British Museum blog

In search of the Vikings


David Prudames, British Museum

Last week, the extremely exciting news broke of the discovery of the ship-burial of a high-status Viking in Scotland.

The excavation was undertaken by a team of experts from a number of institutions working on the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, which is exploring evidence on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland for the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods (from about 9000 to about 1000 BC).

Laid to rest at least 1,000 years ago, this must have been an important individual as his remains were found surrounded by what’s left of a large ship (mainly just rivets, as the wood it was built from has rotted away) and possessions including a sword, shield, knife, axe, bronze ringed pin and whetstone.

There’s an article about the discovery on the Guardian newspaper website, as well as a video of the axe being excavated. On the BBC website there are a couple of videos about the finds, one of a BBC Scotland news report and a short interview with Oliver Harris, a member of the excavation team.

Some of the finds shown in these videos are very similar to objects in the collection of the British Museum, where the Vikings are well-represented.

My colleague Barry Ager told me about another boat burial dating back to more or less the same period as this one. It was discovered in Lilleberge Norway in the nineteenth century, and there is a large collection of iron rivets from it in our collection online.

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

There’s a selection of interesting Viking objects in an online tour on our website, including a hair comb made out of an antler; an iron spearhead found in the River Thames, and the remarkable Cuerdale hoard discovered in the nineteenth century – the largest hoard of Viking silver from western Europe (over 40kg of it), stashed away during a time of upheaval.

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

This fascinating discovery also reminded me of a much earlier ship-burial, objects from which are on display here at the British Museum. The burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is not Viking, rather it held the remains of an Anglo-Saxon of clearly high status and surrounded by some incredible finds, many of which have become rightly famous – the magnificent helmet in particular.

A new display in Room 2 at the British Museum shows some of these finds in the context of the wider early medieval world of Europe and beyond, while their permanent home undergoes a refurbishment.

It interestingly places the both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – among others – in the wider context of contact and trade across a vast area from Scandinavia to north Africa, the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

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  1. I imagine a high ranking individual of today might want to be buried with the same kind of objects ,seeing as man has not changed all that much….A.

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Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition - until 30 November. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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