It’s September 2019, and a team of archeologists are using ground-penetrating radar technology to scan beneath the surface of a field in rural Norway. An anomaly then catches their attention. Hidden beneath the subsoil is a massive circular formation which is 60 feet in diameter. Ancient and mysterious, it resembles a giant, primordial eye.
The structure was stumbled upon by a team from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). Headquartered in Oslo, NIKU is an independent research center which works all over the world in areas such as cultural heritage, climate change, conservation, archeology and ethnology. Their team includes some 80 professionals from diverse academic fields.
According to NIKU’s head of digital archeology Dr. Knut Paasche, the anomaly is of “great historical significance” to Norway. He explained to the organization’s website, “This is incredibly exciting… As the technology is making leaps forward, we are learning more and more about our past.” Indeed, the rare discovery could yet transform our understanding of Scandinavian history.
The location of the subterranean anomaly is the diminutive island of Edøya – just one of thousands of rugged islets off the west coast of Norway. With an area of just under three square miles, Edøya falls within the municipality of Smøla. Interestingly, the latter name derives from the Norwegian word for “crumble” – a reference to the region’s fractured shoreline and scattered archipelagos.
Marshlands dominate Smøla and around, meaning just a fraction of habitable land – approximately 5 percent – is used for farming. Instead, deep-sea fishing is the mainstay of the local economy. And with carp, mackerel, halibut, cod, plaice, char monkfish, herring and other fish populating the wild Atlantic waters off Norway’s coast, the pickings are rich.
The region is thought to have been populated by humans since the end of the last ice age around 12,000 years ago. The original inhabitants of the area exploited the warm currents of the gulf stream, fished, and hunted reindeer. Then, approximately 7,000 years ago, they began forming agricultural settlements. The Neolithic period subsequently commenced about 1,000 years after that.
Then, in the first century A.D. Scandinavian culture began to evolve under Roman influence. The Norwegians traded skins and furs with their merchants, worked as mercenaries for the empire and developed a runic alphabet by appropriating and modifying Roman letters. They also adopted a political system headed by powerful chieftains who acted as priests and warlords.
Approximately 1,300 years ago, the Viking Age began. These seafaring people had a fierce pre-Christian religion that exalted warriorship – all those who died in combat would be rewarded with an afterlife in Valhalla. The shipbuilding and navigation skills of the Vikings were superb. Furthermore, by pillaging distant lands, they accumulated gold, silver and other valuable plunder.
The Vikings also accumulated thralls – slaves who toiled on their farms. These people were vital to the Scandinavian economy and most households owned at least one or two. A thrall could be freed at his master’s command to become a freedman. In Viking society, these individuals were one social rank below a freeman and two behind a nobleman.
Of course, the great prize of Viking adventure was not plunder or slaves, but cultivatable land. In the British Isles, Viking migrants colonized remote locations such as the Hebrides, Shetland islands and Orkneys. Between Norway and Iceland, they settled the distant Faroe Islands. In Ireland, meanwhile, they encroached on Celtic chiefs and constructed pioneering cities such as Dublin.
But despite success in travel and warfare, Viking civilization was far from united. On the contrary, its society was constituted by a disorganized rabble of querulous estates until at least the end of the ninth century. It was only then – after decades of struggle and strife – that one leader emerged to unite them as a single kingdom.
The first King of Norway was Harald Fairhair, and he is believed to have ruled from 872 to 930 A.D. His story was recorded some 300 years after his death and is embellished with mythical elements. Nonetheless, according to popular sagas, his journey started with a romantic rejection. It is said that the daughter of the King of Hordaland Princess Gydia refused to marry Fairhair until he had conquered all of Norway.
Fairhair’s historical conquest is thought to have started in 866 with the subjugation of several petty realms. Then, at some point between 872 and 900, he attained complete sovereignty over Norway at the Battle of Hafrsfjord. This was the largest and bloodiest confrontation in Norwegian history up to that point and for many years afterwards. As a result, the Fairhair dynasty then began.
