Rare Viking Graves on Orkney Under Scientific Scrutiny
© AP Photo / Andrew MilliganMembers of the Jarl Squad in Lerwick, Scotland, on the Shetland Isles, perform the Up Helly Aa Viking festival, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Lerwick, Scotland
© AP Photo / Andrew Milligan
Norsemen settled on the islands in the late 8th century. Subsequently, the islands grew to strategic importance for the Scandinavian crown, serving as a focal point of trade, a strategic base, and a springboard for voyages and raids.
Human remains found on the northeast coast of Papa Westray on the Orkney archipelago back in 2015, have been linked to a broader Norse-era burial tradition, as a rare Viking boat burial and a second grave of a man furnished with arms, including a sword, were found at the site.
Given the similarities to other burials from the same era, the 10th-century burials may be those of first-generation Viking settlers on Orkney.
Now, a fuller picture of the graves, their backstory, and what they can tell about the Vikings on Orkney, is set to emerge, as a post-excavation analysis of the graves and their contents will be carried out by AOC Archaeology Group after securing funding from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), The Scotsman reported.
Among other things, the age of those buried at Papa Westry will be determined using bone analysis, while their sex and genentic ancestry will be established through the Ancient Genome Project. The latest scientific techniques will also study the diet and the movement of the Vikings.
The remains of the graves were found at Mayback, Papa Westray in April 2015 when renovations were being made to a house. A second burial was subsequently discovered nearby a couple of months later.
Preliminary investigations suggested the second grave belonged to a bulky man, buried in a semi-reclined position. A large broadsword in what appears to be the remains of a scabbard was found laid across his body. What seems to be a spearhead and arrowheads, as well as a wooden shield were retrieved alongside.
According to AOC Archaeology deputy managing director Dr Ciara Clarke, the programme will provide a better understanding of these people, their lives, and their culture, as well as give an insight into life on Orkney during the 10th century. Clarke noted that the findings will be compared and contrasted with other Scottish examples, as well as similar burial sites from across the Viking world.
"We are excited to be embarking on this project and look forward to working with Historic Environment Scotland, and an enthusiastic team of experts including Dr Stephen Harrison of Glasgow University, to record, study, and analyse the evidence contained in these Viking Age burials", she told the magazine.
HES deputy head of archaeology Dr Kirsty Owen said her organisation was "delighted" to work with AOC Archaeology, hoping that it will shed new light on the Viking communities on Orkney.
"Many of the Viking burial sites we know of in Orkney were excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century, meaning that we have a rare opportunity to investigate this discovery with the cutting-edge methods and techniques available to us today. We look forward to sharing our findings as the analysis continues, which we hope will enhance our understanding of the rich Viking heritage of Orkney and reveal more about the people who lived on these islands over one thousand years ago", she concluded.
Both the Orkney and Shetland Islands saw a significant influx of Norse settlers during the late 8th and early 9th centuries after Norwegian King Harald Fairhair annexed the Northern Isles in 875. The strong Viking presence remained for several centuries, leaving, among other things, colourful personalities such as Magnus Barelegs, Sigurd the Mighty, Sigurd the Stout, Thorfinn Skullsplitter, and Eric Bloodaxe.
Orkney remained part of a Scandinavian kingdom until 1468 when the islands were given to the Scottish Crown by Christian I of Denmark as a dowry for his daughter's marriage to James III of Scotland.