Under the shoreline of the Baltic Sea in a small Estonian village called Salme, two “Viking death ships” sat for a millennium untouched and unknown holding the bodies of dozens of Viking-era men who were violently killed in their prime.
When the two ships were first found in 2008, we could tell a few things about what happened: the 41 men were young and strong, and some of them were quite large – a few were over six feet tall. Their teeth tell us that they were from Central Sweden, 250 miles away from their final resting place.
Treasures were buried with them, including bejeweled swords and a Hnefatafl board game. They were respectfully buried, but it was also clear that many of them were violently killed – five of the 41 skeletons bear breaks and marks that would have been lethal, including stab wounds, an arm bone sliced clean in half, and decapitation marks.
Were these young Vikings murdered in their prime?
The first thought, which had been the leading theory until this year, was that they were warriors or raiders. Since they were first found, scientists and researchers who felt that explanation didn’t quite cover it have a new theory as to why so many men were killed at the height of their strength – they were diplomats on a mission to talk rather than to fight or plunder.
While that theory is interesting and adds to our ever-expanding view of the Viking era, some researchers are still adamant about the original theory. Even if researchers may not completely on who these men were, they can all agree that the graves give us an extremely rare glimpse into the era.
According to Ole Thurip Kastholm, a curator at Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, the graves give us many more questions than answers.
The graves give us a rare – if not unique – glimpse of a Viking Age drama…Who are the dead men? What was the purpose of their journey? – Roskilde Museum curator Ole Thirup Kastholm
Whoever buried the dead within two ships on the Estonian shore in 750 AD buried the Vikings respectfully, even after brutally killing them. They’re positioned carefully with their valuables nearby, including swords set with jewels and gold and pieces from a board game.
The best clue might be the weapons
The jeweled swords and board game are the best clues as to the object of the mission, but they’re also the most controversial parts of the story. Would low-ranking Viking warriors carry jeweled swords and bone board game pieces? Probably not, thinks Jüri Peets of Estonia’s Tallinn University.
For one thing, warriors carried spears and battle axes rather than jeweled swords. The gold and jewels instead suggests the need to impress other diplomatic leaders.
Viking soldiers from some regions would have used a single-handed sword in combat, but it would have likely been simple (and not dripping in gold). Even an iron sword would have been very expensive, so swords signified status.
If a plain sword signified a higher class warrior, what would a bejeweled sword signify? Since the very act of owning a sword signaled high honour, an ornately decorated one would normally signify a very wealthy person or an earl.
One theory that the men aboard the ships were a band of warriors led by a rich warlord and his lieutenants is also plausible, since the stack of bodies had 5 buried on top with more elaborate swords than those buried underneath.
Many of the swords were burnt and intentionally damaged or bent, which maybe be a confusing piece of the puzzle until we remember that there have been other Viking burials where the sword was given a good death, which involved the blade being bent until it could no longer be used. In other words, they killed the swords of the fallen out of respect. This leads to the question that if “sword killing” is a Viking burial ritual, who buried them?
Respect the Viking gamers
The bone board game pieces buried with the Vikings also offer a clue, which raises even more questions.
Some think that soldiers wouldn’t have brought the game pieces with them to battle, but as Jan Bill of Norway’s Museum of Cultural History explains, “Soldiers have always had lots of waiting time, and games with them to shorten the time.”
It’s also worth noting that the game pieces tell us a lot about Iron Age values – the Vikings were buried with their golden sword hilts, but also their games, which shows how much the Vikings loved strategy games.
This isn’t the only burial where a noble, warrior, or family was found with a treasured board game to entertain them in the afterlife and serve as a commemoration of their skill in the game. According to Mark Hall of the Perth Museum, there have been as many as 36 graves found that contained a board game.
We all know that battle prowess prized in Viking society, but so was the ability to strategize. To keep wits sharp while resting or waiting, they brought the fighting to the gameboard.
“Tafl” is the Old Norse word for “table,” which explains why it was also the word for tabletop games in the old days. Chess was called Skak-Tafl, Backgammon was called Kvatru-Tafl, and this game is called Hnefa-Tafl, which means “king’s table.”
Hnefatafl was the oldest of the tafl games – it first started in 400 AD and was spread through the world by Vikings traveling in the exact same way as our mysterious dead Vikings.
To play Hnefatafl, a carved board with 13×13 or 11×11 squares is occupied by a wooden army of a king and his men. Players go back and forth moving their soldiers, who all move the same way like rooks in chess. There’s a white player and a black player. The white player must clear an escape route for the king piece, while the black player attempts to capture the king.
Sometimes the board and pieces were ornately carved, but sometimes the whole board was drawn on a rock and the pieces were pebbles or drawn in charcoal.
In the case of the Viking death ship, the king boardgame piece was found in the mouth of the person with the most elaborate sword, which could have been either a sign of reverence or disrespect.
The Saga of Yngvar
One possible clue might come from a saga written in 1225 about a Scandinavian noble named Yngvar. In the story, Yngvar met his end while on a raiding mission around 600. The take describes how the men of Estland came at Yngvar and his men with a great army, which was so brave and fierce that the Swedes didn’t stand a chance. King Yngvar fell, his people fled, and he was buried close to the shore under a mound.
Did the skull with the king game piece in its mouth belong to Yngvar? It’s possible, but there’s no way to know for sure.
While we’re not sure whether those in the Viking death ships are raiders, soldiers, or diplomats, it’s so amazingly awesome that there’s still so much to learn about the Iron Age.