It is just another day as workers dig a trench near the village of Salme, Estonia. Their job is cable maintenance, but they find ancient artefacts instead. Their discovery leads to the excavation of one of the most extraordinary ship burials. This is the story of the Salme ships.
Discovering The Ships
Salme I and II
The Salme I was unfortunately damaged during the cable works in 2008. Yet, the remains reveal a ship of about 11,5m long and 2m wide. These dimensions suggest this is a warship – and one used for rowing, not sailing as there is no mast. Interestingly, there is also no mound covering the ship and inside are not one, but seven men buried beneath a layer of sand. As grave goods, they had with them a few swords, many knives, whetstones, gaming pieces, dices and a comb.1
Archaeologists then discover a second ship nearby, the Salme II. This too is not covered by a burial mound. It is impressive at 17m long and 3m wide. Inside are the remains of 34 men, separated by layers of sand. Their shields are placed on top of their bodies. The six men on the top layer are covered with stones. They also have the richest grave goods between them. In this ship are brooches, beads, gilt sword pommels and many combs that confirm the high status of the warriors.2
Origins of Artefacts, and the Men
What are these ships, and who are these men? At least of the grave goods in the ships, we know they are Swedish. The combs, sword hilts and their decorations bear similarities to artefacts from graves from the same period from Ultuna, Vendel and Valsgärde (all Sweden).3
And not just the objects are Swedish, so are the men. They are from central Sweden, though only five are direct relatives of whom four full brothers.4 Most men are between 30 and 40 years old and killed in action, that much is clear. Arrows still stick to the sides of the ship and in some of the men. Other men also show signs of violent deaths.5
Dating the Burials
These burials take place between 700-750, but the ships are older probably from around 650–700. They are clinker-built, which means the planks overlap and are held together with iron rivets. Much like the Oseberg ship that is only a few feet longer than the Salme II.6
Pre-Viking or Viking?
If the understanding is that the Viking Age started with Lindisfarne in 793 and ended at Hastings in 1066, then the Salme ship burials are pre-Viking Age. No question about it. Yet, it is only shortly before the Viking Age. And fixed starting and end dates do not clarify the slow and changing sequence of events that lead from one period to another.7 It also doesn’t help to explain other regional histories. For example, the first recorded attack on Frisia takes place in 810. Yet, the events that lead up to this raid are also considered Viking Age.8
What about the battle that took place here at Salme? Based on the archaeological objects, it remains a mystery. The ships predate the Viking Age. There are pre-Viking Age objects such as the combs, that date to the seventh and eighth century (based on the ring-dot motif decoration).9 And whilst one study suggests that cremations were more common than inhumations during the pre-Viking Age,10 other studies suggest that inhumations were not at all that uncommon during the Vendel period.11
What Happened on Saaremaa?
So, what happened on Saaremaa that led to this burial? Some have linked the story to the legend of the Swedish king Yngvar. He is said to have fallen in battle in the Eastern Sea and was buried on its shores.12 Yet, there is no direct archaeological evidence confirming the saga with the Salme burials.
The short reconstruction we can try to make is that the warriors, possibly Svaers, follow a trade route between central Sweden and Estonia, whether on a leisurely or diplomatic mission. They do not leave their weapons behind for this trip during these dangerous times. Which is smart, because they encounter an enemy – whose origins we still don’t know. Is it a local rising, or are the Geats lying in wait? The latter being their Swedish enemies with whom they fight over the trade routes?13 Whoever they are, the victors have respect the fallen warriors, and allow the survivors or locals (?) to prepare a full burial, including rituals such as the slaughter of the dogs and hawks.
Treasures in the Museum
In May 2021, the grave goods of the Salme I and II will return to Saaremaa. They will join the permanent exhibition at the local museum on the island. Meanwhile, you can see some of the treasures up close and personal in a gallery of photos on the Estonian Public Broadcasting website.14
- Marge Konsa, ‘The Salme Shipfind,’ Salme muinaslaev Published 30 November 2008. Last Accessed 17 January 2021. Andrew Curry, ‘Two remarkable ships may show that the Viking storm was brewing long before their assault on England and the continent,’ Archaeology Published July/August 2013. Last Accessed 17 January 2021. ↩︎
- For the full details of Salme I and II burials, see this article: T. Douglas Price, J. Peets, R. Allmäe et al, ‘Isotopic provenancing of the Salme ship burials in Pre–Viking Age Estonia.’ Antiquity Volume 90.352 (2016), pp. 1022–1037. doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.106 ↩︎
- T. Douglas Price, J. Peets, R. Allmäe et al (2016), pp. 1033–1034. ↩︎
- Ashot Margaryan, Daniel Lawson, Martin Sikora, et al. ‘Population genomics of the Viking world,’ Nature. Volume 585.7825 (2020), pp. 15. doi 10.1038/s41586–020–2688–8. hal–03030330 ↩︎
- Marika Mägi, In Austrvegr: The Role of the Eastern Baltic in Viking Age Communication across the Baltic Sea. (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 233–239. ↩︎
- Andrew Curry (2013). ↩︎
- Ashot Margaryan, Daniel Lawson, Martin Sikora, et al. (2020), pp. 1. ↩︎
- Nelleke IJssenager, Central because Liminal: Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. PhD Thesis, 2017, pp. 10. ↩︎
- Heidi Luik, Jüri Peets, John Ljungkvist, et al, ‘Antler Combs from the Salme Shipburials: Find Context, Origin, Dating and Manufacture,’ Estonian Journal of Archaeology. Volume 24.1 (2020), pp. 29 [pp. 3–44] doi:10.3176/arch.2020.1.01 ↩︎
- Heidi Luik, Jüri Peets, John Ljungkvist, et al, (2020), pp. 37–38. ↩︎
- R. Allmäea, L. Maldrea, T. Tomek, ‘The Salme I Ship Burial: an Osteological View of a Unique Burial in Northern Europe,’ Interdisciplinaria Archaeologica. Volume II.2 (2011), pp. 109 [pp. 109–124]. ↩︎
- Snorri Sturluson, ‘Ynglinga Saga.’ Sacred Texts.com Last Accessed 17 January 2021. ↩︎
- T. Douglas Price, J. Peets, R. Allmäe et al (2016), pp. 1034–1035.
R. Allmäea, L. Maldrea, T. Tomek, (2011), pp. 109. ↩︎
- Andrew Whyte, ‘Gallery: Major Saaremaa Viking haul returned to the island after a decade,’ ERR | Estonian Public Broadcasting Company Published 15 January 2021. Last Accessed 17 January 2021. ↩︎