Ground-Penetrating Radar Locates Massive Viking Burial Mounds in Norway
An extensive survey using ground penetrating radar in northern Norway has revealed the presence of 15 gigantic Viking burial mounds, along with other measurable remains of ongoing human activity. Based on their sizes, shapes, and designs, archaeologists have dated the mounds and other surrounding features back to the eighth century AD, when the Vikings were beginning their era of expansion and conquest. Future excavations could reveal new and fascinating details about the beliefs and practices of the settlers who occupied this perpetually frigid and semi-frozen stretch of land, in a time when the predations of the Vikings rudely introduced Scandinavian culture to the outside world.
The survey was undertaken in November 2019 by researchers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) devices with a penetrating range of three meters (10 feet), they carefully explored a rectangular area covering 24 acres (10 hectares) in the snow-covered fields of Bodøsjøen, a village in the municipality of Bodø located along the windswept coast of the Norwegian Sea.
The discovery of the burial mounds in Norway was not a surprise. Aerial photographs had already picked up subtle signs of their presence, and it was in fact these photographs that prompted the 2019 survey. (Norge i Bilder)
The Mystery of the Oval Ditches Found Near Burial Mounds in Norway
The discovery of the burial mounds was not a surprise. Aerial photographs had already picked up subtle signs of their presence, and it was in fact these photographs that prompted the 2019 survey. But what fascinated archaeologists the most was the discovery of 32 moderately-sized oval ditches, an enigmatic feature that has never been seen before in GPR surveys or excavations in this part of Norway. The ditches were oriented similarly, with their narrowest ends facing toward the sea. This suggests the ditches were constructed to minimize exposure to wicked eastward winds, which are frequent and often unrelenting in this part of the globe.
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Two theories have so far been offered to explain the existence of these ditches. Some researchers believe they are foundations for some type of transitory or intermittently occupied housing, which would presumably have been used only during warmer months since no remnants of interior fire pits could be detected. “It’s possible to interpret such constructions as semi-permanent house foundations, also called búðir, which are known from assembly places in Iceland,” said Arne Anderson Stamnes, the archaeologist responsible for organizing the GPR survey.
The ground-penetrating radar (GPR) devices found traces of 15 burial mounds in Norway. (NTNU University Museum)
The second theory posits the idea that these were foundations that hosted temporary market stalls, occupied by vendors, merchants, craftspeople, artists, and others who had other parties who had goods or services to offer to local residents or masses assembled for important festivals or events. “I’m fascinated by the idea that there might be stalls connected to larger crowds gathering on the site,” said Jørn Erik Henriksen, an archaeologist affiliated with the Norwegian Arctic University Museum.
Further discoveries verify that this area of land on Norway’s north central coast was occupied during the Viking Age. So far, more than 1,200 small pits of various sizes and characteristics have been identified following the examination of the accumulated GPR data. While these pits were believed to have been used for mundane purposes, their very presence shows that the area surrounding the burial mounds was once a hub of activity.
An interpretation of the georadar data from the snow-covered fields of Bodøsjøen in Norway, showing the burial mounds and other remains. (NTNU University Museum)
Has the Lost Kingdom of Salten Been Rediscovered?
It is difficult to precisely identify the nature or purpose of the settlements that existed at Bodøsjøen in the years before the turning of the first millennium. But it is clear that the individuals interred in the burial mounds were from important families, or filled prestigious roles in the leadership structure of the society. Their burial mounds were massive, the majority with diameters ranging from 57 feet (17.5 meters) to 105 feet (32 meters), which certainly indicates that their occupants were esteemed figures.
Historians have suggested one intriguing possibility that might explain the signs of occupation and intense human activity found near the burial mounds of Bodøsjøen. During the Viking Age, the district of Salten, of which the north central coastal area of Norway is a part, was ruled by a chiefdom that was said to have located its administrative headquarters somewhere in the region surrounding the municipality of Bodø. Some believe the site at Bodøsjøen may very well have been the ruling center of that chiefdom, which would likely mean it had a reasonably significant population at that time.
Small, independent chiefdoms were common in the coastal areas of Norway in this era, when the concept of Norwegian unification was widely seen as a dangerous threat to local autonomy. In fact, when Norway was finally united under the authority of King Harald Fairhair in 872, these fears proved prophetic, as the new king ruled his subjects with an iron hand from the seat of his personal kingdom in the faraway south.
Jørn Erik Henriksen would like to see more surveys of other interesting sites in the region, before declaring Bodøsjøen the true center of power of the lost chiefdom of Salten. Nevertheless, he admits the idea has credence. “The findings have in no way weakened the hypothesis that this place was the center of power in Salten, on the contrary!” he exclaimed.
Excavations at Bodøsjøen may eventually uncover crucial information, or well-preserved artifacts, that help answer some of the remaining questions. For now, what Norwegian archaeologists have is proof of significant human activity in a concentrated location, which will likely attract intense interest from researchers, scientists, and historians in the years to come.
Top image: The burial mounds were discovered in Norway thanks to the use of ground-penetrating radar technology used during ideal weather conditions with a fine layer of snow. Source: Arne Anderson Stamnes / NTNU University Museum
By Nathan Falde