The Vikings cut a boat-shaped depression into the earth before they entombed the ship.
Perhaps because of their penchant for plundering, the Vikings developed elaborate funerary rituals. In an ancient act of conspicuous consumption, Norsemen would sometimes drag an entire ship ashore to use like a monumental coffin, surrounding the deceased with grave goods like metal weapons, jewelry, and textiles. Recently, archaeologists reported the first discovery of a rich Viking boat burial on the UK mainland. Such ships have previously been unearthed across Scandinavia and on UK islands.
It's an important find, Oliver Harris, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, tells mental_floss. “We know very little about the nature and depth of Viking occupation of huge parts of Scotland.”
The burial, which is described in the February issue of the journal Antiquity, was uncovered in 2011 in a low-lying mound near Sworlde Bay on western Scotland’s Ardnamurchan peninsula.
“It’s a very nice harbor, it’s easy to land in, and it’s got wide flat areas that would have been good for farming,” Harris describes. So far, no Norse settlements have been found nearby, but Swordle Bay was occupied for at least 5000 years before the Vikings arrived. Other monuments at the site include a large Neolithic chamber tomb, which may explain the location of the boat burial. “Vikings are known for wanting to bury their dead close to or inside of prehistoric burial monuments as a way of connecting themselves to the ancestral dead in different places,” Harris says.
A sword and some remnants of textiles were recovered from the grave.
The boat burial dates back to the early 10th century CE, a period when the Vikings were starting to settle in Scotland, particularly in the islands in the north. Most of the vessel’s wood has rotted away; all that’s left of the 16-foot rowboat are more than 200 metal rivets that were once used to keep the planks in place.
The body of the deceased didn’t fare so well, either. Archaeologists only found two adult teeth—but those skeletal remains were enough to conduct an isotopic analysis, which revealed that this person had a diet that was occasionally rich in fish, typical of Viking Age Scandinavia.
The only human remains discovered at the site were two molars from the same person.
“Our best guess is that this is someone who grew up in Scandinavia and then traveled about in the Viking world, perhaps visiting the Scottish island, perhaps visiting Dublin, which at this time was a large Viking settlement,” Harris says.
The archaeologists also think this person was of quite high status, as they found a rich array of grave goods, including a sword, an axe, a spear, a shield, a drinking horn mount, a sickle, a large iron ladle, a hammer, and a pair of tongs.
The team can’t say for certain whether the deceased was a man or a woman, though the weapons suggest that this person was a warrior. But not all of the grave goods were related to warcraft; many of the objects were used in daily activities like farming, cooking, eating, and crafting. “There’s a whole range of different aspects of identity that are presented in the grave,” Harris says.
Archaeologists also uncovered a broad-bladed axe, a shield boss, a ringed pin, a pair of tongs, and a hammer at the site.
That this is the first Viking burial discovered on the UK mainland “reminds us that there are probably others that we haven’t found yet,” Harris says. The discovery also shows “how our emphasis on what counts as the mainland is slightly a product of a modern way of looking at a map of Britain.”
In other words, the distinction between the craggy coasts of mainland Britain and its surrounding islands might have been blurrier in the past. Harris imagines that Ardnamurchan, connected to the rest of Britain by a small strip of land, would have had an island-like quality for someone sailing up and down the Irish Sea a thousand years ago. If that’s true, this might be the first of many such finds, which could reveal more about Viking culture in the region that the centuries have concealed.
All images courtesy of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project