Pre-Viking ship Baltic's oldest known sail boat

A pre-Viking age ship dating from 750 AD has Estonian researchers convinced they have found one of the first vessels ever to sail on the Baltic Sea.

Researchers at a dig on Estonia's Saaremaa island confirmed the 17-metre-long (55.7-foot) ship used as a burial tomb for warriors had a keel, a device commonly used on sailing vessels to keep them upright in the water by counter-balancing the force of the wind on sails.

"So now we have evidence it used sails," said Tallinn University Professor Juri Peets, who is directing the excavation on the island village of Salme where the burial site was discovered last year.

"Our ship dates from the year 750 AD ... here in the Baltic Sea region, this is without a doubt the oldest sailing ship that has been found," Peets told local media.

With archeologist's having discovered evidence of broken and chipped bones, they say the 35 the men buried in the vessel appear to have been warriors fallen in battle who were laid to rest in the middle part of the ship in several layers, covered with their shields.

The men, who were also buried with four dogs and hunting birds, are believed to have been in their 30s and 40s with frames ranging from 180-190 centimetres (5'11-6'3 feet).

Elaborately decorated gold-plated handles on their swords suggest they held high status, researchers say.

Other items at the burial site include combs, scissors, knives and about 200 playing pieces, carved from whalebone and used in the popular Viking-age Scandinavian strategic board game Hnefatafl.

"The find dates back to about 750 AD and the items found clearly suggest the Scandinavian heritage of the fallen," Peets said, adding he hoped DNA testing and carbon dating would yield "additional information about their native land."

According to Peets, the men "may have been a war-diplomatic mission, with ambitions to show power and demand tributes."

"These warriors, including high noblemen, died in a tough battle," Peets said.

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