Two of the most significant archaeological monuments on Karmøy are the burials from Storhaug and Grønhaug. Consisting of impressive mounds containing large chamber graves in ships, they belong to the most exclusive and costly group of ritual expressions known from the Viking Age. The two ship graves on Karmøy thus represent persons and politics at the very heart of what made this island an important place in early medieval Scandinavia. This chapter suggests that the majority of monumental burials using the ship allegory were manifestations of a certain origin myth, of which the Danish Skjǫldungar legend is an example, erected as part of the power struggle between ascendant royal families.
Archaeological material and written sources are analysed to illuminate the use of ship symbolism in monumental burials in and around Scandinavia: large mounds with inhumations or cremations in ships; large ship-shaped stone settings; and written sources from the 10th to the 14th century mentioning ship burials. The archaeological study shows that two different traditions were in use from the late 6th to the late 10th century. One was utilising stone ship settings, at least sometimes in combination with cremations, and was used in southern and eastern Sweden as well as in Denmark. The other, employing inhumation burials in ships, derived from a Scandinavian tradition of placing the deceased in boats for the funerals, but was only developed into a monumental format in East Anglia around 600. From there, it spread to Norway and, to a lesser extent, Denmark in the late 8th–10th centuries.
This resonates with the written sources, which reveal the existence of two traditions. The ship burials in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland are described as inhumation burials, while narratives playing out in southern Scandinavia – often regarding royal persons – present cremation burials in ships.
This chapter thus suggests that the Karmøy ship graves and many other of the largest monumental ship burials and ship settings were created to establish the godly origin of a deceased dynastic head in collective memory, thereby ensuring the transfer of this exclusive status to his or her heirs. The origin myths used would be following the pattern of the Skjǫldungar myth, in which the originator of the clan magically arrives as a small child alone in a drifting boat, and who was returned by the clan to the gods by means of a ship funeral. This ideology, it is argued, first emerged in southern Scandinavia in the Migration Period, where its most vivid expression was that of monumental ship settings; subsequently it transformed to ship inhumation burials below mounds as it was briefly adopted by an East Anglian royal family. Later it was adopted again, in its morphed Anglo-Saxon form, by sea-kings ruling from Karmøy in the late 8th century. Close connections between the east- and the west-Norwegian ship graves suggest that their dynasty brought the ideology and ritual to eastern Norway in the 9th century, where it flourished for a century before its disappearance in Norway and possible monopolisation by Danish kings in the late 10th century.
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