Two years after the Gjellestad excavation was completed, experts are digitizing the 1400 rivets that were removed from the ship. The aim is to complete an accurate, digital reconstruction of the Viking ship.

The excavation of the Gjellestad ship was the first of its kind in Norway in more than a hundred years and was completed in the autumn of 2021.

“The part of the ship that’s preserved was just over 19 meters long and a little more than four meters wide. We must probably add one or two meters to the length since the soil was ploughed, which means that the majority of the two stems are missing,” says Christian Løchsen Rødsrud.

He is an archaeologist at the Museum of Cultural History, which the Viking Age Museum is part of, and the project manager for the excavation at Gjellestad.

When the excavation was completed, the archaeologists were left with around 8,000 finds and fragments they had extracted from the site, including almost 1400 rivets. Now, the painstaking work of CT-scanning all the rivets is well underway. Together with other digital documentation made during the excavation, the team will be able to recreate an almost exact, digital reconstruction of the Viking ship.

Reconstructing the ship

Such a digital reconstruction of the Gjellestad ship will provide unique and broader knowledge about shipbuilding traditions in the Viking Age.

“This is not just important in a Norwegian context, but also across Scandinavia and in the areas where the same ship technology was in use. With a complete digital data set, it is possible to build a reconstruction of the ship. It will facilitate further research on Viking Age ship technology. The new ship will likely have different technological solutions and thus also different qualities than the ships we know from previous excavations,” says Rødsrud.

“We scan an average of nine rivets a day, so it takes time. But we will probably have a complete model of the ship within the next year,” he continues.

The rivets are severely decomposed and are still in the blocks of soil that were extracted from the ship.

The blocks have been preserved with a silicate-based consolidation agent that holds the soil together, with the rivet inside. This preserves the rivet exactly as it was in the imprint of the ship, which makes it possible to handle them.

With this method, the rivets can be put back where they were found, for instance if the plans for building a visitor center at Gjellestad are realized.

Keel for conservation

Unfortunately, not much of the wood from the ship was preserved. This is due to more than a century of modern agricultural activity after the protective burial mound was removed, as well as the creation of a drainage ditch which lowered the groundwater, resulting in oxygen accelerating the decomposition process.

However, it was cause for celebration when the archaeologists were able to extract parts of the ship’s keel. This was also very degraded, and working on how best to preserve the keel has been exciting for the conservators.

“Now the keel is placed in a water bath with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a water-soluble wax. When it has absorbed a sufficient amount of the solution, and is then freeze-dried, we can exhibit it if we wish. But it will be another year or two before it is ready for exhibition,” says conservator Ruben With at the Museum of Cultural History.

Gjellestad on TV

The probable dating of the Gjellestad grave is 800-850 AD.

“It is possible that we can date the burial all the way back to 780 AD, because some of the bead types that were found in the grave began to circulate in Scandinavia around that time,” says Rødsrud.

A French film team followed the Gjellestad excavation and has produced a documentary that allows us to get close to the entire excavation process and the start of the conservation work. You can now stream Vikings: The Lost Kingdom on NRK.