With the old order of chieftains smashed, Fairhair established a rudimentary state for administering his newly conquered territory – including a stewardship system for managing former estates. His son Håkon the Good became king in 930 and took Viking statecraft further. By establishing decision-making assemblies called things, he provided a space for freemen to meet, negotiate and plan with the king.
In 1015 King Olav Haraldsson embarked on a radical transformation of Norwegian society – he converted it to Christianity. However, many chieftains were opposed to the king’s new order, his churches, laws and priests, which led to war. Haraldsson was killed in the Battle of Stiklestad, but the church pronounced him a saint and the Christianization of Norway continued.
Some of the oldest Christian artifacts in Norway are in fact located in Smøla municipality: including the Kulisteinen – the Kuli stone – at Kuløy. This features a cross and a runic inscription, which reads, “Þórir and Hallvarðr raised this stone in memory of Ulfljótr… Christianity had been 12 winters in Norway.”
On the island of Edøy, early Christian remnants include a parish church originally built in 1190. The original structure was destroyed by a fire in the late 19th century and faithfully reconstructed after World War II. And the mysterious circular anomaly discovered by archeologists in September 2019 lies in a field right next to it.
Two NIKU archeologists – Dr. Manuel Gabler and Dag-Øyvind Engtrø Solem – discovered the structure by chance. Working in collaboration with Smøla Municipality and Møre and Romsdal County, they had travelled to Edøy to investigate a ruined settlement. Interestingly, the field next to the church was not part of their original survey plan.
Gabler explained to the NIKU website, “We had actually finished the agreed upon area, but we had time to spare and decided to do a quick survey over another field. It turned out to be a good decision.” Indeed, given the immense historical value of their discovery, their decision has paid dividends.
Using software and methods developed by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro), the team made their discovery using ground-penetrating georadar. This is a kind of geophysical survey technology which provides exceptionally accurate data on the composition of subsurface areas. Such information can then be used to construct models of buried archeological sites.
The technology works by transmitting high-frequency radio or radar waves into the ground. As the waves encounter buried objects, they bounce back to the surface. Antennae then detect the waves and their signals are transformed into visible data. However, since the ground is much denser than either air or water, georadar has a relatively limited range.
Nonetheless, georadar has a wide range of applications. In cities, for example, engineers use georadar to detect utility infrastructures. In war zones, ground units use it to locate land mines and unexploded shells. And at crime scenes, forensic scientists use it to find hidden graves or buried evidence. More generally, georadar can be used to locate geological resources – such as water and minerals.
In archeology, georadar is a particularly useful survey method because it provides relatively cheap and extensive data without disturbing buried artifacts. In fact, depending on limiting factors such as rock density, the data provided by georadar can be used to create visual profiles or complex three-dimensional maps of archeological sites.
Ground-penetrating radar has transformed our understanding of some well-known archeological sites – including the druidic monument of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. In 2014 researchers used ground-penetrating radar and other instruments to survey the area to a depth of 10 feet. They subsequently found that Stonehenge was connected to a wider constellation of ceremonial sites and some 17 hidden shrines. Furthermore, the map generated by the research was unprecedented in scope and detail.
On Edøy, the structure buried in a field next to the old parish church would have gone undetected were it not for georadar. On analysis, the object appears to be at least 1,000 years old – dating to the Viking Age or possibly the older Merovingian period. And it was buried under just 2 feet of topsoil.
The structure is in fact a 56-foot-long Viking longship set within a circular mound. According to Dr. Paasche, the ship is the first of its kind to be documented with 21st century technology. He told the NIKU website, “This find is incredibly exciting as we only know three well-preserved Viking ship finds in Norway excavated [a] long time ago. This new ship will certainly be of great historical significance as it can be investigated with all modern means of archeology.”
According to the data, the hull of the ship is relatively well-preserved. Some of its floor timbers and its keel – which forms the backbone of the ship – are completely intact. However, the bow and stern have been completely obliterated. Since the ship was buried in shallow earth, it was probably damaged by centuries of plowing.
