Archaeology

Ole Worm Illustrations Identify New Ship Burials at Danish Site

Ole Worm Illustrations Identify New Ship Burials at Danish Site

Archaeologists from Flinders University in Australia working on a Danish ship burial site on the ex-Viking island of  Hjarnø, in modern-day  Denmark, have created quite a stir in the field of history and archaeology. The renewed explorations of the Kalvestene site was in part inspired by a 17th century illustration by Ole Worm. The resulting research paper, published in  The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology  (JICA), has provided added understanding of the Danish ship burial site. 

The Danish Ship Burials at Kalvestene

This site called the Kalvestene (translating as “the calf stones”) is a grave field with ten small but distinct ship burials from the  Viking Age , dating back to between 800 and 1050 AD. Kalvestene is a comparatively small site, but textual historiography indicates that the Kalvestene people were well known in certain pockets of medieval Scandinavia. An example of this is their presence in Scandinavian folklore, according to the  Flinders University  press release. 

“It seems surprising that such a small grave field would be famous and yet the existence of the site was well known in medieval Scandinavia,” explained lead author Dr. Erin Sebo on the  Flinders University  website. “The island was famous probably because ships would have to sail past to reach a trading center at Horsens and artefacts from a hoard excavated by Dr. Mads Ravn and his team from the Vejle Museum in 2017 suggest the island was visited by foreign traders,” he continued.

The project at the Danish ship burial site began in response to a 17 th century illustration of the same by the famous Danish physician, natural historian and antiquarian known as  Ole Worm . Ole Worm, who lived from 1588 to 1654, had been a professor at the University of Copenhagen. During the era of European Enlightenment, Worm’s illustration showed more than 20 ship settings at the Kalvestene site.

The 17th century Danish physician, natural historian and antiquarian known as Ole Worm (Public domain)

The 17 th century Danish physician, natural historian and antiquarian known as Ole Worm ( Public domain )

Uncovering Danish Ship Burials Using Clues from 17 th Century Illustrations

This was the first survey since the National Museum of Denmark discovered and restored 10 tombs on a neighboring small island near the eastern coast almost 100 years ago. “Our survey identified two new raised areas that could in fact be ship settings that align with Worm’s drawings from 1650. One appears to be a typical ship setting and the second remains ambiguous but it’s impossible to know without excavation and further survey,” highlighted Dr. Sebo. This statement was made in light of the fact that data did not corroborate with the 20 ships which Worm’s illustrations seem to depict. 

The team used the help of medieval records, aerial photogrammetric and LiDAR data (laser imaging, detection and ranging, a remote sensing pulse-laser method) collected by the Moesgaard Museum. As per associate professor Jonathan Benjamin, the Maritime Archaeology Program Coordinator at Flinders University, “an archaeological survey was undertaken in 2018 to record the features of the ship settings and their position in the coastal landscape at Hjarnø.”

“Each stone was measured and drawn alongside data we acquired through low altitude photography to provide the landscape, in conjunction with sonar surveying in waters near the  Viking site, to check for culturally significant material but no indications of this were located during the survey,” he added.

The team used aerial photogrammetric and LiDAR data to conduct their survey. ( Flinders University )

Ship Burials Through Maritime History and the Vikings

A ship burial is a site where the dead are buried with their grave goods, including in some cases the ship itself as part of the grave goods, primarily practiced by seafaring cultures associated with Europe and Asia. Germanic people were renowned for this cultural practice, including the  Viking Norsemen. The  Viking Norsemen were notorious for being seafaring raiders across Western Europe, which is why a significant chunk of their folklore is based on maritime travel and the sea. Thus, a predominant part of their economy was based on looting and plundering, and the ensuing class of wealthy traders and merchants. 

What is unusual about this particular site is its deviance from other Danish sites of the same period, which have typically incorporated oval, circular or triangle stone settings, in addition to the ship-shaped  burial. In fact, there are greater commonalities with sites from the southern Swedish regions, generating debate about the possibility of greater links and contact between the two regions.

It was a practice of the upper classes especially, as evidenced by the massive find in neighboring  Norway in 2018, as reported by  National Geographic . In this find, a massive 65-foot (19.81 m) ship was discovered off the coast of  Oslo, the burial of a prominent Viking age king or queen from over a 1,000 years ago. To date, this is the largest Viking burial ever found. Interestingly, that find was also accompanied by the burial sites of eight other ships in a 90-foot (27.43 m) vicinity, making the comparisons with the Kalvestene Viking burial particularly interesting.

The Danish ship burials on the island of Hjarnø in Denmark are marked by gravestones, some of which can still be seen today. (Erik Christensen /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Interpreting the Danish Viking Burials at Kalvestene

The Viking burial  at Kalvestene is believed to have been a dedication  to King Hiarni , according to popular myth, and the monuments at the Kalvestene site are said to have been made in his honor. Legend has it that King Hiarni was crowned after having composed a beautifully written poem for the previous dead king, who was defeated in an epic battle on the same island of Hjarnø. 

The researchers identify the unique burial site as a possible religious devotional setting to the Norse god  Njord, whose symbol was a ship. It was called a  Skidbladnir, and Njord was meant to be the controller of winds and weather. In the hope of attaining favorable sailing conditions, tributes were made to Njord to pacify the choppy waters of the ocean and the sea.

Professor Benjamin candidly highlighted that “while this study is unable to offer a conclusive understanding of the origins of the Kalvestene, it demonstrates the value of combining source criticism and analysis with archaeological data to contribute towards greater understanding about the site.”

This is a clear indication of the intent to continue exploring these uncharted waters of  ship burials , especially in the  Scandinavian region, and draw parallels and links between the respective societies and islands. It is also a reminder that a great body of historical work exists from this time, waiting to be explored and analyzed, much to our delight.

Top image: Aerial image showing the Danish ship burial site at Kalvestene. Source:  Flinders University

By Rudra Bhushan


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