Mysterious Viking Burial Featuring a Boat Within a Boat Leaves Archaeologists Baffled

Archaeologists have discovered a mysterious Viking grave in which two people who died around 100 years apart were buried together in boats.

The older burial dates back to the eighth century and was excavated near the village of Vinjeøra in central Norway. It consists of a large boat—measuring between 29 and 33 feet long—containing the body of a man alongside several weapons.

The second, more recent burial—which dates to the ninth century—is that of woman who was laid to rest in a slightly smaller boat alongside a pearl necklace, two scissors and a cow's head. Intriguingly, this smaller boat was placed inside the larger one from the preceding century.

This has puzzled archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Museum who discovered the graves in October during excavations at a Viking Age farm.

"Our research has not yet discovered any clear parallels," Raymond Sauvage, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and project manager for the excavation, told Newsweek. "We know of several double burials in boat graves. However, in those cases we are dealing with two—or more—persons buried in the same boat. We also know of burial mounds containing several, parallel boat graves."

"Vinjeøra is the first time where we have discovered a clear re-use of the same grave, where an older boat grave have been carefully reopened and excavated, and a new boat placed into to original grave. This is essentially an unknown phenomenon," he said.

Most of the wood from the boats has rotted away, however, the metal rivets are still in their original locations, which enabled the archaeologists to determine that the vessels are inside each other. The graves appear to be secondary burials on the edge of what was originally a large burial mound.

The archaeologists are now trying to understand more about the two people who were buried together in the boats. Their exact relationship is unclear but, according to Sauvage, it's possible that the two were related in some way. He says there must have been at least two generations between them and that they belonged to the same settlement.

"Family was very important in Viking Age society, both to mark status and power and to consolidate property rights. The first legislation on allodial rights in the Middle Ages said you had to prove that your family had owned the land for five generations," Sauvage told the university magazine. "If there was any doubt about the property right, you had to be able to trace your genus to haug og hedni – i.e. to burial mounds and paganism."

"Against this backdrop, it's reasonable to think that the two were buried together to mark the family's ownership to the farm, in a society that for the most part didn't write things down," he said.

Viking burial
Artist's illustration of the burial. Arkikon/NTNU

The belongings that the archaeologists found indicate that the two people were of the same social strata in society

"The artefacts in the graves tell us a lot of their social status," Sauvage said. "The man had a full weapons equipment, showing that he was a free man that owned his land. Weaponry and warfare was a very integrated part of society, clearly displayed in this grave. The female was buried with rich jewellery, among them two richly ornamented oval brooches."

"This is an indication that she had an important role in her farming society, was married, and managed the entire household at the farm. She also had a gilded Irish broach—originally from a horse's harness—probably the result of Viking raiding in the British isles. This tells us that her family wanted to show that they had an economic and social status that made it possible for them to attend and connect with this kind of activity," he said.

Aside from the fact that burial features two boats in one, the researchers say it is also intriguing for another reason: the two vessels are placed at the edge of the largest mound in the burial ground.

"The connection between the boat graves and between the boat graves and the mound is very exciting," Sauvage said. "The two boat graves are also located right at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the fjord. This must have been a monument in the landscape."

Furthermore, the fact that the burial mound must date back to a time before the oldest boat grave indicates that it was constructed during the early Merovingian age—an era in Scandinavian history from which there are few archaeological finds.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Raymond Sauvage.