wide. On each side there are sixteen oar holes, and the ship was built to carry thirty-two oarsmen. With steersman (the ship’s owner) and lookout, the crew consisted of thirty-four people, but could carry a maximum of seventy men with some equipment.
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Model of the Gokstad Viking ship. (Image: CC BY-SA 2.5 )
The Gokstad ship was both flexible and fast with a top speed of more than 12 knots (14 mph) propelled by the sail of about 110 square meters (1,200 square feet). Recent tests have shown that the vessel worked very well with both sail and oars, and it may have been used for trade, Viking raids and explorations.
No thwarts have been found and the oarsmen probably sat on chests that also contained their personal equipment.
When the Gokstad ship was excavated, sixty-four shields were discovered (thirty-two on each side) and every second shield was painted in yellow and black. In the front part of the ship, there were discovered fragments of a white wool fabric with sewn red stripes that were probably parts of the sail.
Behind the mast, a burial chamber was discovered with the remains of a beautifully woven carpet decorating the walls. Inside the burial chamber, there was found a made bed containing the buried person.
In addition to the Gokstad ship itself, there were among other objects found a gaming board with gaming pieces made of horn, fish hooks, harness fittings of iron, lead and gilded bronze, kitchenware, six beds, one tent, one sled and three smaller boats.
There were also discovered a large amount of animal bones that had belonged to twelve horses, eight dogs, two northern goshawks and surprisingly, two peacocks.
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Animals in the Gokstad ship grave. (Image: arkikon.no)
When the excavation took place in 1880, it soon became clear that parts of the grave goods had been plundered in ancient times: there was no jewelry or any precious metals in the grave, nor any weapons that in the Viking Age were an important part of a warrior’s grave goods preparing him for his journey to the Afterlife.
Just south of the Gokstad burial mound, a major trading center has recently been discovered. The items excavated tell different stories and document the close connection between Vestfold and the rest of the world at the time.
Weights found in the trading center show that hectic trading activities took place at about the same time as the Gokstad ship burial.
In 2007, bones from a human skeleton found in the grave were thoroughly examined by Professor Per Holck at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo.
The examination proved that the bones had belonged to a man who died in his 40’s. He was between 178 (5ft 10 in) and 184 centimeters tall (6ft), something that was significantly taller than the average height of the period (165 cm / 5ft 5in) and the Viking was exceptionally powerfully built.
The man in the Gokstad ship grave mainly ate terrestrial food [food coming from land and not the sea, like meat and corn] showing that he has belonged to the Norse community’s social elite.
Professor Holck found clear marks of five or six different cuts from an ax, knife and sword: one on each of the thigh bones, two or three on the left and one on the right calf bone.