History & Analysis

The Viking Burials at Hjarnø: An Interview with Erin Sebo

The first survey of the Kalvestene viking ship burial site on Hjarnø, Denmark in nearly 100 years was published last month. Researchers used everything from medieval chronicles to 17th-century illustrations to lidar scanning and aerial photogrammetry to shed new light on the site. Today, The Postgrad Chronicles is pleased to bring you an exclusive interview with lead researcher, Dr Erin Sebo.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Erin. Tell us, how did you first come across the Kalvestene, what drew your interest to them?

There was a team of Flinders University archaeologists working on a Mesolithic site on the island and, in their time off, they became interested in the viking site and asked me about it, so I said I wanted to come and see it! It wasn’t what I expected and when I started to research it, I discovered that there was no published work on the site except one article from the 1930s. But there was a 17th-century drawing of the site which meant that, potentially, we could reconstruct how the site had eroded over time. Also, the fact that Saxo Grammaticus mentions the site in Gesta Danorum is fascinating. There are so many grand viking monuments he could have written about, but instead he talks about this small site on a remote island, hundreds of kilometres away from where he was living in Lund.

Can you describe the site a little for us?

Hjarnø is a tiny beautiful Danish island, close to the mainland. The site is a gravefield of ten cremation graves right by the sea. Each grave is marked by a series of stones that outline the shape of a boat, a couple of meters long. In the 1930s, fragments of cremated grave goods were found, including part of the blade of a sword. A buried hoard of treasure, including high status objects from across the viking world has also been found on the island, so the community who built the site was probably connected to a strong maritime network. (Ship setting sites are often built right near the ocean or even a river!) There was a trading centre in Horsens, the nearest town on the mainland, so sailors probably stopped on the island on their way there.

Though the survey found Hjarnø more similar to Swedish grave sites than to Danish ones, so what was the relationship between medieval Sweden and medieval Denmark? 

At the time the Kalvestene was constructed there were several important, nearby Danish power centres, particularly at Jelling which is less than 50 kms away. However, reaching these all involved land travel. Southern Swedish sites are more distant but are reached by water. Our study demonstrates that maritime links were stronger for the Hjarnø community and reflect a profoundly maritime culture, in which the land is more of a barrier than the sea. (NB. The Danish/Swedish borders change throughout the medieval period and at some points parts of modern Sweden is under Danish rule. The issue is not borders, but distance!)

We understand there is some interesting folklore associate with the site. Do you have a favourite story?

There are so many stories from so many different times! We have stories recorded by Ole Worm in the 17th century, by travellers in the 19th century, and the islanders told me that their grandparents believed it was bad luck to move the stones and anyone who tried would be haunted in dreams until they returned them. I guess my favourite, though, is the story Saxo tells, that a peasant called Hjarni made up such a good poem about the old king on his death that the people made Hjarni the new king. Unfortunately for him, the old king’s son returns and kills Hjarni and his men who are buried on the island. This story isn’t in any surviving text before Saxo and it isn’t in any of the texts that Saxo usually uses as the source for his own information and we’re also pretty sure that he didn’t make the story up himself, since it doesn’t really align with his politics, so we’re pretty sure that the story was actually circulating as folklore in the 12th century during Saxo’s lifetime. (Look out for a study on this with Matthew Firth, coming out soon!)

Now, you were comparing your findings with the drawings of the site the Danish antiquarian Ole Worm made in the 17th century. How accurate do you think those drawings are?

In the 17th century we are only just starting to see the emergence of modern ideas of scientific accuracy. They didn’t value it in the same way we do. Worm was actually surprisingly accurate for his time. Almost all of his measurements are right, but he did change the proportions so that they were closer to other sites he had visited like the ship settings at Lejre. And we can prove that, when he drew the site, he added extra monuments.  In some cases he draws graves where there simply isn’t the space. The question is, was he right overall? Was the site once much, much bigger? There’s no way to know without more geophysical survey.

Kalvestene Grave Field: Viking Ship Burials Shrouded in Mystery

What was the most exciting finding from the research?

Well, it’s possible we’ve identified two new graves and we’ve proved that the site was famous in the Middle Ages, which challenges a lot of our preconceived ideas about how information spread.

But in some ways, I think the cultural implications are more exciting. Most monuments of this kind are designed to honour the power of an important individual and the legends concerning this site claim that the Kalvestene was built in honour of a king. However, our study demonstrates that the site had a community focus and that the people of Hjarnø had a much flatter, more egalitarian social structure.

The study suggests a high level of variation in every aspect of viking life, including political structures, from one community to another. It also suggests that close connections between communities were based on a range of factors and not necessarily simple proximity. Historically, these questions have been hard to investigate because of the nature of the evidence that survives. Our interdisciplinary approach gave us a far more detailed insight. The study has implications for the how power and influence worked across the Viking world, as well as for understanding the dynamics of individual communities and their networks.

Is there more research still to be done on the Kalvestene?

Always! Aside from excavation – and only three of the monuments have been excavated so there is almost certainly interesting information left to find – a more detailed non-disturbance survey would tell us a lot. A magnetic study was conducted in 2009 but only of sections of the site. A more detailed geophysical survey could tell us if the site really does extend beyond the extant monuments. Also, the 2009 survey picked up some very strong anomalies, possibly strong enough to indicate fire. That might mean that cremation pyres were built on the site, as they were at Lindholm Høj. That would tell us a lot about how the community used the site.

Thanks again for your time, Erin!

Erin’s article, ‘The Kalvestene: A reevaluation of the ship settings on the Danish island of Hjarnø‘, researched and written with Chelsea Wiseman, John Mcarthy, Paul Baggaley, Katerina Jerbic and Jonathan Benjamin was published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

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