Boat Grave Culture

The first component of the Viking Phenomenon project is something we have chosen to call Boat Grave Culture. At the heart of this strand is one of Sweden's greatest archaeological treasures, the largest cemetery of ship burials ever found, the classic site of Valsgärde in Uppland. For more than 400 years, each generation interred its prominent people of both sexes here in magnificent boat graves and cremations, filled with objects and animals. 

The creation of an emerging kingdom

Excavated by Uppsala University from the 1920s to the 1950s, together with the nearby sites of Gamla Uppsala, Vendel and Ultuna they tell the story of Sweden and its growth from the heart of the Mälar Valley.  However, the very richness and complexity of the Valsgärde graves has meant that they have never been fully researched and published. The definitive analysis of the cemetery and the society behind the burials is one of our main priorities. Because the cemetery was in use throughout the later Iron Age, it provides us with a superb lens through which to view the gradual social changes that led up to the Viking Age.

The graves - more than eighty of them in all - were deliberate material statements, preserving the ideas and aspirations of the time in physical form. Although the ship burials have attracted most attention, interspersed among them are the cremations and chamber graves of women, and it is only modern bias that sees one set of gendered burials as being more important than another; we will study them all. At Valsgärde we see an emerging kingdom creating itself, and signalling its identity through the relationship of the living to the dead.

Key questions

Alongside raiding and military ideology, among the key questions we want to consider through deeper studies of Valsgärde is the nature of long-distance, international contacts and trade. These have long been recognised as a defining characteristic of the Viking Age, but to what extent were they built on earlier interactions? Clear evidence for links with the East, including as far away as the Asian steppe and Tang China, can be found in the Vendel period graves but the nature of those connections has never been adequately explored.

The research on Valsgärde will be coordinated by Docent John Ljungkvist, with a team of researchers to complete the analysis of the Viking-Age boat graves and all the other burials, along with specialist work on the boats themselves, the animal offerings and also individual artefact types.

A crucial counterpart to the work on Valsgärde is the exploration of the extraordinary remains of a Scandinavian raiding party from Salme, Estonia. Buried in two ships on the Estonian seashore at the very start of the Viking Age, the individuals from Salme were excavated in 2008 and 2010-12, arguably represent the most significant Viking discovery of the last hundred years. Based on burial practice, material culture and isotope analyses, the men buried in the Salme boats appear to have originated in central Sweden, making the find of particular relevance to our research questions. The discoveries at Salme therefore present us with an unprecedented opportunity to examine the specific culture behind the very first raids, and we are happy to be able to assist Dr Jüri Peets and his team at Tallinn University with the funding of the publication work. We believe that the resulting reports, produced under their direction, will be milestones in Estonian and Baltic archaeology, and they can make a key contribution to the work of our project in Sweden.