In this article, Esther Unterweger explains the importance of boat burials in Scandinavia.
On account of the diversity of rituals one encounters through the archaeological, iconographic or textual record, it becomes clear that a boat or ship occupied an important role in various rituals reaching far back in the history of Scandinavia. Their prevalent occurrence suggests their deep-rooted connection to the spiritual sphere of humans and their general acceptance in socio-cultural systems – even if their levels of meaning might have varied in time and space. Images of boats have played a central role in the material culture from the early Prehistory onwards and appeared in form of carvings on rocks especially close to the coast, on wooden coffins or on decorated bronze razors in context with mortuary rituals.
During prehistoric and medieval times in Scandinavia the boat was an indispensable object in everyday life. Therefore, it was commonly accepted as a sign and occurred in the spiritual culture as a manifestation of something.
A boat out of its original techno-utilitarian function as a transporting vessel with its implied economical and social amplifications is a symbol with great multivocality. Actual boats or parts of them can be present in burial rituals; the presence of a boat can also be simulated by boat-shaped stone settings on a grave or in form of carved or drawn boats on stelae or tombstones.
Although not being considered as a continuous tradition, Scandinavian boat-graves appear from the Stone Age to the Medieval Period. They greatly vary in their occurrence, their contextual circumstances, and their symbolic connotations. Cremation burials in or with a boat occurred in South and East Scandinavia, Southeast Finland and West Norway, inhumation graves with boats or their parts were found in Denmark, Central Sweden and on the coasts of Norway.
Burials with whole boats, parts of them or with just a respectable amount of rivets and nails as an indicator of a boat are most widespread during the Viking Age (c. 800-1050) and appear rather in areas close to the coast. They are not gender specific given that female boat graves can be found in Tune and Norsa in Västmanland, Sweden (Here should be noted that a lot of associations with boat graves are solely based on the finds of numerous clenched nails or rivets in the burial).
Shapes and types of boat graves can quite vary, as well as their interpretations and associated levels of meaning. Boats or ships in burials can also simply function as a repository of the body or grave goods or as an emblematic element of the funerary ritual. A strong cultic or ritualistic significance in regard to human and animalistic sacrifices at for instance Gokstad, Oseberg, Slusegaard and Ladby is undeniable, however, also small boats with no obvious value were used as coffins in other societies.
Approximately 1400 graves, both inhumation and cremation graves, were discovered at the Danish cemetery of Slusegaard. 43 graves contained either a whole boat, half a boat or parts of a boat together with the dead, however, there is a high probability of yet undiscovered or previously not recognised boat graves. The burials were mostly located in sand, where their features could still be recognised in its colouring due to former treatment of the boat with tar or resin. The boats themselves were slender, expanded log boats and probably mainly used for fishing and navigation along the coast.
The boats were usually turned upside down to cover the deceased and it seems likely that they could have functioned as some sort of coffin or container. The 43 boats graves displayed an equal distribution among male and female burials. No children were found, although approximately 1/3 of the whole cemetery was occupied by children graves. The cemetery was in use from the 1st to the 4th century AD. By means of local pottery, which was used as a common grave good at Slusegaard, the main group of boat graves was dated between 80 and 160 AD with the remaining up to 250 AD. None of them, however, date to the beginning or to the end period of the cemetery. Certain grave goods in boat graves and the occurrence of double graves with obvious human sacrifice indicate some sort of cult activity, a fertility cult most likely, in Slusegaard.
The 21m long warship of Ladby contained next to various weapons and animal offerings also human sacrifices. This particular factor led to an interpretation focused on the probable high status of the deceased and his leading role as part of a military caste in society. References have been made to the Arabian diplomat Ahmed Ibn Fadlan. In his written record from the 10th century AD, he describes his journey to the “Rus” people, which have been identified with Scandinavian Vikings. He gives a detailed report on a witnessed funeral of a chieftain, which included a decorated boat, sacrifices in form of food, animals and a slave girl and their subsequent cremation.
During the Viking-Age in Scandinavia very different burial rites were performed which implies that the conception of the afterlife was not uniformly adopted and expressed, maybe based on regional or even ethnic idioms.
It can be generally stated that boats were used as a symbolic element in Scandinavian graves to a greater or lesser extent continuously from the 1st to the 11th century AD, however, not by everyone, not necessarily in all of Scandinavia and definitely in various forms. The usage of a boat or their parts in a funerary context was not standard practice; it was rather executed by a small selection of society.
Different meanings or symbolic functions have been assigned to them. On one hand they were thought to be a representative symbol for the journey to the world of the dead, on the other hand they were considered as an expression of peoples connected to the sea in a social, economic or ideological sense.
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