Stuck in the dirt at the bottom of an old well in central Norway, a carefully carved wooden toy boat has been unearthed by archaeologists. It is 1,000 years old and looks like a Viking ship, providing valuable clues about the life and culture of the people who created it.

The archaeologists from the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim responsible for this find had been working on a tiny farmstead near the Ørland airbase, on the coast of central Norway.

During their excavations, they came across the small well, which intrigued them because it had been filled with dirt by the people who inhabited these lands a thousand years ago. It is unclear why this was done – it is possible that the water in the well had dried up or had become foul.

They started digging the well in the summer of 2016, and this is when they discovered the small carved boat, with a raised prow like a Viking ship and a hole in the middle where the mast would have stood.

Playing on a farm

This is an interesting discovery, as few other Scandinavian toy boats like this one have been recovered before. The only similar toy from the same time period found in the region was discovered in 1990 in the city of Trondheim.

Viking ship
Overview of the site where the well and the objects were recovered. Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

A thousand years ago, Trodheim was a wealthy trading post and the capital of Norway in the Viking Age, up until 1217. So the 1990 discovery made sense, because Trodheim's inhabitants would have been relatively richer than other Norwegians, with children having more access to toys and more time to play.

However, discovering a beautifully carved toy on a small farm is more puzzling. "This toy boat says something about the people who lived here," said Ulf Fransson, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and one of two field leaders for the Ørland Main Air Station dig.

"First of all, it's not that common to find an object that probably had to do with a child. But it also shows that the children at this farm could play, that they had permission to do something other than work in the fields or help around the farm."

This suggests that although the inhabitants of the farm were probably not as rich as the people living in Trodheim, they were probably quite well off, allowing their children to play.

Viking ship
The distinctive viking ship was carved as a toy for a child living on a small farm in Norway Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

Boats were among the most technologically advanced objects made in the Middle Ages, so a realistic looking toy boat would thus have been perceived as "really cool, just like kids today think that race cars or planes are really cool", Fransson added.

The fact that it is an replica of a Viking vessel is important too. It suggests that the distinctive sailing ships were well-known even by inland farmers, and that the Vikings' adventures spoke to the imagination of these rural populations.

Work shoes

In the well, the archaeologists also discovered pieces of leather, that might have been used to make shoes. One appears to be nearly complete. "These were ordinary shoes, work shoes that they wore every day," Fransson said.

Viking ship
One of the most complete shoes from this time period found at the site in the well Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

When they were first discovered, the researchers thought these shoe fragments must be from more recent times than the Middle Ages. However, radiocarbon dating analyses came back suggest that these shoes date back to between 1015 to 1028.

The discovery of the shoes bring further confirmation that the people who lived there were not that poor. "We found many pieces of the shoe, and that tells me that they weren't that poor either, because they had the means to throw a whole shoe out," Fransson pointed out.