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Representation of a Viking Hall.        Source: Roksolana / Adobe stock

Radar Tech Uncovers Three Viking Halls at Royal Cemetery in Norway

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Three ancient Viking hall type structures of Norse power have been scanned at a Late Iron Age royal burial site in Norway.

Borre is located in Horten municipality, Vestfold County, on the western coast of the Oslofjord in Norway and is famous for its monumental burial mounds dating to the Late Nordic Iron and Viking Age (AD 400–1050). A new archaeological ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey has now revealed new information about three large halls used by high-status Vikings, suggesting they might have been mentioned in ancient Norse sagas.

The site of Borre showing the mound cemetery and the newly discovered Viking halls (A, B and C). (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

The site of Borre showing the mound cemetery and the newly discovered Viking halls (A, B and C). ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The authors of a new paper published in the journal Antiquity and available to read on Cambridge.org, present the GPR results of the three buildings including their typological properties. Lead author, Professor Christer Tonning, suggests the halls were active when the burial mounds were in use, which provides new evidence of the significance of halls in relation to mound building societies.

A Centre of Royal Viking Burials

The site of Borre in Norway was first identified by archaeologists in 1852, when the remains of a Viking Age ship burial were discovered by workers of the Norwegian road authorities, and it now features one of the largest monumental funerary sites in Scandinavia dating to the Late Nordic Iron and Viking Ages (AD 400–800 and 800–1050 respectively).

Reconstructed Viking Hall based on archeological theories and remains of such halls. (astrid westvang / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reconstructed Viking Hall based on archeological theories and remains of such halls. (astrid westvang / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Originally comprising of nine burial mounds (with seven remaining), three burial cairns and over 40 other burial structures measuring up to 47 meters (154 feet) in diameter and 7 meters (23 feet) in height, the site is described by the researchers as a “royal cemetery.”

According to a report in Viking Archaeology , in 2007 and 2008 ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys, on arable land surrounding the monuments, revealed traces of two large halls. In 2013 a joint GPR project was launched by the Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science , University of Vienna , Austria, Norsk Institutt for Kulturminneforskning , Oslo, Norway and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology , Wien, Austria. This study found the cemetery area and the third building, which had dimensions exceeding those of the two structures detected in 2007.

Overview of GPR surveys carried out at Borre since 2007 using different motorized and manual prospection systems. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Overview of GPR surveys carried out at Borre since 2007 using different motorized and manual prospection systems. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Halls of the Strongest Vikings

Viking halls are evidenced in Denmark as early as the 4th century BC, where they existed alongside dwellings in larger farmsteads and they are mentioned in ancient sagas, such as the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. But they were first mentioned in the old English poem Beowulf in which the Danish King Hrothgar constructed a large hall called Heorot.

In Norse mythology, hall buildings are commonly known as salr or holl̨ and unlike longhouses, they were not used as dwellings, but their impressive layouts were designed for sacred assemblies in which the elite maintained and exerted social power, prestige and authority, strength and leadership in Iron Age Scandinavia.

The team of archaeologists and GPR experts asked if these three hall structures at Borre might represent some of the grand halls mentioned in Nordic myths and their new research article is the first publication of their new discoveries detailing their layout in detail and presents the differences between Scandinavian longhouses and halls.

The GPR datasets used for the interpretation of Viking halls A, B and C were acquired with different measurement devices. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

The GPR datasets used for the interpretation of Viking halls A, B and C were acquired with different measurement devices. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Measuring the Capacity of a Viking Hall

Building A dates to the Late Nordic Iron Age  (400 - 800 AD) and measured approximately 40 × 12 meters (130 feet x 40 feet) and the GPR data revealed that it comprised “59 clearly identifiable postholes” with diameters ranging between 0.80 (2.6 feet) and 1.50 meters (5 feet). 25 of these postholes in the central part of the building are thought to have been roof-bearing posts and 22 of these are paired in a formation called “trestles.”

Interpretative mapping of the GPR data revealed at least two construction phases of Viking hall / building A, as indicated by the layout of the roof-bearing posts. The two rectangles in the center of the building indicate the location of the central open areas. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Interpretative mapping of the GPR data revealed at least two construction phases of Viking hall / building A, as indicated by the layout of the roof-bearing posts. The two rectangles in the center of the building indicate the location of the central open areas. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Scanning and interpreting building B proved to be the most challenging due to the temporary nature of the features in GPR data. This could mean that like building A, there was more than one occupation phase and a number of changes were made during its lifespan. 14 roof-bearing posts are paired to form seven trestles, along with 12 wall posts on the eastern side and 10 on the western side of the building. Its structure has maximum dimensions of  33 × 11 meters (108 x 36 feet) at approximately 0.25 to 0.70 meters (0.8 to 2.3 feet) below the grounds surface with a central open area.

Interpretative map showing archaeological features including postholes, pits and a ditch of Viking hall B. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Interpretative map showing archaeological features including postholes, pits and a ditch of Viking hall B. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Building C is situated approximately 140 meters (460 feet) to the southwest atop a dominant ridge and overlooking terrain that slopes slightly towards the coast. The researchers said this particular hall would have been an imposing sight for seafarers in the Oslofjord. As the largest of the three buildings at 63 × 18 meters (207 x 59 feet), it has 23 roof-bearing posts arranged in 11 trestles, spaced between 5 and 6 meters (16 and 19 feet) apart with an open central area.

Interpretative map showing the larger Viking hall (building C) with a maximum length of 63m and an unusual central open area. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Interpretative map showing the larger Viking hall (building C) with a maximum length of 63m and an unusual central open area. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Assessing the Viking Halls’ Special Functions

Appraising the evidence, the three halls at Borre all consisted of one central room containing hearths that were used neither for cooking nor crafting. Their layouts, all have central open spaces and the width of the post holes indicates an elevated “unusually tall roof construction that differs from that of domestic buildings.”

What’s more, none of the buildings had any internal divisions that would have indicated multifunctional domestic usage. Additionally, their dominant locations associated with the royal cemetery at Borre overlooking the Oslofjord, strongly suggested to the team of researchers that they served “a special function.”

Concluding that the three buildings were located so that they were clearly visible from the surrounding landscape in an effort to maintain and promote power and status, the researchers believe buildings A and B might have been erected either before or at the same time as burial mounds 6 and 7, which have been radiocarbon dated to between the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

The unusual layout and relative size of building C suggests that it was built at the transition from the Late Iron Age to the Viking Age . Also, due to the fact that it was visible from the sea, it is deduced that it belonged to a powerful Norse ruler.

Top image: Representation of a Viking Hall.        Source: Roksolana / Adobe stock

By Ashley Cowie

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