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Location of Salme, Saaremaa Island, Estonia
image: David Beard

The Salme Ship Burials
Journal of Archaeological Research
(click on the images to enlarge)

In 2008, workmen digging trenches for electrical cables in the Estonian island town of Salme uncovered human bones and a variety of objects that they piled next to their trench.

At first the bones were thought to be from a soldier killed in World War II, but archaeologists realized that the objects dated to the Viking period.

A small team of archaeologists working under Marge Konsa, an archaeologist at the University of Tartu, started excavating and soon found the hull of a ship. . Nearly all of the ship’s timber had rotted away, leaving behind only discolorations in the soil. But 275 of the iron rivets remained in place, allowing the archaeologists to reconstruct the outlines of the 38-foot-long craft.

Eventually, two ships filled with the bodies of warriors were uncovered. These are unusual in that no ship burials have been found this far east, and they differ from the normal ship burials in the fact that they contain so many bodies.

In fact, the burials appear to have been a rushed job with just the bodies being covered with sand.

One of the ships is 11.5 metres (38 ft) long and 2 metres (7 ft) wide, the second one more than 17 metres (56 ft) long and 3 metres (10 ft) wide.

The clinker-built ships appear to have been constructed AD 650–700, probably in Sweden. The Salme event took place 50–100 years earlier than the Lindisfarne Viking raid of AD 793 and has led to discussion of when the Viking Age began.

“It is an amazing find,” says John Ljungkvist, an expert in Iron Age burials at Uppsala University in Sweden. “It seems like a post-battlefield burial, but carries a lot of elements of a boat burial. They don’t have the time or the logistics to do a regular boat burial, and instead have to make a mass grave.”

It appears that the ships were then abandoned on the beach. Peets and Konsa think a heavy fall or winter storm might have washed up enough sand and gravel to partially fill in and cover the crafts.

Over time, the coastline receded, leaving the boat grave c. 200 metres from the beach and c. 4 metres above the waterline.


Scandinavia c. 750 AD
image: Medieval Histories – Nature History Heritage

The Burials
image: Medieval Histories


The Burials in Ship 2
image: Medieval Histories

Sword fittings from the burials
image: Medieval Histories

Slame Ship 1
image: Salme muinaslaev

Position of the bodies in Salme Ship 1
image: Salme muinaslaev

Outline of Salme Ship 2
image: Salme Iaevmatused

Position of the bodies in Salme Ship 2
image: Salme muinaslaev

Position of the lowest level of bodies in Salme Ship 1
image: Salme muinaslaev

The Burials

No Viking ship has ever been found with so many burials: the remains of seven warriors were uncovered in the Salme I ship and as many as 34 in the Salme II ship.

A rich assortment of items had been placed in their graves, which included elaborate armaments: swords and shields; everyday utensils: knives, whetstones, and combs, and gaming pieces and dice, mostly of whalebone, for the Viking board game called Hnefatafl.

The graves also included dogs and hunting hawks as well as animal parts brought along as provisions. Ship burials as such and likewise most of the finds recovered at Salme are not characteristic of Saaremaa at the time, nor of the wider Estonian area. Rather, they indicate the origin of the warriors buried here – from Scandinavia, in Central Sweden which has been borne out by DNA analysis.

Raili Allmäe: Sharp force injuries in Salme second ship-grave
From the conference “Vikings Before Vikings