Iceland: 1,000-year-old Viking boat burials discovered on shores of northern fjord

Two boat burials have been found in the north of Iceland. Russell Kaye/Sandra-Lee Phipps

Archaeologists working in a fjord in northern Iceland have unearthed four Viking graves, including two boat burials. One of them was the final resting place of a high-ranking Viking who was buried with his sword and his dog.

Although they capture the imagination of anyone interested in the ancient Norse culture, Viking boat burials were relatively rare. This funerary practice, which involved using the boat as a container for the body, has mostly been documented in Scandinavian countries, although some boat burials have also been excavated on Scottish islands such as Orkney or Shetland.

So far in Iceland, only around 10 boat burials have been discovered to date, making these recent finds very exciting for archaeologists. All four of the newly discovered burials are thought to date back to the 9th or 10th century.

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The first boat burial was discovered early this the week, close to the sea in Dysnes. The team was able to identify the remains as that of a dignitary, because being buried with a sword in a boat points to someone wealthy. A dog's teeth recovered among the human bones and confirmed that the deceased was buried with his pet.

Beyond this, the burial is not in a very good state as the waves that have washed up inland over the years have already destroyed part of it. The archaeologists think that most of the grave goods that were once found in the vessel have now been lost to the sea.

Safe from robbers

The second boat burial appears to be in a better state of conservation as it is located further from the shore. Archaeologists are hopeful that they will be able to find clues regarding the culture of the people who lived in this northern fjord in the Viking Age - and to improve their knowledge of Vikings' death rites.

"Part of the boat is completely untouched and we see no signs of it ever having been robbed by people, so we are hoping to find more artefacts untouched in the grave," the archaeologists told the Icelandic National Broadcasting service.

However, since this second boat burial has only just been identified, the archaeologists are so far unable to say who was buried in it.

The two additional graves which have been found at Dysnes were located in a six meter long depression in the ground known as "Ræningjagryfja". The name translates as "robber pit". The archaeologists don't know where it comes from, but hypothesise that it may refer to ancient local legends.

In coming weeks, the excavations will continue at this unique site - only the second in Iceland where two boat burials have been discovered so close to each other.

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