Huge Iron Age Longhouse Found Beside Viking Ship in Norway
Archaeologists in Norway have made some amazing discoveries recently without even digging. Using breakthrough radar technology, they have found an elite settlement and burial ground from the Nordic Iron Age (550-1050 AD). Initially the most significant find at the site was a rare Viking ship burial, the first in decades. But now, archaeologists have located a “possible” Nordic center of religion or politics, which contains a huge Iron Age longhouse, at the same location.
This site is providing insights into the evolution of Nordic society as it transitioned from the Iron to the Viking Age. The remarkable archaeological complex was found near the Jell Mound in Gjellestad, Østfold, in southern Norway, and is described in a journal article titled “Gjellestad: a newly discovered ‘central place’ in south-east Norway” which is published in Antiquity.
The Norwegian site is one of the biggest burial mounds from the Iron Age and it has previously yielded a treasure trove of artifacts. The owner of the land applied for permission to put a drainage ditch on his land. In accordance with Norwegian law, archaeologists surveyed the area to ensure that the ditch would not damage anything of historical importance.
Gold pendant: a so-called “berloque” found by metal-detectorists near the Jell Mound (© 2020 Kirsten Helgeland, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo/CC BY-SA 4.0 / Antiquity Publications Ltd).
Viking Burials and Much More Found with Radar!
Some trail trenching and metal detecting was carried out at the site and this prompted Norwegian experts to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which was employed to map features below the surface. “The initial results announced in 2018, revealed that the seemingly non-descript field next to the Jell Mound was actually home to a significant archaeological site,” the research team wrote in an Antiquity press release. The GPR technology collected data from the site and allowed the archaeologists to map the area under the surface of the field. In effect, the archaeologists could see what was below the ground without having to dig into the earth.
The archaeologists knew that three funeral mounds had once been at the site and that they had been plowed under in the 19th century AD, but it turns out that there was much more to find. The GPR survey revealed anomalies and evidence for post holes and hearths, and this allowed the researchers to develop a picture of what lay beneath the soil. In the Antiquity journal report, the experts wrote that “The GPR showed 13 burial mounds once existed at Gjellestad, some over 30 meters wide [98 feet wide].”
Left image: The interpretation map of the mound cemetery based on the full depth-range of the GPR dataset; Right image: The corresponding depth slices from the depth-range 0.3-0.8 meters below the surface. (Source: © Kartverket/CC-BY-4.0; figure by L. Gustavsen/ Antiquity Publications Ltd).
Iron Age Viking Center with a Huge Longhouse!
Most of the mounds are burials because they are circled by ring ditches and it seemed that they were used over centuries during the Iron Age. Gustavsen explained that this aspect of the site didn’t surprise the team, “We are not surprised to have found these burial mounds, as we already know there are several others in the surrounding area. Viken county archaeologists have excavated the area previously and made finds that would indicate more burial mounds here. Still, these are important to know about to get a more complete picture of Gjellestad and its surroundings.”
Last year, the research team also believed that there were four longhouses at the site. They knew that some of the buildings were exceptionally large: up to 30 meters long (90 feet). But in autumn 2021 they discovered a fifth impressive longhouse – and it measures 60 meters (196.85 ft.) long! Gustavsen said, “We have found several buildings, all typical Iron Age longhouses, north of the Gjellestad ship. The most striking discovery is a 60 metre long and 15 metre wide longhouse, a size that makes it one of the largest we know of in Scandinavia.”
The Viking ship burial at Gjellestad is now known to be part of a larger mound cemetery and settlement site from the Iron Age, located next to Norway’s monumental Jell Mound. (Lars Gustavsen / NIKU)
It seems likely that these buildings were feasting halls, religious structures, or possibly cult centers where rituals and initiation ceremonies used in the Viking religion took place. Lars Gustavsen, lead author of the research report, informed Ancient Origins in an email that a large building found at the site could have had political “functions such as representation and the maintenance of social and political alliances.” Gustavsen also said:
“Finding these longhouses confirms that Gjellestad was a central place in the late Iron Age. Our hope is that within the next years, we will understand the relationship between the ship, the buildings and the rise of central places much better.”
A mound known as M13 also proved to be something really special. In it, they found some anomalies including “a large, elliptical anomaly that we interpret as a ship grave,” the researchers wrote in Antiquity. They had identified a ship that had been placed in the mound as part of a burial ritual. In the interview with Ancient Origins, Gustavsen said that: “the person buried could have been a man or a woman, someone rich or a slave, or perhaps there was no one buried in the ship.”
Combined interpretation map of the Gjellestad site based on the geophysical survey. (Source: © Kartverket/CC-BY-4.0; figure by L. Gustavsen / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Further Analysis of the Mysterious Burial Area
Based on the measurement of the features of the anomaly, the data suggests “an original length of approximately 22m [72 feet]” according to the authors. The discovery of a Viking ship burial is an astonishing find. Very few have been uncovered in the last 100 years.
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It is believed that the vessel was a sailboat rather than a rowboat. Also found in the mound with the Viking ship was a mysterious anomaly about which the researchers said, “for the moment we interpret it as a later intrusion into the mound.”
It is believed that the Viking ship burial tradition originated in what is now modern Sweden in the first century AD. Research shows that elites in Norway adopted the practice possibly because of interactions with royalty in England. Several hundred boat burials have been found over a wide area of northern Europe. Based on similar finds, they believe that the recently discovered Viking ship burial dates to the 10th century AD, the highpoint of the Viking Age.
Iron Age Center Of Power
In the Antiquity press release, Gustavsen stated that “The site seems to have belonged to the very top echelon of the Iron Age elite of the area.” And it is similar to other sites found elsewhere in the region. It appears that it originated as a common burial mound that later became a burial ground for the elite, with the halls and the Viking ship burial added later. In an email to Ancient Origins the study’s lead author stated that it was “A site where political and societal influence was displayed and maintained, and from which political and societal control could be exerted.”
The structures and the mounds would also have been used for political purposes. This was a turbulent age in southern Scandinavia when rival groups fought for scarce arable land. According to Antiquity, the “the emergence of Gjellestad must be considered—as a clear statement by a community reinforcing its ties to the landscape.” There is evidence that the Viking ship burial would have been seen for miles and it would have been a statement by the community that they owned the land.
The site’s location probably meant that it was also a trade center. Gustavsen told Ancient Origins that given its location near the shore, it is likely that “sea-borne trade would have been important for the development of the site.” Test excavations were carried out in 2019 at the Gjlellestad site by Norwegian archaeologists. The researchers also anticipate that excavations will reveal harbor facilities at the site.
The next step is a new project called ‘Viking Nativity: Gjellestad Across Boarders,’ in which archaeologists, historians, and Viking Age specialists will examine the development of Gjellestad during the Nordic Iron Age.
Top image: One of the five longhouses found near the Gjellestad Viking ship is 60 meters long, making it one of the largest in Scandinavia. Source: Illustration: Lars Gustavsen/NIKU, photo: Arild L. Teigen/VIken fylkeskommune
By Ed Whelan
Updated on December 7, 2021.