Secrets of the Salme ship burials revealed

When you think of Vikings, you think of Scandinavia—Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. But two ships found buried in the sands of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island, have ushered in a new understanding of the Viking Age.

What happened in Saaremaa?

Sometime between 700 and 750 AD, two boats pulled up along the southwestern shore of Saaremaa. Local islanders engaged the sailors in battle, killing at least 42 of them. The surviving sailors placed their comrades’ bodies and the tools they would need for the afterlife inside the boats and then covered the boats with sand. Over the centuries the shoreline receded, and vegetation covered the site. Even the locals forgot about the boats. In 2008, workers digging a trench for electric lines uncovered the first boat. Archaeologists set to work, and in 2010, they discovered a second ship.

Vikings before Vikings

The Salme ships were built decades before their final voyage in what is now Sweden. The men they carried—seasoned warriors between the ages of 30 and 40, including several brothers—were also from Central Sweden. Yet the ships predate the first recorded Viking raid by 50 to 100 years. They are proof that Scandinavian raiders plied the waters of the eastern Baltic decades before what has officially been called the start of the Viking Age.

Like other Viking burials in Scandinavia, the warriors buried on Saaremaa were sent to the afterlife with the objects they used during their time on Earth—swords and shields, knives, arrowheads, dogs, and hawks, plus dice for gaming and decorative items such as a bone comb and a bear-claw necklace.

There is some discussion as to what exactly Viking ships were doing in Saaremaa. Evidence points to a raid, while others think it may have been a diplomatic mission as grave goods found in the second ship indicate the presence of a warrior of noble birth. Whatever the reason for their voyage, the survivors buried their dead with care, leaving behind a treasure trove of artefacts for archaeologists to study.

A view over Sõrve Peninsula, near where the Salme ships were found
A view over Sõrve Peninsula, near where the Salme ships were found, © Priidu Saart, Visit Estonia.

Where to get your Viking fix in Estonia

Don’t miss the “Vikings before Vikings” exhibition at the Seaplane Harbour Museum in Tallinn! The exhibition includes 150 items from the ships and runs until January 7th, 2024.

Head out to Saaremaa to visit the site in Salme where the boats were discovered. A concrete sculpture and information board mark the place where the boats once lay. Afterwards, head out to Sõrve Lighthouse—climb to the top, feel the wind in your hair, and imagine what the Vikings would have felt as they approached the shore.

On the eastern side of Saaremaa, you can immerse yourself in Viking life at Asva Viking Village, located next to the site of a Bronze-Age, hilltop settlement. The Viking Village has an adventure course and petting zoo for kids and offers a chance to hone your archery and axe-throwing skills at their Viking fortress.

Unleash your inner Viking at Asva Viking Village on Saaremaa
Unleash your inner Viking at Asva Viking Village on Saaremaa, © Valmar Voolaid, Visit Saaremaa.

Things to consider before traveling

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Some tips to consider while traveling

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