Swedish Viking Burial Shows Transition to Christian Burials Says Study

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Swedish Viking Burial Shows Transition to Christian Burials Says Study

In Sigtuna, Sweden, just north of Stockholm, seven well-preserved Viking tombs have been discovered, including the graves of two possible infant twins

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In Sigtuna, Sweden, just north of Stockholm, seven well-preserved Viking tombs have been discovered, including the graves of two possible infant twins. As per the Swedish press release on this particular Viking burial site in  Uppdrag Arkeologi , these graves revealed a transition from tradition Viking burials to Christian funerary practices, which was also summarized in this  Live Science  news report.

The Vikings were medieval, sea-faring Norse pirates and raiders from southern Scandinavia, who created havoc and terror in Europe between the 8th and 11th centuries. In Sweden, the Vikings ruled and raided over a 250-year-timespan (800 and 1050 AD), especially in the eastern half of the country. 

The Latest Viking Burial Site And Christian Funeral Evidence

The Swedish archaeologists  conducting the excavation suspect the Sigtuna Viking burial site was used by Norsemen who had converted to  Christianity. Christianity first reached Sweden around the 9th century AD, but it took about 200 years for the entire region to become Christian. 

The Sigtuna graves, dated to over 1,000 years ago, house the remains of 8 people, 4 adults and 4 children. Grave good objects were also found in the Viking burial site including coin fragments, a fine ornate bone comb, and the remains of a belt.

This Sigtuna Viking burial site chamber featured a stone cist around the grave itself. ( Uppdrag Arkeologi )

“The Christian character of the now-excavated graves is obvious because of how the tombs were laid out,” said Johan Runer, a project manager with Uppdrag Arkeologi, a cultural resource management company, which led excavation work at the site.

Sigtuna is believed to have been founded at the end of the 10th century, around the same time as the nearby town of Birka lost its significance as a central place in the Mälaren area of Viking Sweden.

There may be a correlation between the rise of Sigtuna and  the fall of Birka . Further studies could reveal an important but lesser studied part of Viking history in Sweden that would explain this change and it may be related to the rise of Christian practices in the area. There are very few contemporary sources from this particular period in  Viking history , but what can be ascertained is that Sigtuna Viking burials are the oldest Christian burials in the area.

In the Uppdrag Arkeologi press release, the archaeology team said, “. . . these graves mainly differed from previous investigations of graves in Sigtuna, . . . several of them had superstructures and fillings of stone. As a result, they are more similar to the type of early Christian burials that occur in the area around Sigtuna, with older elements in the burial rituals, such as stone superstructures and burial gifts.” 

“The more strictly Christian burial customs in Sigtuna, with skeletal burials in an east-west direction without actual burial gifts, show that there may have been  learned Christian priests  in the settlement from an early age with the opportunity to instruct and regulate the procedure at funerals. At the same time, such knowledge or willingness to change can be assumed to have been lacking in the areas outside.”

In traditional, pre-Christian Viking burials, the dead were cremated along with grave goods that assisted them on their journey into the afterlife. ( igorigorevich / Adobe)

The Sigtuna Viking-Christian Burials and the Buried Infant Twins

As Runer lucidly explained, most of the Sigtuna deceased had been buried flat on their back in an east-west alignment. However, people who followed traditional  Viking beliefs  in this area of Sweden at this time tended to be  cremated. What is also interesting is that remains of charcoal and partially burnt caskets were also found, suggesting fire rituals in half the burials, which are common to Viking-Christian burials, but had not previously been known in Sigtuna. Another anomaly of the recently studied Sigtuna burials were the stone cairns placed on top of four of the tombs, surrounded by a stone cist burial chamber.

The apparent remains of the infant Viking twins found in the Sigtuna Viking burial site, though tragic, was noteworthy. Preliminary findings suggest that the twins died as the result of a miscarriage. 

One of the tombs contained an individual buried with a leather belt which has fittings of iron and silver-gilt copper alloy, and silver  coins had been placed in his mouth . This, according to Runer, is a commonplace Viking-era Christian burial practice in middle Sweden.

The Swedish archaeological team’s goal is to write a detailed scientific study on the finds and conduct bone and DNA analyses on other tombs in the area, with the goal of locating more. For those familiar with the Swedish language, talks by John Runer can be found at  this YouTube link .

Top image: This close-up shot shows one of the Sigtuna Viking burials found north of Stockholm, Sweden. They are believed to be Christianized Vikings who lived about 1,000 years ago.                                                     Source:  Uppdrag Arkeologi

By Rudra Bhushan

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