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Viking Boat Burial Reveals its Secrets

History Stories February 15, 2017

Viking Boat Burial Reveals its Secrets

There's a lot more to these seafaring warriors than their famous longships. Get the full story.
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    Viking Boat Burial Reveals its Secrets

    • Author

      Brynn Holland

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      Viking Boat Burial Reveals its Secrets

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    • Access Date

      August 18, 2018

    • Publisher

      A+E Networks

Originally unearthed in 2011, the site in Swordle Bay, Scotland, was the first undisturbed Viking boat burial found on the UK mainland. After six years of work, Ardnamurchan Transitions Project’s findings were recently released in an in-depth report in the Journal of Antiquity, revealing, among other things, the growing relationship between Scotland and the Viking world at that time.

Post-excavation photograph of the burial site. (Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017)

Viking boat burials themselves were extremely rare. Only practiced for the deaths of prominent individuals, the ritual used a boat as a coffin for the body and burial goods. Discovered under a low-lying natural mound close to the shore, this particular site was small, measuring approximately 17 feet by 5 feet, and thought to have contained a row boat that was accompanying a larger ship.

Other artifacts from the burial site. The sword (top); the sword in situ (below); the mineralized textile remains (right); detail of the decoration after conservation (left). (Credit: Pieta Greaves/AOC Archaeology).

After excavating the site, archaeologists were able to reconstruct the steps of the burial. A boat-shaped depression was first dug into a natural mound of beach shingle. The boat was then inserted into the ground, and the body was placed inside, along with the grave goods. Stones were place inside and around the boat. As part of the closing of the site, a spear and shield boss (the round or convex piece of material at the center of a shield) were deliberately broken and deposited.

Pre-excavation photograph after initial cleaning. (Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017)

The ship, along with the human remains, decayed in the acidic soil long ago, but the grave artifacts remained, offering a glimpse into the possible origins of the deceased as well as the reach of Viking culture. A single copper alloy-ringed pin with three bosses—a style found in Ireland—was also found, believed to have originally been fastened to a burial coat. There was also a copper alloy drinking horn, thought to be Scandinavian in origin. Other grave goods included a sword, an axe, a sickle (found mostly in Scotland), a whetstone (probably Norwegian), flint strike-a-lights and two teeth—molars from only identified human remains. Hundreds of metal rivets that once held the vessel together, some with wood shards, were also discovered.

The Viking’s teeth. (Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017)

An isotopic analysis of the teeth (the lower left first and second molars) revealed further information. The individual likely lived on, or close to, the coast, as indicated by an increase in consumption of marine proteins between the ages of 3 and 5. While marine protein was rarely consumed by humans in Britain, it was popular in Viking-era Norway. Further analysis of the teeth narrowed down the place of origin to eastern Ireland, northeastern mainland Scotland, Norway or Sweden.

The weapons included in the burial point to a warrior status and the artifacts and their internment infer high status, but the gender cannot be confirmed. While it is likely a male burial, some of the goods, such as the sickle, are more commonly associated with females. Current Viking’s scholarship points to a number (albeit smaller) of female warriors, as well as the discoveries and excavations of female boat burials.

Some of the artifacts recovered from the burial site (clockwise from the top left): broad-bladed axe, shield boss, ringed pin and the hammer and tongs (Credit: Pieta Greaves/AOC Archaeology).

While there is still more to learn from this rare burial site, an important finding was revealed in the variety of grave goods from multiple geographic locations: The growing relationship between Scotland and the Viking world at that time.

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