The Gokstad finds
On the Gokstad farm in Sandefjord, there was a large burial mound. It was said that there was a ship within it. In the autumn of 1879, the two teenage sons on the farm were bored. They began to dig into the mound, to see if they could find anything interesting. And they certainly did.
The Gokstad ship during excavation in1880.
Photo: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.
The excavation of the Gokstad ship
The antiquarian Nicolaysen at the Collection of National Antiquities got to hear of what the boys were up to, and in spring 1880 he started an archaeological dig on the site.
The burial mound around the ship had been built up with turf and sod. It was about five metres high and had a diameter of almost 45 metres. The mound was probably even larger in Viking times. The ship itself was buried in the clay below ground level. The two upper strakes and both bow and stern posts had stuck up above the clay and had therefore been completely destroyed, but otherwise the ship was exceptionally well-preserved.
After excavation, the ship was restored. Everything was taken apart, steamed and bent back into its original shape. Some of the original timber was in too poor a condition to be exposed to this type of treatment. These parts were replaced with new wood and are visible on the ship today.
The Gokstad burial
About the year 900AD, a rich and powerful man died, and the Gokstad ship was used for his burial. A burial chamber was built at the stern of the ship. It was covered with several layers of birch bark. Stuck between the joists of the roof, archaeologists found scraps of silk interwoven with gold thread. These are probably the remains of costly woven hangings that decorated the walls on the inside. In the burial chamber stood a raised bed on which the corpse was laid.
The skeleton shows that he was a man in his 40s, of powerful build and between 181 and 183 cm tall. Signs of cutting blows to both legs indicate that he died in battle. A cut to the right shin bone shows that he would not have been able to stand upright, but a knife wound to the inside of the right thigh indicates the probable cause of death. Striking at the legs was a common fighting technique in Viking times and the middle ages.
The dead man must have been shrouded in a sewn-up costume when he was buried. His weapons and jewellery are gone. There were probably grave robbers here as early as Viking times, but far from everything is gone. A game-board was found, with pieces made of horn, as well as fish hooks and harness tackle of iron, lead and gilded bronze, 64 shields, kitchen equipment, 6 beds, 1 tent and a sledge. Also with him in the grave were 12 horses, 8 dogs, 2, goshawks and two peacocks. Three small boats were also found in the burial.
The Gokstad ship
The Gokstad ship was built in about 850, at the height of the Viking period. There was a need for ships that could serve many purposes and the Gokstad ship could have been used for voyages of exploration, trade and Viking raids. The ship could be both sailed and rowed. There are 16 oar holes on each side of the ship. With oarsmen, steersman and lookout, that would have meant a crew of 34. There is no sign of thwarts. The oarsmen probably sat on chests, which could also have held personal equipment.
The ship is made of oak and is clinker-built, with 16 rows of strakes. The nine strakes below the waterline are only two to three centimetres thick, making the sides both light and flexible. The keel is made of one straight piece of oak. The deck consists of pine planks that can be easily lifted, so that the crew could easily bale out water if needed. This also gave storage space for a little cargo.
White woollen cloth with red cloth strips sewn on was found in the forepart of the ship. This may have been the remains of the sail. At the time of burial, 32 shields were fixed to each side of the ship. They were painted yellow and black, alternately. The ends of the bow and stern posts had rotted away, so it is unclear how they were finished. There is nothing to indicate that dragon heads were fixed to them. But even without dragon heads, the Gokstad ship must have been an impressive sight when it came over the horizon in full sail.