The Excavated Viking Gokstad Ship: Who And What Was Buried Inside?

You’ve probably heard about the Viking Gokstad Ship in one way or another. In today’s blog post, we’ll talk about this burial ship that people in the 1880s thought was the ship of King Olaf of Norway. But they were completely wrong!                  

Viking Gokstad Ship      

It was said that this ship was built during the height of the Viking age (around 890 AD). By 901, this particular ship was then buried in the burial mound site in Eastern Norway (Vestfold to be specific).     

This ship was known to be flexible and fast and was usually used for raids, expeditions and trades. Some of its features included:     

  • Built with oak around 24 meters in length (76 ft) 
  • 5.2 meters in width (17 ft)
  • 32 oar holes with 16 holes in each side
  • Built to carry around 32 oarsmen (rowers or people who rows the boat)
  • Top speed of more than 12 knots (14 mph)
  • Propelled by sail of about 110 square meters (1,200 square feet) 
  • Carrying capacity was around 70 people + equipment                

What was discovered inside? 

There’s something fascinating and thrilling about discovering and finding new stuff during excavations. What archaeologists found inside the Gokstad Viking Mound in 1880 astonished them because it contained  64 black and yellow shields (32 on each side) and they were arrayed above the ship’s hull (main body).         

After the shields, they found a dusty burial chamber with beautifully woven carpets. Although it was dusty, it was believed to have been well decorated but only degraded in quality as time went by.             

Aside from that, they also found different animal remains (2 peacocks, 2 northern goshawks, 8 dogs, 12 horses) and a variety of items such as fish hooks, horns, bronze, lead, six beds, kitchenware, smaller boats and tents among others.       

Based on the findings, there were signs that there were people who had been there long before the archaeologists. These people probably stole and plundered other valuable items inside the burial site. This is possible because only the noble and the wealthy were buried in ships so the archaeologists should’ve found precious weapons and metals inside but there were none.

Burial mound skeleton discovery     

Back in 2007, a professor at the University of Oslo examined the skeletal remains that were found at the burial site. According to Per Holck, it belonged to a 180 cm (6 ft) guy who died around his 40s who had around five or six cuts from a sword, ax and knife (there were no healing signs from these injuries). Apart from that, he said that he mainly ate food from land and not sea (also known as terrestrial food).          

Was it King Olaf or not? 

Anatomy professor Jacob Heiberg published his piece of writing in 1887 where he said that the Gokstad ship belonged to King Olaf. While this has been generally accepted at that time, this isn’t actually true. 

Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson mentioned in the Heimskringla King’s Sagas that Olaf was a petty king and that he was around 19 years older than his brother Halfdan the Black (c. 810 – c. 869 AD). Based on this information, he was probably born around  800 AD. And since the ship was said to have been buried in 901, it wasn't really possible for King Olaf to be buried inside it because he was already dead for about half a century.  

Who was buried there then?      

Viking commoners weren’t given grand burials because they obviously didn’t  have the means and the power. So without a doubt, this man in his 40s must have been someone part of an elite community, or someone who held a high position or rank in society back in the day. 

Being buried with a ship, tons of shields, animals, a beautiful chamber and a bunch of stuff is no joke! This just means that this man wasn’t just a normal person. He must have been someone rich and part of a royal family like a chieftain or king to be given such a luxurious and lavish burial. He could also probably been a great Viking warrior who gave honor and pride to the community and the burial was a way to recognize his hard work, efforts and contributions to society while he was still alive.          


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