Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Salme shipfind

A clinker-built ship with the remains of seven persons was found this autumn on Saaremaa, the largest island in Estonia.

This is the first prehistoric shipfind in the in the eastern Baltic, preliminarily dated to be around 1300-1100 years old.

The first bones and finds from the Salme ship appeared accidentally in the course of a local road construction in September 2008. Archaeological excavations followed a month later.

The ship was located near the ancient coastline, about 1.5 m above water level. The location is 230 m from modern coastline and 4 meters above modern water level.

The ship’s position was marked by rows of iron rivets in the sand. Very few wooden parts were preserved. A part of the ship had been destroyed by an electrical cable trench.

Concluding from the preserved parts of the ship, the overall original length of the ship was 11.5 m, beam 2 m and depth 75 cm. Most probably the Salme ship was powered by 6 pairs of oars. Main elements were made of pinewood. The ship had eight frames, attached probably by lashing. The planks were extremely thin, only 15 mm thick and 30 cm wide. The shape of the vessel is characteristic to a military type vessel – it was fast, light and very maneuverable. It can be considered to be an example of the Baltic Sea east coast shipbuilding technology and tradition.

The finds from inside the ship are surprising. Remains of seven men were recovered, together with fragments of several arms, including swords. Two spearheads and six arrowheads were also found. Smaller objects included one small socketed axe, 18 knives, 8 whetstones, and a bone comb with ornaments.

71 gaming pieces made of bone and antler with three dice were also of great interest. While human remains were located in the stern, in the bow section many animals had been buried: sheep and bovines. The ship probably contained only the carcasses, since no skull or limb fragments were found.

Compared to other known Scandinavian boat-graves from the Vendel and Viking Age, the Salme ship has many different properties. The most obvious difference is the absence of a mound. The Scandinavian boat-graves are located inside a mound, but the Salme ship lay in coastal sediments and the ship itself was also filled with sediments. Another peculiarity is the great number of the deceased. Boat-graves usually contain the remains of one person of high social rank, in rare cases up to three inhumations have been found. The Salme ship with 7 inhumations is an exception. No traditional grave goods or jewellery accompanied the inhumations. Ceramics, usually very common in graves, are also absent. Therefore Salme ship cannot be considered a typical boat burial. As of now, the sequence of events that caused the ship with crew and equipment to be left or buried at the beach, is unclear.

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