In the Iron Age, a powerful elite – perhaps even a king – had their domicile by the river Gudenaa in Denmark. This is revealed by the discovery of what archaeologists believe is one of the largest ship settings in northern Europe.
The ship setting, previously referred to in early Danish records as Høj Stene, was demolished and removed at some point. But this burial monument has now been rediscovered by archaeologists from Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, who have undertaken investigations in the area.
Remarkable gold finds from the site show that the monument framed an exceptionally rich cremation grave dating from the Late Germanic Iron Age (AD 550-750).
“We have found 21 pieces of more or less melted gold and about 50 pieces of bronze, including several fragments of exceptional ornaments. An elaborately ornamented piece of gold foil points unequivocally towards a date in the early part of the Late Germanic Iron Age,” explains archaeologist Mogens Høegsberg of Moesgaard Museum, who is directing the excavations.
The exceptionally large ship setting and the rich finds show that the area was the home of a powerful elite that was unparalleled in central Jutland at that time.
“The size of the monument makes it the clearest indication of the presence of an elite in Jutland, and the most striking burial monument in Denmark during that period. This is the same time that a new powerful elite and monarchy appear in Scandinavia, with the major royal residences at Lejre in Denmark and in Uppsala in Sweden, and in England, with the rich royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo,” says Mads Kähler Holst, director of Moesgaard Museum.
Ship settings, found primarily in southern Scandinavia, have aroused interest for centuries. Over the years there have been numerous interpretations of these structures as burial places, cult sites, thingsteads and astrological observatories. Even today, they are the subject of debate among archaeologists. But the finds from this ship setting, which stands by the Gudenaa, near the town of Vejerslev in central Jutland, now demonstrate for the first time that these structures functioned as burial monuments. It has not been possible to date most of the ship settings found until now, and it therefore represents a major breakthrough that investigations at Høj Stene indicate a date around AD 600.
The ship setting at Vejerslev was previously only known from early records, including an undated report thought to be from the first half of the 19th century. The monument is described here as an almost 90 m long ship setting located on an unspecified site close to the Gudenaa. Its proportions are exceptional – the largest ever encountered, except for the much later ship setting at Kongernes Jelling. The report also states that the ship setting lay between two burial mounds. There is also a mid-19th century survey of the ship setting from immediately prior to its destruction. In place-name records, which extend back to the 17th century, the site is referred to as Høj Stene.
With financial support from A.P. Møller og Hustru Chastine Mc-Kinney Møllers Fond til almene Formaal, Moesgaard Museum has undertaken several investigations in the area in recent years. A series of geophysical surveys was initially carried out in an attempt to locate the site of this quite remarkable monument. This led to the demonstration of a pointed-oval formation, which extended between a surviving northern burial mound and the remains of a now demolished and totally removed southern burial mound, evident as a circular depression. Several large stones were also located in the intervening area. Careful archaeological investigations reinforced the supposition that the site of the ship setting had been located.
An extensive metal-detector survey was carried out in conjunction with the archaeological investigations. This led to the recovery of the metal finds from the centre of the structure, which must be from a cremation grave.
The finds date the ship setting to around AD 600. This is the time when a new and powerful elite and monarchy emerge, with the major royal residences at Lejre and Uppsala, and in England with the royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The new kings and magnates appear to have had close links across this large area. They used the same symbols and had almost identical rich animal-style ornamentation on their artefacts. The ship was central to their burials, either in the form of actual ship burials or stone ship settings.
“The Vejerslev burial reveals a previously unknown aspect of this story, with the largest ship setting ever found from the period, containing gold finds fully on a par with those we see at other elite sites, even though the funeral pyre has destroyed a great deal,” says Mads Kähler Holst.
Due to the remarkable character of the site there is a wish to have the monument scheduled, and work on this is already in progress.
It is also the intention – in the long term – to visualise and present the monument on-site at Vejerslev and to open the area to the public.
Fig. 1: Reconstruction of the enormous ship setting Høj Stene on the day around 1400 years ago when the king begins his journey to the afterlife on a huge funeral pyre. Graphics: Eric Sosa, Moesgaard Museum.
Fig. 2: The finds date the ship setting to around AD 600. This is the time when a new powerful elite and monarchy emerge in Scandinavia, with the major royal residences in Lejre in Denmark and in Uppsala in Sweden, and in England, with the rich royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Graphics: Louise Hilmar, Moesgaard Museum.
Fig. 3: Partially melted remains of gold and bronze artefacts from the rich cremation grave in the ship setting. The gold finds include a piece of decorated gold foil, which dates the grave to the Late Iron Age, around AD 600. Photo: Rógvi N. Johansen, Photo/Media Department, Moesgaard Museum.