A large burial ground located at Hårup in southwest Denmark is the site of the latest striking find from the Viking world. The wooden building, originally discovered in 2012 by engineers building a highway, was later identified as a 10th-century Viking tomb known as a dødehus (death house). Judging from the grave markings and items found with the remains, archaeologists have concluded that the man and woman buried in the tomb were likely noble–or at least highly distinguished–and had international connections.

Reconstruction of a newly discovered Viking tomb that contains the remains of two men and woman. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)
Reconstruction of a newly discovered Viking tomb that contains the remains of two men and woman. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

The unique wooden structure found in Hårup and identified as a Viking dødehus, or death house, measures some 13 by 42 feet and contains three graves dating to 950 A.D. In the main part of the building, archaeologists found the remains of a man and a woman; the third grave, which appears to have been added later, contained the remains of a second man.

The man in the main part of the building was buried along with a large battle axe. As Kirsten Nelleman Nielsen, who led the excavation, explained to Science Nordic: “People across Europe feared this type of axe, which at the time was known as the Dane Axe–something like the ‘machine gun’ of the Viking Age.”

Large axe buried in one of the Viking men's graves (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)
Large axe buried in one of the Viking men’s graves (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

For her part, the woman in the tomb was laid to rest in a wagon, known to be a typical practice for Viking women of noble birth. Intriguingly, the archaeologists also found two keys buried with the woman. Many Viking women were buried with keys, which symbolized their control over the home and the domestic sphere, including the distribution of food and clothing to the family. One of the keys found in the particular woman’s grave served as, in Nielsen’s words, “a symbol of her power and status as a great lady.” The other key reportedly fit the lock of a small square shrine that was buried along with the woman, which Nielsen said is “quite rare.”

The markings Nielsen and her colleagues found on the graves also suggest that the man and woman in the tomb must have held a high social status in the Viking world, and received a special burial. It is also significant that they were discovered buried together in the same tomb, as this is far from a common situation among Viking graves. As Nielsen put it: “It’s unusual that we’re able to establish that the man and woman were equals with such certainty.” Her team’s findings suggest that the couple were likely powerful, perhaps a pair of rulers, while the man buried with them may have been their successor.

The third grave in the tomb. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)
The third grave in the tomb. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

Previous excavations of Viking graves in Denmark have revealed that some women enjoyed very high status, and may have held considerable power. Such women have been found buried in luxurious clothing and surrounded by grave gifts, all of which indicated their privileged place in Viking society. In one remarkable case, a well-preserved Viking ship dating to 834 A.D. was discovered in a burial mound on the Lille Oseberg farm in Norway; it contained the body of a high-ranking woman, now known as the “Oseberg queen.”

The idea for the unique type of tomb found in Hårup may well have come from outside Scandinavia. For one thing, it’s clear that the individuals buried there had international connections: The archaeologists found Baltic ceramics and silver coins from what is now Afghanistan inside the tomb. According to Nielsen, the design of the building is similar to that of the wooden stave churches common in northern and western parts of Europe during medieval times. “Maybe someone saw such a place elsewhere and made something similar,” she suggested.

Sketch of the Viking tomb layout. The left is the room with two graves belonging to a man and a woman. The right is an additional grave for a man that was added later. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)
Sketch of the Viking tomb layout. The left is the room with two graves belonging to a man and a woman. The right is an additional grave for a man that was added later. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

This is far from the first Viking burial to display international influences. Thanks to their navigational and shipbuilding skills, the Vikings roamed the world’s seas between 800 and the 11th century A.D., forming settlements as far afield as North Africa, Russia, Constantinople and North America; they were also accomplished traders, despite their barbaric reputation. In a particularly stunning recent find, excavations of the grave of a Viking woman buried in the ninth century turned up a ring engraved with Arabic script, a rare case of physical evidence linking Vikings and the Islamic world.