Saturday, February 11, 2017

Viking boat burial found and excavated on British mainland - a rarity.

Would this not be the penultimate place to be buried if you were a well travelled Viking?  Please, spread my ashes in a similar spot when I pass!

Via the History Blog, the grave was first identified in 2006 as part of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project‘s survey of potential archaeological sites in the area dating from the Neolithic through the 19th century.  Full excavation occurred in 2011.

Two finds-rich layers provided extensive evidence for the rivets of a complete, clinker-built boat containing numerous grave goods. These included a sword, an axe, a large ladle containing a hammer and tongs, a drinking horn mount, a ringed pin, a sickle, a whetstone and flint strike-a-lights. Unlike the spear and shield, these items appear to have been placed next to the interred individual. The upper of the two layers also contained two teeth: both molars from the same individual. These were the only identified human remains, the rest of the body having probably decayed in the acidic soil; the location of the teeth suggests the head was towards the west end of the boat.

A number of other artefacts were placed on and around the body itself, including a single copper alloy ringed pin, which may have fastened the burial cloak or shroud . The ring has three bosses, a style that appears to come from Ireland (Graham-Campbell & Batey 1998: 116), implying southward connections. Between the pin and the ladle was a copper alloy drinking horn rim. Relatively undecorated apart from two simple, incised lines, it could either be insular in origin or may equally have a Scandinavian connection (cf. Paterson et al2014: 149–51). The position of the horn suggests it may have been laid to the south (or the right side) of the head.

It is interesting to note that in the Orkneys, Shetland and outer Hebrides, a variant of Norwegian was spoken until the early 1700's, locally called Norn.

Located between the edge of the boat and the north-west (left) side of where the body may have lain was the sword. This appears to have been deposited missing its tip, a feature also noted at Balnakeil in Sutherland (Batey & Paterson 2013: 637). It had been bent in a shallow S-shape, potentially indicating deliberate damage before deposition—something we also see with the spear. Around the blade, however, are the remnants of leather from a sheath, the presence of which suggests that the change in sword shape took place after deposition. Further investigation of this material is required to resolve this question. Adhered to the sword were mineralised textile remains, either from textile wrapping around the sword and sheath itself, or from the clothes or shroud worn by the deceased, as perhaps paralleled at Scar (Nissan 1999: 109–10). Both the guard and the pommel of the sword are finely decorated with silver and copper wire, and typologically the sword appears to be a Petersen Type K, with suggestions of Type P and Type O (Petersen 1919; Batey in press; Gareth Williams pers comm.). This provides the major evidence that this burial has a terminus post quem of the late ninth or early tenth century AD.  What thrilling sagas and tales of battle could the sword and shield tell, could they but speak?

A son of Ragnar, no doubt, lying in his boat grave.

The analysis of the two remaining molars is especially interesting for giving an idea of where this individual originated:

The low oxygen isotope ratio of 16.7‰ shows that the Ardnamurchan individual did not originate from the place of burial on the western seaboard of Britain . Oxygen isotopes also rule out the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland, western Britain and western Ireland. Both the strontium and lead isotopes are indicative of origins in a region of relatively old geology, and thus rule out England and Wales, other regions of young sedimentary rocks, basalts and limestone, and Denmark, which is predominantly limestone overlain by till and hosts a strontium isotope biosphere between 0.7081–0.7111 (Frei & Frei 2011). This would be difficult to reconcile with the Ardnamurchan individual's strontium isotope ratio of 0.7112. The combined evidence, including the very low level of lead exposure experienced by the Ardnamurchan individual (0.4mg/kg), suggests origins in a region of ancient, possibly Precambrian, geology with little or no environmental lead pollution. Given that there are no significant lead deposits in Denmark, southern Norway or western Sweden (Reimann et al. 2012), and that Scandinavia lay outside the Roman Empire—which heralded the advent of increased lead levels in humans in first-millennium AD Britain (Montgomery et al. 2010)—lead levels below 0.5mg/kg may indicate Scandinavian origins in British Viking-period burials (Montgomery et al. 2014). Places consistent with all the isotopic and trace element evidence therefore include eastern Ireland, north-eastern mainland Scotland, Norway and Sweden. Further details and contextualisation of the isotope results can be found in the accompanying online supplementary material.

It's further quite interesting that the tip of both the spear and the sword were broken off.  I hypothesize that this was symbolic of the passing of the warrior interred, and also served the purpose of discouraging looting.  It is also entertaining to recall that in all Norse mythology, the spirit of the warrior abides in the grave, and will rise up and fight with anyone disturbing the cairn.  In the creepier sagas, the dead can and sometimes will arise from the grave and terrorize the locals.
Anyone who has read Tolkien will recognize a scene directly derived from this mythological history, where Frodo is captured by a long dead denizen of a grave mound, and has to be rescued by Bombadil.  

One wonders how many other Viking boat burials still rest undisturbed and undiscovered in Britain and Ireland?


  1. It's the right way to be planted, CW - but somehow it would be better if they sacrificed a virgin as well to speed my way to Valhalla and Odin's corpse hall.

  2. Penultimate? So what would be the ultimate?