Archaeologists use radar technique to detect buried Viking-era boat graves

The position of the boats (marked by black ellipses) was discovered using radar drawn by the small vehicle shown in this photo. Jani Causevic/NIKU.

For the Vikings, much of life revolved around water. It is therefore not surprising that the Vikings (and several other pre-colonial societies) practiced a particular funerary practice which involved using boats or ships either as tombs to store corpses or as grave goods interred with the dead. Archaeologists call these burial sites boat burials or ship burials. These structures are rare because only individuals who had high status in Viking society were buried this way.

Recently, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) identified a boat falls in Kvinesdal, Norway. The archaeological investigation that revealed the ship’s grave was carried out using high-resolution motorized Ground-peetrating Radar (GPR), a technique that involves the use of radar pulses for imaging and l study of underground structures relatively close to the surface (a few meters) .

The researchers made good use of the GPR, identifying several interesting features at Kvinesdal. Kvinesdal is already popular among archaeologists as one of the largest Iron Age burial sites in southern Norway, but surprisingly this is the first discovery of boat graves in the region.

The boat grave and burial mounds discovered at Øyesletta, Kvinesdal. Picture credits: Jani Causevic/NIKU

The boat grave was found about nine meters deep in the ground, and during the investigation many other burial mounds were also discovered. The researchers are confident that their study of the recently discovered burial site at Kvinesdal is likely to reveal more secrets about the way of life of high-ranking people during the Viking Age (790 – 1066 AD).

This is not the first time archaeologists have uncovered exciting Viking Age burial sites in southern Norway. Also in 2018 and 2019, another team of NIKU researchers conducted GPR surveys in Gjellestad. During one of these surveys, researchers detected ten burial mounds (nine circular and one oval), including a large boat grave. The Viking ship discovered in Gjellestad was about 19m long and five meters wide, and it was buried between 0.9 and 1.1 meters below the ground.

An enlarged image of radar data showing the position of a Viking burial ship. Jani Causevic/NIKU.

Archaeologist NIKU Jani Causevic, who discovered the boat grave in Kvinesdal using GPR, is excited about how the technology is enabling researchers to uncover more and more ancient burial sites. In an interview with Heritage DailyCausevic commented:

“It’s incredibly exciting. Both to find such a discovery, but also to see how the use of ground penetrating radar gives us the opportunity to explore and document cultural history through new and exciting methods.

The GPR survey in Kvinesdal was carried out as part of Arkeologi på nye veier (Archaeology on new roads), a research project supported by the Kulturhistorisk museum, the Norwegian road construction company Nye Veier, the county municipality of Agder and the National Heritage Board. The next goal of the NIKU archeology team is to find out how the boat and other grave goods managed to remain preserved for thousands of years.


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