A team of researchers who have been examining the horde of grave goods left in an amazing Viking boat burial have decided that the deceased individual was definitely an important person in their society. While shedding light on the origins, diet, and social standing, the interesting mixture of artifacts has also raised new questions about who the person was. For example, archaeologists are uncertain if the grave held a man or woman.
Found near a Neolithic cairn in the Ardnamurchan peninsula in western Scotland in 2011, the Viking boat burial dates to the late 9th or early 10th century. Live Science reports that it was the first to be found undisturbed on the British mainland and has provided some vital information on burial practices from the time. The researchers must have been delighted to unearth such a rich grave.
Some of the finds recovered from the grave (clockwise from the top left): broad-bladed axe, shield boss, ringed pin and the hammer and tongs. (Photographs: Pieta Greaves/AOC Archaeology)
Several of the goods were objects of daily life, items for cooking, working, farming and food production were all included in the grave. It also held a shield boss (domed part of a shield protecting a warrior's hand); a whetstone from Norway, and a ringed pin used to close a burial cloak or shroud, possibly from Ireland. As the researchers wrote in their article published in the journal Antiquity:
"The burial evokes the mundane and the exotic, past and present, as well as local, national and international identities […] when considering a burial like this, it is essential to remember that each of these objects, and each of these actions, was never isolated, but rather they emerge out of, and help to form, an assemblage that knits together multiple places, people and moments in time.”
The sword (top); the sword in situ (below); the mineralized textile remains (right); detail of the decoration after conservation (left). (Lower photographs: Pieta Greaves/AOC Archaeology)
The burial also contained a sword, an axe, a drinking horn vessel, a broken spearhead (probably fragmented in a funeral ritual), a hammer, and some tongs – the researchers say that all these have suggest a warrior burial, likely male.
However, Oliver Harris, co-director of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project (ATP) at the University of Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, told Seeker “There is nothing female per se in the grave, though of course there are lots of objects — sickle, the ladle, the knife, the ringed pin — that are not male either.”
The ladle, sickle, spearhead, and knife. (Harris et al)
And with just two teeth remaining for the person’s body, the researchers cannot confirm the individual’s sex. As Harris said “The burial is probably that of a man — but as we only have the two teeth surviving, it is impossible to be definitive. So it is possible, but not likely, that this was the burial of a woman.”
It would not be unheard of for a Viking woman to have an elaborate burial however, as Dwhty has written previously for Ancient Origins about the Oseberg Viking ship burial:
“The Oseberg ship burial contained two human skeletons, both female. One of the skeletons belonged to a woman who was about 70 or 80 years old when she died. Investigations suggest that the woman probably died of cancer. It is unclear who this woman actually was, and some have speculated that she may have been Queen Åsa, the grandmother of the first Norwegian king. The second skeleton belonged to a woman in her 50s, though it is not known how she died.
Oseberg ship, Kulturhistorisk museum (Viking Ship Museum), Oslo, Norway. (Public Domain)
It has been suggested that the middle-aged woman may have been a slave who was sacrificed to accompany the older woman. This burial also contained the remains of 13 horses, four dogs, and two oxen, probably sacrificed as well to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Although the damp conditions within the mound allowed for the ship and its contents to be well-preserved, the mound had been broken into by robbers and any precious metal items were taken.
Returning to the present study, the researchers completed an isotopic analysis of the teeth found in the Ardnamurchan Viking boat burial and discovered that the deceased probably grew up in Scandinavia and had to change his/her diet for about a year during childhood. Harris explained, “The switch in diet probably shows there was some shortage in food for a period of time leading people to eat more fish.”
The Viking’s teeth. (Harris et al.)
As for the boat itself, well, all that remained was 213 of its metal rivets; the wood decayed, though an impression left in the soil suggests that it had measured 16 feet (4.88 meters) in length. This would be consistent with the size of a small rowing boat.
Perhaps the most elaborate (and disturbing) example of Viking ship burial practices was the 10th century chronicle of the violent, orgiastic funeral of a Viking chieftain. Holy man and jurist Ahmad Ibn Fadlan described the death rites of mourning Vikings in Bulgaria who had lost their chieftain. As Mark Miller wrote:
“In the Viking tradition, if it was a chief who died, he was placed in the ground while his burial clothes were prepared for 10 days, during which his followers drank and had sex with doomed slave girls “purely out of love.” On the day of cremation, the Viking’s body was exhumed, then his companions burned him, along with volunteer slave girls or boys who were slain, slaughtered dogs, horses, cows and chickens, food offerings, his weapons and his ship.”
‘The Funeral of a Viking’ (1893) by Frank Dicksee. (Public Domain)
After these extreme burial practices, the Vikings built an earthen mound over the burned vessel. Miller writes that archaeologists are still searching for the location of this grave.
He also reminds us that,
“this death rite or orgy that Ibn Fadlan described was for a chief, and it happened among the warriors and leaders of the Viking society who were in the Volga viking. Presumably the farmers, hunters, bakers, craftsmen and other plain folk—the great majority of Viking society—did not practice this lurid death celebration. Also, this was one Viking group at one point in the 260-year history of the Viking raids and settlements, and we have no way of knowing how many Viking groups practiced these wild funeral celebrations over their vast territories.”
Top Image: Funeral of a Rus' nobleman’ (1883) by Henryk Siemiradzki. (Public Domain) Detail: Post-excavation photograph of the cut at the Ardnamurchan Viking boat burial. (Harris et al.)
By Alicia McDermott