Mighty Viking Ax Discovered in Tomb of Medieval 'Power Couple'

Viking Ax
One of the largest Dane axes ever found, recovered by archaeologists from a 10th-century Viking tomb near Silkeborg in central Denmark. (Image credit: Silkeborg Museum)

Archaeologists have discovered one of the largest Viking axes ever found, in the tomb of a 10th-century "power couple" in Denmark.

Kirsten Nellemann Nielsen, an archaeologist at the Silkeborg Museum who is leading excavations at the site near the town of Haarup, said Danish axes like the one found in the tomb were the most feared weapons of the Viking Age.

"It's a bit extraordinary — it's much bigger and heavier than the other axes. It would have had a very long handle, and it took both hands to use it," Nielsen told Live Science. [See Photos of the 10th-Century Viking Tomb]

The simplicity of the mighty ax, without any decorations or inscriptions, suggests this fearsome weapon was not just for show. "It's not very luxurious," she said.  

And the man in the tomb was buried with his ax alone. "He didn't have anything else buried with him, so I think you can say he identified himself as a warrior above anything else," Nielsen said.

The ax was one of the artifacts recovered from the Haarup Viking tomb, or dødehus, which means "death house" in Danish. The tomb consisted of a wooden palisade or roofed structure, about 13 feet (4 meters) wide and 43 feet (13 m) long, which was constructed around the two graves.

One of three people found in the tomb was a wealthy Viking woman, who was buried in a wooden cart similar to this reconstruction at Silkeborg Museum. (Image credit: Silkeborg Museum)

The tomb was built around A.D. 950 for the burial of a man and a woman of evident distinction, Nielsen said. The individuals were identified by their clothing and belongings, and the only human remains that survived the centuries was a single black human hair found in the woman's clothing.

The woman was buried lying in a wooden wagon, which was a tradition for women of noble birth at the time, and a pair of keys found in the tomb indicated that she was one of the leading people in the community, according to the archaeologists.

Keys were a symbol of authority and distinction for women in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, and the tradition likely dated back to an earlier time, Nielsen said. "If you are an important woman, with a lot of fine artifacts with you in the grave, then you also have a key," she said.

One of the keys was for a small wooden casket, bound with iron brackets, that was buried beside her.

"She also had gold and silver threads woven into her clothing, so this is quite fine," Nielsen said.

Viking "power couple"

Nielsen said the man and woman in the tomb may not have been husband and wife, but they were clearly the local "power couple." [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen]

"The special thing about this tomb is that these two people, each in their own grave, are put inside the same structure," she said. "I can't say it isn't a brother and sister, or it could be [a] husband and wife relationship. But definitely, these two were the ones in charge, the noblest people of the local area."

At some point in time, after the first man and woman were buried, a second man was buried in a grave inside a wooden structure that was added to the original tomb. This man was also buried with his ax, although it was not as large as the ax from the original burial, the researchers said.

Nielsen thinks the second man could have been a relative or successor of the first man. "He was definitely a warrior," she said. "Both men had Dane axes made for fighting, and both were definitely warriors."

The tomb at Haarup was unlike any other Viking tomb in Denmark and the other Viking burials uncovered at the same site, she said.

"This is unique — the only one of its kind that I know of," Nielsen said. "It's a special place."

International connections

Other finds from the tomb, and other sites in Haarup, show that the local Vikings likely had some international connections, whether through trade or travel, the archaeologists said. [In Photos: Viking Voyage Discovered]

The woman in the tomb was buried with a decorated ceramic cup that originated in the Baltic region, Nielsen said. Two silver coins of a Middle Eastern type called “dirhams,” thought to be from an area that is now in Afghanistan, were found in the grave of another Viking woman buried nearby.

Nielsen has been working at Haarup since the site was unearthed during the construction of a motorway in 2012. As more construction goes on in the area, more archaeological discoveries are being made, including artifacts from the Iron Age and Danish medieval periods, as well as the Viking 10th century.

"From the Vikings, we have only found their burials — we haven't found their houses yet, so we know them only from their graves," Nielsen said. "They most definitely lived there, but we just haven't found the place yet."

Future archaeological research from Haarup will focus on the four different types of woven cloth found in the graves, the construction of the small casket in the leading woman's grave, and the single black hair found in her clothing — the only human remains that have survived, and potentially a source of DNA that could provide more clues about its owner, Nielsen said.

A report on the discoveries at Haarup, titled "Dead and Buried in the Viking Age," can be read online (in Danish) at Academia.edu.

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.