***Timber fragments and rivets of vessel, and deceased's sword and shield, unearthed undisturbed on Ardnamurchan peninsula.
By Maev Kennedy
Tuesday 18 October 2011
An intact axe is lifted in a soil block from the site of a boat burial of a Viking chief. Video: Charlotte Tooze/University of Manchester Link to this video
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.
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.
An expert on Viking boats, Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow, dates it to the 10th century.
At just 5m long and 1.5m wide, it would have been a perilously 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 include a whetstone from Norway, a bronze ringpin from Ireland, his sword with beautifully decorated hilt, a spear and a shield which survive 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.
The 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."
The boat had been almost filled with stones and Cobb believes these must have had meaning for the Vikings.
"Rocks are obviously significant as they also appear in other Viking burials," she said.
"Building a lasting monument to the dead for the living may well be an important factor, and also rooting people in with landscape traditions, given the proximity to the neolithic and bronze age cairns.
"We don't think the association with the older monuments can be a coincidence – this was a place which was very important to people over an extraordinarily long period of time."
No trace of a settlement site has been found, but the team will be returning to the peninsula next summer.
The Ardnamurchan Transitions Project brings together students and academics from several universities working with CFA Archaeology and Archaeology Scotland.
The most famous ship burial in Britain, Sutton Hoo – found heaped with treasure and excavated in Suffolk in the shadow of the second world war – looks like anyone's idea of a Viking burial but proved to be Anglo-Saxon, centuries older than the seafaring Scandinavians.
When overcrowding or yearning for adventure and wealth sent the Vikings overseas in the late eighth century, the sight of their long narrow ships on the horizon struck dread.
Although their reputation has now been partly rehabilitated and they are recognised as traders, farmers, and brilliant shipwrights and metal and craft workers, a poem written in the margin of an Irish manuscript records a monk's relief that the wild seas that night were too rough even for Vikings.
In 793, Viking raids forced monks to abandon Lindisfarne, an island off the north-east coast of England, carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert with them.
But the raiders also struck as far inland as Lichfield and established permanent settlements including York, the Wirral and Dublin.
The most famous description of a Viking ship burial, complete with the human sacrifice of a woman who volunteered to go with the dead chieftain into the next world – with lurid details of drugged potions and ritual sexual intercourse pillaged by generations of novelists and film-makers – was left by a 10th century Arab writer, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. But archaeology has vindicated much of his account.
Fadlan's chieftain was cremated along with his ship, leaving only ashes to be buried under a mound. But many Vikings, like the man in Ardnamurchan, were laid in ships with their possessions heaped around them.
One of the best preserved, holding the remains of two women, was excavated at Oseberg in Norway in the early 20th century.
The burial dated from around 834 but the ship used was a generation older. The ship's superbly carved bow and stern are now preserved at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
Most of the Viking graves found in Britain are from cemeteries, after the raiders became settled and Christianised.
There is an intriguing rumoured Viking ship under a pub car park on the Wirral, and there are many claimed earlier ship burial finds – including one almost a century ago on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
But all of these had been disturbed or were ransacked by the people who stumbled on them, so none was properly recorded by archaeologists.
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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