A map dating from 1650 shows the river of Salme as a strait between the islands of Kuressaar and Sõrve. ‘Salm’ in Estonian means a narrow strait, especially one between two islands. In the early 2000s, a research project focused on prehistoric harbours identified the area around the present-day local schoolhouse as a possible site for a prehistoric harbour. However, archaeological research was complicated, as the area was affected by the ravages of World War Two as well as by extensive amelioration works carried out in later decades. It therefore proved impossible for the archaeologists to locate the presumed harbour site.
At the end of the 2000s, two ship burial graves were discovered during roadworks and were subsequently excavated by Marge Konsa and Jüri Peets in 2008–2012. The graves showed both local and foreign characteristics, and most of the warriors buried in the ships were of Scandinavian origin. Some of the deceased may have, however, been locals, as indicated by strontium analyses. Graves are routinely found near prehistoric harbour sites of Saaremaa, frequently containing burials with non-local features.
The first boat of Salme was discovered when human bones and a few artefacts from the 7th–8th centuries were unearthed by roadworks. Also, six lines of boat rivets were recorded during the excavations. The dead had been buried in a clinker-built boat. The boat’s wooden parts were almost totally decayed and the stern ruined by previous construction works. The boat had been 11.5 m long and 2 m wide, with a 40 cm draught. According to radiocarbon dating, the vessel was built in the first half of the 7th century and used for burial at the end of the 7th century or in the first half of the 8th century. One of the animal bones was also dated to the period from the 8th century up to the end of the 10th century (Konsa et al. 2009, Peets et al. 2011).
Certain details, e. g. boat rivets, point to a boat building tradition widely practised on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea (Mäss 2009). A small rowing boat with no sail like this was indeed better suited for the Väinameri Sea (the sea around Estonian islands) than for the open seas.
The first boat of Salme contained the remains of seven individuals. Their bones were completely intermingled and represented only fragments of skeletons. The fragmentation of bones has been explained with later construction works at the site, or even with the possible sitting position of the deceased (Allmäe et al. 2011). It should be noted, though, that fragmented and intermingled bones characterised most inhumation burials in Saaremaa up to the Middle Ages.
The second ship of Salme was found after a number of artefacts turned up during the continuation roadworks in 2010. It was 17–17.5 m long and 3 m wide. A comparison with similar but better preserved boats from e. g. Kvalsund, Ladby, or Frombork suggests that the second vessel may have had a draught of 0.5–0.9 m, and its broadside measured 0.8–1 m from the bottom. The contour of a dark layer of humus under the boat indicated the presence of a vertical keel. Accordingly, the ship must have had a sail. The second vessel of Salme is the oldest archaeologically excavated sailing ship in the Baltic Sea region.
About a hundred years ago, a hollow in the ground upon the boat burials was filled with 20th century waste, soil and pebbles. It seems likely that the hollow indicated a burial chamber that had collapsed when the wood decayed. Likewise, the position of burials, as well as colour differences in soil, seem to point to the existence of a burial chamber. The custom of bringing the dead to a mortuary house to be deposited close to each other so the skeletal remains intermingled over time, is characteristic of prehistoric Saaremaa. Collective burials were unknown in Iron Age Scandinavia, even though the custom of ship burial can be considered typically Scandinavian.
The Salme II ship burial included the remains of 34 individuals buried in three, or in places four layers which were irregularly separated from each other by a layer of sand several dozen centimetres in thickness. The whole burial area (or the burials inside the chamber) was covered with a layer of stones reminiscent of other stone graves and mortuary houses of Saaremaa (Mägi 2021).
All of the 41 individuals buried in the Salme vessels were male, and warriors, as is evident from their belongings and the wounds detected on their skeletons. They were in their prime years, strong and tall. Artefacts were richer in the second ship, which was also preserved better. The second ship yielded 40 swords or fragments of swords, including ten fully preserved single-edged swords. Several pieces of weapons were decorated with elaborate Nordic animal-style ornaments. Some of the ornamented details resembled artefacts recovered from the contemporary Valsgärde grave in Middle Sweden, while others bore a similarity to findings from Southwestern Finland.
No massive, flat crossbow brooches or dress pins usually worn by warriors in Estonian and Finnish coastal areas were recorded, however, the finds included some simple iron fibulas. Such iron fibulas were common in Finland, but also widespread in Middle Sweden.
Other noteworthy finds included 91 arrowheads and 251 gaming pieces made of whalebone and walrus bone. Also, remains of at least six dogs, also falcons and other animals and birds, were found.
Most of the skeletons were articulated, while some of the dead were represented only by skulls or shinbones. Allegedly, various individual pieces of human bones were recovered in several other locations near the articulated skeletons (Peets et al. 2011, 2013). The aDNA analysis of the Salme individuals indicated kinship between several men buried there (Margaryan et al. 2020). For example, four skeletons laid down beside each other belonged to four brothers. However, the 14C analyses of the bones pointed to different periods, varying from 650 to 940 AD. What makes it more complicated is that the radiocarbon dating did not entirely correlate with the stratigraphy of the burials, meaning that those dated to be from an earlier period weren’t necessarily placed in the lower layers, and vice versa. Moreover, the finds can be dated to the long period between the 6th and 9th centuries.
During the Viking Age, the boat and ship of Salme were located on the beach. Opinions vary as to whether the burials were deposited there all at once or over a somewhat longer period, for example several decades. The vessels were probably dug halfway into the ground, but not covered with soil. For all that, the burials were never looted. Considering the weather conditions prevalent in Saaremaa, a wooden ship can hold out for 50–70 years. The ships of Salme must have been covered with sea sediments driven to the shore during intense storms. By then, wooden planks were probably already decaying, but the burial chamber was still standing. Pushed over by the strong winds, the collapsing chamber shattered the planks on its side. Eventually, the vessels with human remains inside were buried under sea sediments.