Ship Burial
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Basic Information

By default, a ship burial refers to a burial in which the deceased is placed inside a ship prior to interment. Unlike a canoe burial, the ship is then actually buried, typically forming a barrow or other significant earthwork. The most prominent examples of these tend to occur around the coasts of the North Sea and appear to be a hallmark of a group of Scando-Germanic cultures - the Sutton Hoo burial in East Anglia being Anglo-Saxon, whilst others, such as Ladby in Denmark being of Norse origin.

As far as can be told, ship burial is simply a way of including a vehicle amongst the deceased's grave goods - all other goods tend to be loaded onto the ship as cargo and the deceased placed amongst them in a deck shelter as though a passenger aboard. Unsurprisingly these tend to be high status graves (a fairly high level of resources being needed to own a ship) and often include co-buried slaves amongst the grave goods, but so far no burial has been recorded that included a crew for the ship. Given the culture from which these burials arose, dragon ships (or very similar things) appear to be a common choice for the role, although lower status graves have been found with smaller vessels.

Other cultures have been seen to include watercraft amongst their grave goods, but rarely with as central a role.

Other possible uses of this term include placing the deceased and their goods on a ship which is then launched and left to the mercy of the seas (essentially a burial at sea with luggage), and the cremation-assisted version of the same rite in which the vessel is set alight on launching (presumably to reduced the risk of it coming ashore again close enough to be embarrassing).


"The Other Wiki" on Sutton Hoo

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Burial with ship's crew would seem an obvious upgrade - either for a hero so great that even freemen clamoured to follow him into the afterlife or for a war leader whose warband was cut down beside him, but whose remains were yet recovered from the field.
  • Alternatively, a ship burial might be ringed by smaller tumuli, each of which is the grave of one of the warlord's hearthband, entering his service in death as they did in life.
  • Probably a good tradition for a fictional culture that required some journey by water to reach the afterlife (saves paying the ferryman if you have a great big warship to cross over in…).
  • Traditionally a source of treasure for people from a culture remote enough not to worry about the grave robbing aspect.
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