A few months ago, in the middle of summer, a group of archaeologists gathered in Herlaugshagen (in the northern part of Trøndelag County, Norway) to conduct a small study on a mound. Their objective, aided by a metal detector, was to discover if a Viking burial ship was buried underground.

Their excitement skyrocketed when they discovered a series of large rivets that confirmed the existence of the ship. But it was nothing compared to when they dated the finds and realized they dated back to around 700 AD, before the Viking Age.

“The mound was built in a period called Merovingian (in Sweden it is known as the Vendel period and in Denmark it is the late Germanic period). This dating is really surprising because it takes the entire tradition of ship burials back in time” , explains archaeologist Geir Grønnesby, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

The new date not only changes Scandinavian historiography, but also provides multiple details about this pre-Viking society. “This tells us that the people in this area were skilled seafarers (they could build large ships) much earlier than we thought,” adds Grønnesby.

The development of shipbuilding has played a key role in the debate over when and why the Viking Age began. It cannot yet be said whether that period began earlier based on this dating, but researchers point out that a ship of this size is not built without having a reason to do so.

“The mound itself is also a symbol of power and wealth. Wealth that does not come from agriculture in Ytre Namdalen (the district currently made up of the municipalities of Nærøysund and Leka). We believe that the people of this area were engaged in trade of goods, perhaps over great distances,” the experts say.

Archaeologist Lars Forseth, a Trøndelag county specialist who also participated in the summer excavations, believes that the location “along the sea route plays a key role in understanding why the Herlaugshaugen burial mound is located in Leka.” .

“We know that whetstones were traded from Trøndelag to the mainland from the mid-8th century, and that the transport of goods along this route is key to understanding the Viking Age and developments in ship design in the preceding period.” , Add.

The Herlaugshaugen burial mound has a diameter of more than 60 meters and is one of the largest in Norway. The mound was excavated three times at the end of the 18th century and, according to existing accounts, a type of wall, iron rivets, a bronze cauldron, animal bones and a seated skeleton with a sword were found.

“Unfortunately, these finds disappeared in the early 1920s. The skeleton was displayed for a time in Trondheim Cathedral School as King Herlaug, but no one knows what happened to it,” Grønnesby said in a statement.

“All the other finds have also disappeared. It is said that the bronze cauldron was melted and turned into shoe buckles,” adds the archaeologist. The Herlaugshaugen burial mound has been dated to the Merovingian period (between 550 and 800AD), which is just before the Viking Age.

As the researchers explain, in general not many archaeological finds are made from this period, but the first burials of ships occurred in their early stages. These include the spectacular burial ships in Vendel and Valsgärde in Sweden, where people were buried reclining on pillows with ornate weapons and helmets.

The discovery of the mound has even opened the possibility that there is a connection between the ruling class of this area of ​​Norway and the elites of Vendel and Valsgärde, something that experts do not consider far-fetched. Not far from Leka, further into the Namdalen Valley, there are even larger burial mounds believed to also be from the Merovingian period.

“In fact, around 10 percent of all the great mounds in Norway are found in Namdalen. These are mounds over 37 meters in diameter, and it is almost inexplicable that an unnamed valley in Norway appears to be a key area for the appearance of large-scale burial mounds,” says Lars Forseth.

“We don’t know what these large mounds contain because almost none of them have been investigated. But researchers have long wondered if there is a connection between Namdalen and the Vendel and Valsgärde areas in Sweden,” says Grønnesby.

Grønnesby further adds that the ship burials from those two areas are similar to the incredibly rich burial at Sutton Hoo, England, which also dates to the Merovingian period and is considered the oldest known monumental ship burial.