pühapäev, 11. jaanuar 2009

Ship burial at Salme, Island Saaremaa, Estonia.

Ship burial at Salme, Island Saaremaa, Estonia. Or boat burial, if you prefer.

As most of my medieval friends are not yet able to read Estonian I felt the irresistible urge to mediate more information about the find that is quite extraordinary in the Estonian context.

This is a translation/longer summary in English. For any quotation and photos, please check the original blog and the newspapers.
More questions can be asked from three ladies: Mirja Ots works at the Institute of History, University of Tallinn; Marge Konsa and Ester Oras work for the University of Tartu at the department of archaeology.

English summary written by the archaeologists can be found here.

The very beginning.
What? Boat grave at Salme
Where? Salme village, Island Saaremaa
When found? The end of September, 2008
How? Building a bicycle road
Finds? Human bones, gaming pieces, arms, rivets
How old? Beginning of the 8th century

Parts of the comment 20.11.2008 by Ajaloohuviline saarlane:
Henricus of Latvia mentions portus novus in his chronicle: some have suggested the he meant Salme. There is a settlement site from Viking Age at Rahuste, Saaremaa.
A legendary burial site of the Swedish king Ingvar at Island Muhumaa.

Postimees 29.09.2008
First bones were found on 24-25.09, firstly one supposed that they belonged to the fallen soldiers from the time of the WWII. As the excavations continued, the spearheads were found. „I haven’t really heard that they would have used spearheads during the WWII,“ says Arnold Unt, the representer of society which takes care of the German war graves.

A lot of media coverage can be found here – again, in Estonian.

Eesti Päevaleht 7.10.2008
Article by Dannar Leitmaa, photos by Marko Mumm. The day the gaming pieces were found! I include some photos about gaming pieces (some will appreciate my choice):

Boat graves in Estonia and elsewhere.
Up to now there are very few boat graves found in Estonia (in those cases boat graves are defined by the rivets found during the excavations):
Lagedi XIII burial place, where around 150 bigger iron rivets and nails were found spread around the burial grounds; this could suggest some boat graves. In this case one supposes that the deceased was burnt at the burial place together with the boat, leaving just rivets and nails, burnt bones and some burnt objects. Similar amounts of rivets were found at Rae 1 burial place and Aseri burial place (Lang 2007: 192).

There are more boat/ship burials found abroad because this type of burial was common both in Scandinavia and the British Isles. The most famous examples are Sutton Hoo, England, Oseberg and Gokstad, Norway. In these cases we can speak about ship burials, not boats; the deceased were influential people and buried with a lot of grave goods. On a similar scale with Salme boat there are Vendel boat graves from Sweden where the deceased were buried in 9 m long boats.

Lang, Valter 2007. Baltimaade pronksi- ja rauaaeg. Tartu. [Bronze and Iron Age in the Baltic States]

Excavations took place in the beginning of October, analyses 15-20.10.2008; leader Marge Konsa. Place of the excavation.
The contour of the boat is marked by rows of iron rivets. Preserved part of the boat is 1,3 m wide and 6,2 m long patch of cultural layer, and a front part of the boat, ca 50 cm in diametre.

Pictures of the finds.

gaming pieces/piece

bone comb

weapons and a gaming piece

The visible bones in the preserved part of the boat belong mostly to the animals, sheep and bovine. In the southern part of the boat the bones belong to the humans. The boat space was probably divided between human beings and animals.

Participants in the project.

Day's work.
Part of preserved planking was found.

Day's work.
More and more questions arise about the mast and sail – nothing in the construction suggest that there were any.

Day's work.
As no mast step and keel were found, one can be sure that the oars were used. At the stern post a decorated comb was found.

Day's work.
The coastal sediments reach the boat. It means that the boat was never buried but stranded or left on the coast. Many hypotheses how the dead ended up in the boat.

The boat.
Length of the boat 10,2 m; better preserved part ca 3,2 m, at the widest 1,3 m. Preserved bow part max 30 cm high, at the stern 40 cm.

The finds: couple of swords and spear heads, around 10 knives (a „unit“ of 3 together with a whetstone). Arrowheads, more than 70 gaming pieces and some dice. Decorated comb from the stern, flint from the middle. 275 rivets.

Gaming pieces.

pieces made of bone.

pieces probably made of antler. The small hole under the piece could probably be connected to the technique that was used to make them.

71 gaming pieces were found, unfortunately most of them from the part of the boat that was ruined earlier by the road building. Hence exact context is known for a few of them. Semispherical pieces are made of bone and antler. Material and size varies a bit, diametre between 3,1–4,4 cm and height 1,6–3,4 cm. A human figure and ornament are carved on one of the pieces.

Links about prehistoric board games and pieces:
Helmfrid, Sten 2005. Hnefatafl - the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings.

Peterson, Neil N. Hnefatafl. An Experimental Reconstruction.

Whittaker, Helène 2006. Game-boards and gaming-pieces in the Northern European Iron Age. Nordlit 20, 103-112

Links about hnefatafl

My comment about Annette’s MPhil thesis.

New burial place.
At Salme school, 50 m SW from the boat, one found human bones and weapons while digging a pitch for the cable.
Finds: 2 one-bladed swords, piece of a two-bladed sword, 2 arrowheads, a whetstone, a rivet, a nail and 2 studs.
Pictures of swords.

Links and books.

