Viking Age Mortuary House Found in Central Norway

The house in question measured five by three metres. It had corner posts, and the walls were made of standing planks, in a building style similar to that used in early stave churches. Archaeologists could see that the building was solidly constructed, even though the only thing that remains is a rectangular ditch with a slight impression from the house and some retaining stones where the walls once stood.

The construction style of the mortuary house is similar to that used for stave churches. (Image: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU University Museum)

The construction style of the mortuary house is similar to that used for stave churches. (Image: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU University Museum)

Even though the style of building is typical of the Viking Age, this house was far from ordinary. Archaeologists think it was most likely home to a Viking grave. Hundreds of years of farming in the area have ploughed away the grave that was likely found inside the structure.

Sauvage, who is project manager for the dig, said:

The burial mound itself is also gone, but the ring ditch that once surrounded the mound has been filled in, rather than ploughed away, and is therefore still visible.

The mortuary house was found under an excavation of a Viking Age grave field on Vinjeøra in Hemne municipality in central Norway. The dig was undertaken in preparation for road construction associated with the expansion of the E39 highway.

A house for the dead

Viking Age mortuary houses are rare finds in Norway, with fewer than 15 found in the entire country. That means there’s a lot we don’t know about why these houses were built and what they were intended for. Sauvage said:

But this interpretation doesn’t explain why the house on Vinjeøra was dug into the burial mound, and why graves have been found inside mortuary houses in other locations. Now, most researchers believe that these houses played more of a symbolic role than a practical one.

Why the Vinjeøra Vikings wanted the dead to live in the burial mound — rather than to sail to the land of the dead – is a matter of speculation. Perhaps they wanted the spirits of the dead to stay and protect the farm and family.

Here’s what the archaeological site looks like from the air. The picture clearly shows the discolouration around the location of the house left from the ditch that surrounded the structure. The stripe that goes across the top of the picture is from a modern-day ditch. (Image: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet)

Here’s what the archaeological site looks like from the air. The picture clearly shows the discolouration around the location of the house left from the ditch that surrounded the structure. The stripe that goes across the top of the picture is from a modern-day ditch. (Image: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet)

In pre-Christian times, it was not unusual to believe that the dead lived in the mound, and that the living should take care of what they called the people of the mound. This would involve bringing them gifts and food, so that in return they would ensure that the crops were good and that both animals and humans were fertile.

People may have believed that if the deceased had their own house in the mound, there would probably be a greater chance that they would stay there, instead of wandering around, tormenting people.

Unique opportunity

It is extremely rare for archaeologists in Norway to be able to examine an entire grave field in one excavation, as they now can at Vinjeøra. Sauvage said:

The excavation will continue throughout the autumn and into next year, as there is still quite a lot left for archaeologists to examine. Nevertheless, Sauvage is already confident that what they discover will be of great importance, saying:

Provided by: Frid Kvalpskarmo Hansen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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