Who Were These Vikings Buried Sitting Upright?
Accidentally, in 1963 a burial ground with 24 graves deep inside the bay of Sandvika on the eastern side of the island of Jøa in Central Norway were discovered. The bodies buried in a sitting position dates back to the years 650 to 1000 AD, and analyses show that these Vikings belonged to a very special group of people.
Unlike other Viking Age graves, the graveyard was unknown because the bodies were not placed inside a burial mound that is clearly visible in the terrain, or marked in any other way. These dead Vikings were lowered into cylinder- and funnel-shaped sand holes from flat ground. The question is why.
Sandvika Burial Ground is Unique
The Sandvika burial ground is unique in Scandinavia, and these people are the only ones found with sitting bodies.
The burial custom had been very strenuous: Firstly, the person must have been dead for at least twenty-four hours so that rigor mortis could make it possible to shape the body into a seated position, and secondly, it must have been very difficult to form seats in the porous shell sand.
However, these are not the only reasons why this particular group of Vikings is a mystery.
One of the skeletons found in the Sandvika sitting graves, Central Norway (Photo: NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, 1965-66)
Old Women – Small Men
In 14 of the 24 graves there were found skeletons and skeletal remains; 10 graves were empty.
Of these, seven women and four men have been identified. Analyses shows that the women reached an average age of 47 years, much higher than average for Iron Age people, where the normal life expectancy for women was 39 years.
It has only been possible to determine the age of one of the men, and he died at the age of 40.
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The reconstructed Tranås Iron Age farm located only a few hundred meters from Sandvika. (Photo: ThorNews)
The women had an average height of 157.2 centimeters (5ft 2in), and the men 162.6 centimeters (5ft 4in), which is much lower than the normal height for this period.
The men were as much as 10 centimeters (3.9in) lower than the average for the Viking Age (172.6 cm / 5ft 8in) and 12 centimeters (4.7in) lower than people living in the Iron Age (174.7 cm / 5ft 9in).
The women do not differ so much – they only were 3.7 centimeters (1.5in) lower than the normal for Iron Age women (160.9 cm / 5ft 3in) and 0.9 centimeters (0.35in) lower than Danish Viking women (158.1 cm / 5ft 3in).
Heathen Hof Nearby
The dating of artifacts shows that these Vikings were buried fully clothed in the period 650 – 1000 AD, i.e. from the Merovingian period to the end of the Viking Age, and it seems like the burial custom ended when Christianity was forced with swords upon the Norse society.
Today, on the other side of the small river Hovselva (English: the Hof River) is the Hov (Hof) farm located in the northeast – indicating that there was a pagan temple located close to the burial ground.
In all of the 24 graves there were found remnants of bonfires, so it is natural to assume that there must have been some kind of ritual that included bonfire in connection with the funeral.
Orientation and Knives
Another peculiarity is that about half the bodies were facing north-northeast (facing the Hof) and half to the south-southeast. No one was facing directly east and only one body was facing directly to the west.
An illustration showing the orientation of the bodies. Credit: Thor Lanesskog
As many as ten knifes were found in nine different graves. They vary in length, but none of them has a blade more than 20 centimeters and consequently had not been used as Viking combat weapons. The individuals they belonged to must have used these knives for a different purpose.
There were no other weapons found inside the graves, which is unusual for the Viking Age. However, there were also found beads, brooches, finger rings and keys, but there is no repeating pattern.
Specialists in Their Field
The similarities between the buried Vikings are many:
Both women and men died at an old age, and the men were much lower than the average height in the Viking Age.
They were buried in a small area close to a heathen Hof, and the dead were put down in a sitting position. There was no marking of the graves but they may have been marked with ornamental shrubs or flowers.
Almost all of the graves contained remnants of bonfire, and there are no traces of weapons. However, there were found many “regular” cut knives.
The bodies were facing north-northeast and south-southeast. No one was facing directly towards the east.
Who was this specialist group of Vikings? Was it “hovgydjer”, meaning pagan priestesses – and were the knives used for sacrifice? If so, the theory that Viking Age priests only were women is not correct.
Maybe Norse pagan priests also were small men with special “feminine qualities”?
Top image: Main image: Screen of Gameplay of the video game War of the Vikings ( public domain ). Inset: One of the skeletons found in the Sandvika sitting graves, Central Norway (Photo: NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, 1965-66)