Built for trade, conquest and exploration, Norse longships have been a part of Scandinavian culture since the fourth century B.C. After more than a thousand years of evolution, their design reached an apex during the golden age of Viking civilization. Indeed, some Viking shipbuilding methods were so advanced that they have been adapted by modern shipbuilders around the world.
Constructed for speed and maneuverability, longships were graceful and practical vessels capable of traversing shallow waters. And with symmetrical bows and sterns, they could also be easily reversed if necessary. Early versions of the vessel were propelled by oars that ran the length of the hull. Meanwhile, later longships used sails for extra power on long sea journeys.
At the height of Viking power, vast fleets of longships sailed down the Seine and other European rivers – raining terror on the dying Frankish empire. However, longships were not attack ships, but transport vessels. During battles, these so-called “dragonships” were sometimes tied together to create an extended deck for infantry soldiers, but Viking warriors preferred hand-to-hand combat rather than naval warfare.
But the ship detected under the field next to Old Edøy Church was probably built for an entirely different, non-military purpose. Intended to transport some deceased Viking leader to the underworld, it was in fact a very large and extravagant tomb. As such, it is likely to contain a wealth of objects for the journey to Valhalla: including formidable weapons and treasure.
The discovery may also contain the skeletons of thralls or family members assigned to accompany the deceased to the afterlife. The excavation of a ship in southern Norway in the 1990s, for example, exposed the remains of two women accompanied by carts and intricately crafted sleighs. However, there is also a possibility that grave robbers may have already found and looted the ship.
According to archeologist Dag-Øyvind Solem, the circular outline of a moat is a telltale sign that the ship is enclosed within a burial mound. He told the science website Ars Technica in March 2019, “In addition to having a potentially symbolic meaning, it is thought that [ditches] have the very practical function of making the mounds seem bigger than they really were.”
The same kind of mound as previously mentioned was seen to accompany the Gjellestad ship in 2018. Discovered in southeastern Norway during an aerial radar survey, the vessel is 65 feet long and the largest Norse burial ship ever identified. In fact, the Gjellestad ship shares many similarities with the Edøy ship and may have been constructed in the same time period.
For example, both vessels are vivid examples of traditional Viking funerary practices. Ships were symbols of power and status in Viking society and being buried in one was a custom intended to demonstrate authority in worldly matters and beyond. Furthermore, a large burial mound served as a lasting and visible symbol of dynastic power.
Meanwhile, the georadar also detected the remnants of five longhouses near the burial mound, and some of them were quite huge. Typically constructed from local timber, longhouses are one of the oldest types of built structures in the world. They have been utilized by a plethora of cultures from Europe to the Americas since Neolithic times.
In Scandinavia, the typical longhouse was a structure hewn from wood, turf or sod. Their thatched roofs were supported by rows of posts and their walls covered with wattle and daub. The typical Viking family occupied the central part of the building with various rooms portioned off for livestock or workshops. Meanwhile, the maximum length of a Viking longhouses was around 250 feet.
But according to archeologist and NIKU project leader Lars Gustavsen, the houses may not have been used as residences. Instead, they may have had a symbolic function connected to the burial mound. He told the organization’s website, “The ship burial does not exist in isolation, but forms part of a cemetery which clearly designed to display power and influence.”
Speaking to Ars Technica, Solem explained that the longhouses may also have had a religious function. He said, “What we can say is that this kind of house usually dates to the pre-Christian period in Norway. In some cases, houses have been found within burial sites that have been interpreted as ‘death houses,’ that is houses that probably were connected to the cult of the dead.”
Was the construction of a Christian church next to a pagan burial mound a deliberate political act? There are many unanswered questions about the Edøy ship and NIKU hopes to collaborate with local authorities and continue their investigations into the sight. Questions pertaining to buried treasure may have to wait, however, as the team intends to use non-invasive research methods for now.