Based on the analysis of diatoms [a type of hard shelled algae; Diatomaceous] it is not possible to rule out that this was a burial. It is plausible that the boat with the crew, animals and objects was buried in the coastal sediments and filled with coastal sediments. Hopefully the documented stratigraphy will give a sustainable explanation, and verify or falsify the hypothesis.

Heinsalu, Atko 2008. „Ränivetikaanalüüsi põhine eksperthinnang Salme muinaspaadi kohta.“ TTÜ Geoloogia Instituut. Aruanne nr 2008-46. Tallinn. [„Expert review about Salme boat based on the analysis of diatoms,“ Institute of geology, Tallinn Technical University]

Comment by Marika Mägi, professor in archaeology at the University of Tallinn, department of archaeology, 04.11.2008
The boat was probably not buried. However we cannot rule out that it was still a burial where the boat with the deceased was left on the coast to decay, and only later covered with earth. The analysis of the bones suggests that they have been lying in the open air for quite a long time. Salme boat burial could be a mix of the local Estonian or Finnish tradition of ’the houses of the dead’ and an adaptation of the Scandinavian tradition. A boat burial would logically be close to the coast, maybe even a harbour; the burials are often found in close vicinity to contemporary harbours.

Human bones.
Most of the human bones which are associated with the boat, were found „by accident“ during digging a ditch for the cable. The human bones were located in the stern and midship. No human bones in the bow area. The bones belong to seven human beings.

A small Estonian-English maritime glossary by Vello Mäss, The Estonian Maritime Museum; can be downloaded as pdf-file.

A seminar about the Salme boat at the Institute of History, University of Tallinn.
Marge Konsa’s presentation, page 14: 71 gaming pieces, 3+2 dice; page 17: dating of the objects found at the site: 700-900 AD. Presentation can be downloaded as pdf-file; in Estonian.

Reconstruction of the boat.
At the seminar on 24.11 the people present agreed on the following:
length 11,5 m; at the widest 2 m; side boards 75 cm; keel 40 cm; 8 ribs
It is quite plausible that the Salme boat was a rowing boat without a mast, 6 pairs of oars. Main parts made of pine. Probably skid keel. An example of the boat building traditions on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea.

"Interpretations of building technology of the Salme boat" by Vello Mäss; can be downloaded as pdf-file; in Estonian.

„The Salme boat is an extraordinarily valuable find both in the context of the Estonian and the Baltic maritime history and ship archaeology because the knowledge of sailing and ship building traditions on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea are quite scarce. The little we know, comes mainly from Chronicle of Livonia [Origines Livoniae sacrae et civilis seu Chronicon Livonicum vetus, oldest preserved manuscript Codex Zamoscianus, 14th century; all in all 16 manuscripts with fully or partly preserved text, 14th-18th century, the author describes conquering of Livonia/Livland, Latvia (Lettland/Lettonia) and Estonia ca 1184-1227, written probably 1224-1227]. Sporadic information about the older finds in the bog at Ruhnu Island, Lake Tihu at Hiiumaa Island and elsewhere were not documented for well-known reasons.

Today the oldest ship find is a part of Hanseatic cog found in 1990s in River Pärnu, dated to the end of the 13th century-the beginning of the 14th century. The oldest ship find of Estonian origin is a ship from Maasilinna castle dated to the middle of the 16 century.

Salme boat deserves special attention as a light-construction row ship. Today the dating of the ship and most of the finds is not conclusive yet, hence it is too early to make any conclusions. However, it is possible that this is an example of a water going vessel from the pre-sail period in this area. In the Estonian context this is probably THE find of the century even if it turns out that the ship is of non-Estonian origin.“

Happy new year!

The „reconstruction“ of the boat:o) Costumes are not historically quite correct, though. The placement of men in the boat is more or less accurate according to the finds.

Postimees 03.01.2009
Risto Berendson „The bones tell the story of the viking ship at Salme“

The number of humans at Salme boat burial is unique in the Baltic Sea context: it is more than double of the most „crowded“ burial hitherto known in the Baltic Sea region. In that burial there were an older woman, a middle-aged man and a 10-year old boy buried together.

Salme boat is something completely different. There are seven men, all in their prime [20-45 years old]. Anthropologist Raili Allmäe tells that they were not placed in a typical burial position – people laying side by side with heaps of nice grave goods. At Salme boat two men were laying at the stern, three in the middle, two at the bow. The bones were disturbed and mixed but it could be due to an earlier road building.
She also tells that it is quite difficult to say if it was a boat burial or if the boat just stranded there with a crew already dead.

Bones found in the boat are the main source of information. One has already completed the analysis of animal bones: few pig’s, sheep’s and goat’s bones, lot of bovine, mainly young calves’ bones. Archeo-zoologist Liina Maldre tells that there were no „complete“ animals in the boat – only a cranium of a kid was found. It suggests that the bones come rather from food than live animals.

Much more information can be drawn from the birds’ bones. The analysis was done in Poland. There were skeletons of two hunting birds, a goshawk and a sparrowhawk beside the men. These birds are not uncommon in boat burials, common understanding is that the hunting birds followed their masters to the graves. According to the Polish experts these two birds were trained by humans. Maldre tells that both birds had some signs of earlier bone fractures that had healed or started to heal. In the wild these birds wouldn’t have survived. Both birds were found without a head so it is quite probable that someone decapitated and placed them in the boat with their dead masters.
Though the archeologists wouldn’t make any conclusions yet, it becomes more and more likely that this is a boat burial, even on a grander scale than any other similar burial in the Baltic Sea region.

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