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This blog was first published on January 14th 2020, but today, in honour of the historic digbegun yesterday in Østfold, Norway where for the first time in a century a Viking ship burial will be excavated. Viking funerals were complicated and full of symbolism and ship burials were just one part of the culture reserved for high-ranking individuals, so read on to learn exactly how the Vikings dealt with their dead.

So, on this fine Tuesday morning we’re going back to our roots – our Vikings roots – and looking at Viking funeral rites along with our best known Norseman: the Viking Warrior in Woodstown.

In 2004 the archaeological dig at Woodstown was well underway when an exciting discovery was made – a very rare intact Viking grave. Among all the discoveries in Woodstown, this one has most captured the imaginations of Waterfordians and Viking enthusiasts alike. When the Woodstown grave was discovered, there were 107 known Viking burials around Ireland but this one was unusually well-stocked with goods and unusually well-preserved, allowing us to reconstruct the grave with surprising accuracy – and telling us much about the Vikings who called Waterford their home.

The grave contained no body, at least not anymore, but a number of objects became apparent quite quickly. These included a sword which had been deliberately broken in three, a spear split in two, a shield-boss (a conical piece of metal often seen in the centre of a round shield), a small knife, an axe (possibly used to break the other items), as well as a whetstone (for sharpening his weapons), a ringpin (for fastening his cloak), and a strike-a-light (for easily lighting a fire). Grave goods were an important part of Viking burials and across Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia a number of interesting artefacts were discovered including religious symbols like Thor’s Hammer and pieces of gold and silver jewellery. These may have served a dual purpose, both to make their status clear in the afterlife or to pay debts by the living to ensure they retained their favour when they too passed beyond the veil. The grave was also placed near the entrance to the settlement, which is a place of some importance.

Usually we have a very defined image of a Viking funeral – the chief or warrior dies, their body is dressed in the finest clothes, loaded up with their treasured belongings and placed in a longboat. This is then pushed out from shore, and as the boat sails out into open water, a friend or relative lights an arrow and shoots it onto the boat, setting the whole thing aflame and history’s most atmospheric cremation begins while they drift out to the sea and into the afterlife.

Cinematic right? But sadly, probably completely untrue and as illustrated by the scene from Netflix’s Norsemen – quite difficult to do. Lets look at the problems shall we? For a cremation, a body has to burn at around 1000 degrees celsius (2000 degrees farenheit) for an hour and a half. So they need sustained, dry heat, which is why historically, funeral pyres have been used. If you place a body on a boat, use one arrow to light it, and allow it to drift into open water, well then it’s more or less impossible to create these conditions (unless they had access to massive amounts of fuel), and at best you end up with a lightly barbecued Viking washing up ashore somewhere close by. In reality, the majority of Vikings were cremated (at least until they converted to Christianity), but this would have happened on land, and while their remains could of course have been scattered on the seas, we don’t have any evidence of this just yet (for obvious reasons).

Sometimes they were buried but this seems to have usually been reserved for wealthy or important members of the community, and as such, graves are rare – especially in Ireland. Ship burials (which probably inspired the more cinematic portrayal we are used to) are the rarest of graves due to the splendour and expense of burying an entire ship. Ships were a source of food and kept the Scandinavian economy afloat, so aside from the effort taken to bury it, only prosperous communities and wealthy individuals could afford to have their funeral celebrated in such a way.

The other problem of course with establishing a very clear picture of a Viking funeral lies in the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology – which sometimes was just barely set apart from grave-robbing. Their methods were poor, as was their record keeping, and a large quantity of material unearthed (whether it was on purpose or by mistake) could be thrown out if not considered interesting enough or if they couldn’t identify it.

Funeral rites were very important to Vikings, probably because with such a way of life, their lives would have been short. The idea of Valhalla – the hall of the slain – where those who died bravely in battle would go to spend eternity eating and drinking with Odin was why a heroic and final end was important, and most warriors and shield maidens wanted to die honourably with a weapon in hand. Not all the dead went to Valhalla though, at least half went to Fólkvangr, Freya’s field. Odin gave first choice over the slain warriors to Freya and only after she had her pick of the dead who the Valkyrie had collected would the rest be sped to Valhalla. Any dead not chosen for Fólkvangr or Valhalla went to Helheim or Hel, the dominion of the dead ruled over by the Goddess of the same name.

It was not just limited to warriors either, according to some sources, women who died in the battle that was childbirth could also go to the halls of the heroes. Every care was taken to ensure the journey to the afterlife was an easy one, and warriors would be buried with an assortment of grave goods, which could sometimes even include sacrificed slaves or a widow who chose to help her husband on his journey by accompanying him herself.

So why break his sword and spear? It’s quite simple really, among Vikings, fighting was a way of life, they were marauders and pillagers and so your weapons became almost an extension of the self. For this unknown warrior, a man of high status, the weapons he carried became a part of him and of his identity, they were tied to his very soul. By breaking them, the Vikings believed that they could speed his journey to the afterlife, and help him take his seat in Odin’s Hall (or with Freya, depending on whether she liked the look of him). He needed to have his weapons with him in his final resting place of course, because if he was called upon to fight in Ragnarok, when the Gods faced their final battle, he didn’t want to find himself bare-handed! It also served to deter grave-robbers, there was no need to disturb the grave if there was nothing of value to be had of course.

Unfortunately, our friend in Woodstown was buried in very acidic soil, and so any skeletal material that might have remained in the ground has dissolved over the years. Archaeologists on the site did sieve the soil in the grave and found two small bone fragments, but it is impossible to say whether this is the original grave occupant or an object which he had buried with him that was made of bone – such as a comb.

Unfortunately, we will never know who our Viking Warrior was. It is possible that there was some sort of grave-marker, in place, but Generally Vikings buried their dead in mounds or cairns made of stones. The presence of some large stones found in the grave indicate that it is possible that there was a burial cairn which was dismantled at some point between his death and the rediscovery of the site, or their presence could be a coincidence. Usually people of very high status would be buried in a boat within their grave, probably to fer
ry them to the afterlife, but these Vikings were far from home, and wouldn’t have wasted valuable resources like a boat. He was though, buried with five weapons (Sword, shield, spear, knife and an axe) and this suggests that he was a very high-ranking member of this community – possibly a Jarl (Earl) or the founder of the Woodstown settlement.

At any rate, it seems there was a burial mound in Woodstown at some point, as during the 1870s railway construction in the area, it was recorded that a mound which contained ‘a large quantity of bones’ was destroyed. The field in question was called Seán Dún – Old Fort, and a site of the same name in Dungarvan yielded a lot of Viking material, however as it was destroyed we cannot say for certain that this was a Viking burial mound.

What is interesting though, is that all of the materials found in the grave match similar objects found in Norway in terms of the design and use – but the materials are Irish. This Viking, whoever he was, was a true Hiberno-Norseman, a result of the meshing of two cultures and probably lived in Ireland – and possibly Woodstown itself – for some time.

The settlement in Woodstown was only active for about fifty years, but the material yielded in digs suggests that it was a trading post, a base for raiding, and so much more than an ordinary village. In later years, these Vikings either moved downriver or new ones arrived, and Vadrarfjordr was founded in 914, but who knows what discoveries will be made in coming years in this original longphoirt, and who knows what stories the soil has left to tell?

Read the blog here with imagery: