Salme ship burials – findings that changed history.

in Kuressaare Castle

In September 2008, excavation of the cable route of the Tehumardi – Salme bicycle path uncovered human bones, sword fragments, rivets, game pieces, dice, etc. Archaeological rescue excavations (directors Jüri Peets, Külli Rikas, and Marge Konsa) revealed that the findings originate from a ship burial (Salme I) partially destroyed by road works. One month later, another ship (Salme II), which was studied in 2010–12 (supervisor Jüri Peets), was found 50 m away at the Salme school building during the route works. The second ship of Salme is probably the oldest known sailing ship in the Baltic Sea, dating from around 700-750. It was the introduction of the sail that was one of the important prerequisites for longer overseas expeditions.

By convention, the beginning of the Viking Age is considered to be the year 793, when the Norwegian Vikings looted the Lindisfarne monastery in England. Salme ship burials are direct proof that the Scandinavian sea warriors performed armed expeditions to the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea even before the end of the 8th century. It is the only Viking expedition or former diplomatic mission from which certain archaeological traces have been preserved.

41 (7+34) Vikings, mostly from the Swedish region of Mälaren, were buried in the ships, whose expensive grave goods indicate their high social status. It is a collective grave of warriors killed in battle, which makes the Salme find complex unique in the world. To date, a total of over 600 pre-Viking and Viking era burials are known from northern Europe. Most of them reflect burials at home, where both women and men were put on ships. How the warriors participating in sea expedition were buried was unknown until the burials of Salme were found.

Thanks to the findings of Salme, we have an extraordinary opportunity to take a look at the lives of the Viking warriors: what was the origins of the men belonging to one cohort, what ships were used for going on a sea expedition, what equipment they took with them, how they fought and buried their dead abroad. There was probably a Viking king among the warriors buried in Salme. Namely, a game piece depicting the king in the then-popular board game hnefatafl was found in a mouth of a warrior buried in precious military equipment. As an innate feature, the king’s first cervical vertebra had grown together with the skull. This prevented him from fighting on an equal footing with his companions.

For more than ten years, the finds have been under research at Tallinn University and so far been inaccessible to a large part of the public. Today, the research has come to an end, and the findings are back in the Saaremaa Museum. The exhibition, which is now open, features 150 original objects, which were placed as grave goods along with the Viking warriors, who were hoping for a continuation of life in Valhalla. A 1:10 model of the Salme II ship is also on display. A 4-minute animation based on the results of research and the reconstruction of the Salme landscape from 1300 years ago can be seen on the big screen as one possible interpretation of the battle that took place in Salme.

Along with the exhibition, a catalog, a number of Viking-themed products inspired by findings, and copies of objects are available in the museum shop.

The exhibition was prepared by the Saaremaa Museum Foundation.
Curator: Marge Konsa
Project managers: Taniel Vares (Saaremaa Museum), Hälys Laanemäe and Ott Sarapuu (Motor)
Exhibition design: Kadri Kaldam and Raili Paling (KOKO architects)
Graphic design: Erik Heinpalu (Motor)
Execution of the exhibition: Motor (Edgar Juhkov, Olle Järvekülg, Gertu Kallas, Tiit Kotsar, Lauri Laasik,
Kristiina Laurits, Annes Leht, Joosep Matjus, Ivo Metsmaa, Kertu Moppel, Margus Muld, Villu Plink, Reigo Rand, Jaana Ratas, Kristo Reisner, Veiko Salumäe, Herkki Särkinen, Helen Västrik and Piret Õunapuu)
Animated film “Battle of Salme 750 AD”: producer Slow Solutions (Mattias Mälk and Vesse Veering),
production Velvet (Kadri Ann Mikiver and Gunnar Hunt), narrator Mirtel Pohla
Supporters of the exhibition: Enterprise Estonia and the National Heritage Board


More about the same topic

  • On May 6-7 2022, Saaremaa Museum in cooperation with Uppsala University will organize an international conference „Vikings before Vikings“ in Saaremaa.
  • viking-themed items in the museum shop


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