This is Herlaugshaugen. The discovery of ship rivets has archaeologists believing that Herlaugshaugen was likely a ship burial site. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU University Museum.

Central Norway’s largest burial mound likely contains a ship burial

We were through the roof with excitement when the first ship rivet was found, says archaeologist Geir Grønnesby at the NTNU University Museum

In late June, archaeologists conducted what they thought would be a minor investigation of Herlaugshaugen, a burial mound on the island of Leka in north-central Norway.

Herlaugshaugen is mentioned in Snorre’s sagas as the final resting place of King Herlaug. He chose to be buried in this burial mound instead of submitting to Harald Fairhair.

The goal of the investigation was to date the burial mound more precisely and potentially determine whether the burial mound could have been a ship burial. The investigations were carried out by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage in collaboration with the NTNU University Museum and the Trøndelag County Municipality.

Seated skeleton and sword

The excitement was through the roof when the first ship rivet was found. The photos shows Hanne Brynn, an archaeologist and field leader for the effort. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU University Museum

The burial mound has a diameter of over 60 metres and is one of the largest burial mounds in Norway. It was excavated three times during the late 18th century.

According to accounts, finds were made at that time, including a kind of wall, iron nails, a bronze kettle, animal bones, and a seated skeleton with a sword.

“Unfortunately, these finds disappeared in the early 1920s. The skeleton was displayed for a while at Trondheim Cathedral School as King Herlaug, but no one knows where it went,” said Geir Grønnesby, project leader for the investigations.

“All the other finds are also gone. It is said that the bronze kettle was melted down to make shoe buckles,” he said.

(Very) likely a ship burial

Old ship rivet from grave mound

This is what a ship rivet looks like. The find of these rivets suggests that Herlaugshaugen was a ship burial. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU University Museum

It has long been debated whether Herlaugshaugen could contain a ship, since both nails and remnants of a wall were found in the 18th century. Ship burials typically include larger structures inside the mound, such as walls and timbered boxes.

However, no one could say for certain.

Archaeologists are still not entirely sure, but let’s put it this way: It is very, very likely that Herlaugshaugen housed a ship burial—even though the ship itself has rotted away over the centuries. This year’s investigations revealed solid-sized nails.

“It is not possible to determine the exact size, but the size of the nails tells us that there was a ship,” Grønnesby said.

“In this type of investigation, you can find everything and nothing, and I can assure you that we should have had a camera ready when the first nail was found: We were through the roof with excitement!” he said.

Hoping for dating

Layer showing charcoal in archaeological excavation

The archaeologists also found remnants of preserved wood, a layer containing charcoal and a horse’s tooth. Photo: Geir Grønnesby, NTNU University Museum

He said that the team has uncovered a surprising amount from a small investigation. In addition to nails, the archaeologists found remnants of preserved wood, a layer of charcoal, and a horse’s tooth.

“This means that we have a good basis for dating the grave,” says Grønnesby.

“The mound has been referred to as a Viking Age grave, but it shares similarities with another burial mound—Storhaug—that is dated to the late Merovingian period, meaning the period before the Viking Age. The dating will hopefully provide us with answers regarding the age of the grave,” he said.

Hanna Geiran, Director of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, says the find is incredibly exciting and interesting.

“Although this is a known site, the findings from the investigation make it more likely that this could have been a ship burial. Now the findings will be reviewed, and over the summer, we will learn more about the history of this fantastic cultural heritage site,” Geiran said.