It wasn’t all raping and pillaging

A Viking ship, which for 1,000 years has held the body of a chieftain, with his shield on his chest and his sword and spear by his side, has been excavated on a remote Scottish peninsula – the first undisturbed Viking ship burial found on the British mainland and which archaeologists have dated to the 10th Century.

The timbers of the ship found on the Ardnamurchan peninsula – the mainland’s most westerly point – rotted into the soil centuries ago, like most of the bones of the man whose coffin it became. 

However the outline of the classic Viking boat, with its pointed prow and stern, remained. Its form is pressed into the soil and its lines traced by hundreds of rivets, some still attached to scraps of wood.

At just 5m long and 1.5m wide, it would have been a dangerously small vessel for crossing the stormy seas between Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland, but the possessions buried with him suggest the Viking was a considerable traveller – they included a whetstone from Norway, a bronze ringpin from Ireland, his sword with an ornately decorated hilt, a spear and a shield which have survived only as metal fittings, and pottery.

He also had a knife, an axe, and a bronze object thought to be part of a drinking horn. Dozens of iron fragments, still being analysed, were also found in the boat.

This peninsula in the Highlands is still easier to reach by sea than along the single narrow road.  But with its magnificent mountain, sea and sunset views, it was a special place for burials for thousands of years.  The oldest, excavated by the same team three years ago, was a 6,000-year-old neolithic grave, and a bronze age burial mound is nearby.

Hannah Cobb, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester who is co-director of the excavation, said: “We had spotted this low mound the previous year, but said firmly that it was probably just a pile of field clearance rocks from comparatively recent farming.” 

“When we uncovered the whole mound, the team digging came back the first night and said it looked quite like a boat.

“The second night they said: ‘It really does look like a boat.’ The third night they said: ‘We think we really do have a boat’. It was so exciting, we could hardly believe it.”

They recovered fragments of an arm bone and several teeth, which should allow analysis of radioactive isotopes and reveal where the man came from.

The fragments of wood clinging to the rivets should reveal what trees were felled for his ship, and possibly where it was built.

“Such burials were reserved for high status individuals,” Cobb said. “He may have been a chieftain, a famous navigator, or renowned for his wisdom, but this man was clearly special to his people.”

No trace of a settlement site has been found, but the team will be returning to the peninsula next summer.

Years of work will follow on the new find, and may reveal whether the man who lay quietly in his ship for 1,000 years was a local resident, a sailor taking shelter from a storm or whether his body was brought specially to the beautiful site for burial.

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Posted on October 19, 2011, in Vikings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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