Archaeologists dig at the site of the first ship burial, where the human and dog bones, the ship and sword were found. You can see how close the waters of the fjord are in the background.

Three Boat Burials of Viking-era Chiefs Found in as Many Days at Icelandic Site


Archaeologists have announced that they found three Viking-age boat burials in quick succession on a fjord along Iceland’s northern coast this week. They believe they may find more Viking burials in the vicinity and hope they will be unlooted. Two other burials had been discovered in previous years, making these recent burials the third, fourth and fifth.

The discovery earlier this week of a boat, sword and dog bones, buried along with some human bones from the 9th or 10th centuries, indicates an important chief was memorialized there. Archaeologists are working quickly to excavate the burial because some of it has already been washed away by waves. Another ship burial was located right next to this first one and the third not far away.

Archaeologists are unsure what has been lost to the waters of the fjord so far because half the boat has been washed away, says a story about the excavation in Iceland Magazine online. The experts expect to find that the other boat burials have also been washing out to sea, says another article in the magazine.

Hikers came across this Viking sword last September in southern Iceland. The sword from the ship burial is not in as good condition as this one.

Hikers came across this Viking sword last September in southern Iceland. The sword from the ship burial is not in as good condition as this one. (Photo: Árni Björn)

While the dog and sword burial is heavily damaged from erosion, archaeologists believe they will find still other burials in the vicinity.

Two of the names of the site, near Akureyri town on Eyjafjörður fjord in northern Iceland, contain words for burials.

Says Iceland Magazine:

The area where the ship burial was found is known as Dysnes, a name which points to Viking age graves, as dys is an old word for burial mound. The word Dysnes could be translated to ‘Burial ness.’ The precise location of the boat grave is then known as Kumlateigur, kuml being another old word for burial, and Kumlateigur translating as ‘Burial stretch.’ Both place names are ancient and point to more than one grave. 

A boat burial was discovered at Kumlholt or “Burial hill” south of this site 11 years ago.

The recent finds are important for a couple of reasons. Experts say that while many important Viking chiefs were buried in boats in mainland Scandinavia, only a few such entombments have been found in Iceland. The island nation has few trees, and timber was scarce for boat-building there, so it’s thought in Iceland such burials were uncommon. Boats were just too valuable, says Iceland Magazine.

How a Viking boat may have looked in a 1912 reproduction in the Homes and Gardens magazine

How a Viking boat may have looked in a 1912 reproduction in the Homes and Gardens magazine (Flickr’s The Commons/Wikimedia)

Another reason the first find is important is the discovery of the sword, which is rare. The inclusion of a boat and sword in the burial both indicate the chief was very important and powerful. Last September a Viking age sword was found in southern Iceland.

Another unusual thing about the find is that Viking burials that have not been looted are rare. Many such burials in Iceland that have been excavated have been robbed. The boat burial at Kumlholt from 11 years ago was robbed at some time. Of course we will never know what valuables were taken from that grave.

Waves have washed away half of the boat in the most recent find and all the artifacts contained in that part of it have been lost. The sword and dog and human bones were near the surface. The discovery of the sword leads the experts to believe the grave had been previously undisturbed.

Top image: Archaeologists dig at the site of the first ship burial, where the human and dog bones, the ship and sword were found. You can see how close the waters of the fjord are in the background. (Iceland Magazine/Auðunn)

By Mark Miller

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