Archaeologists have unearthed
a Viking Age mortuary house, which gives us a glimpse into how the Vikings dealt with their deceased relatives. Houses like these are rare, and little is known about why the Vikings built them into certain burial mounds and not others. The NTNU University Museum is conducting a large excavation of an Iron Age farm and grave field in preparation for road improvements to the E39 highway near Vinjefjord in central Norway. The grave field has been ploughed during centuries of farming and is no longer visible above ground. But everything that was once dug
deep into the ground has left a trace. Archaeologists can use these clues to learn more about the prehistory of the area. The mortuary house found at Vinjeøra consists of a small building that stood inside one of the large burial mounds. The house had corner posts and walls that were made of standing planks. From other locations it’s known that these houses could have been big enough inside for a man to stand upright, but also small enough that there was just room for the corpse and perhaps some grave goods. Viking Age mortuary houses are rare finds in Norway. They did remain in use in Sámi
culture until modern times. Still, archaeologists can’t automatically interpret the Sámi and the Viking Age mortuary houses in the same way. It is possible that they had a practical function, such as a place to store the corpse until the ground thawed so the deceased could be buried. If that were true, however, it is rather strange that the house was incorporated into the burial mound itself. Another interpretation is to think of them as a house for the dead. 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 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 be a greater chance that they would stay there, instead of wandering around, tormenting people. It’s interesting to imagine that
building a house for the deceased could help ensure that they stayed on the farm, to take care of the family forever. This is in stark contrast to boat graves, which have been interpreted as giving the deceased a boat that they could use to travel to the land of the dead. Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the grave that archaeologists think was inside the mortuary house at Vinjeøra. What is known, however, is that this kind of grave was reserved for society’s upper classes, much like boat graves and expensive grave goods. Thus, little is known about why the mortuary house was built there. Perhaps this grave was reserved for a person who was thought to have a special ability to protect the family. Or does the house speak of a need to make sure that the person in the grave doesn’t return and torment people forever?