British Museum blog

The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Vikings: life and legend, , , , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Detailed description of a fascinating find.
    Speculating what was going on must be wild.
    The egg shaped stone could have been a kind of pestle. (what kind of stone?)
    They could have been a dynasty of healers/magicians so they might not have been related, they certainly seem to have accumulated plenty of material wealth.
    The armed man could have started out as a bodyguard.
    Jean M. Aul is needed to weave a story around this

    Like

  2. Fascinating.
    Believe our attitudes to death and the afterlife reveal a great deal about our societies, and often link modern societies to older ones in quite startling ways.

    Like

  3. Great article! Staff member and authority on Viking weaponry asserts that Viking graves were rare in Ireland as by then they had assimilated into the Gaelic and Christian traditions. If this is the case, and it probably is, has any research been carried out on the Danish and Scandinavian territories to establish if and how and when Christianity reached their people?

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,339 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday 150 years ago. Known for her series of children’s books and illustrations, her stories followed the exploits of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny among other countryside characters. Here is an illustration from ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’. It shows the rabbits munching on some lettuce in Mr McGregor’s rubbish heap after Peter Rabbit didn’t have enough food to share around. 🐰
#Beatrix150 #rabbits #illustration #BeatrixPotter #PeterRabbit Today we’re celebrating the work of #BeatrixPotter, born #onthisday in 1866. Her loveable characters and illustrations made her a firm favourite with all ages. This watercolour from her 1909 publication ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ shows the rabbits asleep around a cabbage plant.
#Beatrix150 #bunnies #illustration #🐰 Adored by children and adults alike, Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday 150 years ago. Her charming stories and illustrations endure, with Peter Rabbit and his friends proving as popular as ever. The Museum’s collection houses the original watercolour illustrations for her 1909 book ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’. This painting shows the unfortunate youngest bunny being hit by a rotten marrow that was thrown out of the kitchen window by Mr McGregor! 🐰
#Beatrix150 #BeatrixPotter #rabbit #drawing #illustration This is an exquisitely decorated purse lid from the Anglo-Saxon burial at #SuttonHoo, which was brought to the world's attention #onthisday in 1939. In this object the quality of craftsmanship can really be appreciated. The lid is only 19cm in length but it must have been incredibly valuable. The outstanding nature of the finds at Sutton Hoo points to this being the burial of a leading figure in East Anglia, possibly a king. The landowner Mrs Edith Petty donated the discovery to the British Museum in 1939.
#SuttonHoo #Gold #Archaeology #AngloSaxon Today we’re celebrating the unearthing of the beautiful Anglo-Saxon objects from #SuttonHoo, which were found #onthisday in 1939. Arguably the most iconic of all the objects, this helmet was an astonishingly rare find. Meticulous reconstruction has allowed us to see its full shape and some of the complexity of the fine detailing after it was damaged in the burial chamber. The gold areas of the helmet reveal a dragon or bird-like figure – the moustache forms the tail, the nose forms the body and the eyebrows form the wings, with a head just above. Another animal head can be seen facing down towards this.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon #Gold #Helmet #Archaeology #onthisday in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, archaeologists discovered the treasures of #SuttonHoo. It was one of the most important historical discoveries of the 20th century, and contained a wealth of Anglo-Saxon objects which greatly enhanced the understanding of the early medieval period. One of the most significant things to be found was an undisturbed ship-burial, the excavation of which can be seen in this photo. The 27-metre-long impression the ship left in the earth is highly detailed and was painstakingly recorded. The centre of the ship contained a burial chamber housing some spectacular objects – we’ll be sharing some highlights today.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon  #archaeology #archive #blackandwhite
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,339 other followers

%d bloggers like this: