First findings of 'mind-blowing' study of Viking cemetery in Orkney revealed

A potentially “mind-blowing” study of a Viking cemetery in Orkney is underway, with early analysis of a number of grave goods now shared by archaeologists.

The cemetery at Mayback on the north east coast of Papa Westray in Orkney was excavated in 2015 with the remains of a boat burial and a separate grave of a man laid to rest with a large iron sword and shield also discovered.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has funded research into the burials and said the work planned over the next few months “has the potential to really blow some minds”.

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Early analysis at AOC Archaeology has focused on an intricate buckle taken from the man’s grave, along with a bundle of arrowheads and his sword, which is now known to have been one of the heaviest designs of the Viking era.

The sword likely dates from the 9th Century with the iron heavily corroded. It was probably highly decorated with many of the details only visible through x-ray. PIC: HES/AOC Archaeology.

The shield boss left in the grave has also been examined, along with a similar object found in the boat burial.

Andrew Morrison, of AOC Archaeology, said the buckle and the sword had been X-rayed to allow greater understanding of the goods, with the weapon now so fragile that the underside had yet to be seen.

Mr Morrison, in an article for HES, said the buckle, which has stylised animal paws grasping the tongue bar, was only one of two found in Scotland and was a design popular in Scandinavia from around 850AD to 950 AD.

He said: “This buckle would have been a mass-produced object most likely cast in Scandinavia.

The Viking cemetery was found at Mayback on Papa Westray, Orkney. PIC: geograph.org/Rob Burke

"There are only around ten known examples of these buckles from the Britain and Ireland, and this is the second Scottish example we have. The other known one was found at Cruach Mhor, on Islay.

"The buckle is stuck to the sword due to corrosion. Based on the position of the sword in the burial, we’re not sure if it was associated with a waist belt or part of the sword scabbard.

"We’re optimistic this is a question we’ll be able to answer with further conservation and analysis.”

Mr Morrison said the bundle of arrow heads, that were still attached to their shafts, had leaf-shaped blades and mostly dated to the 10th and 11th centuries.

An x-ray of the buckle found in one of the graves.

These arrowheads, which were likely used for hunting rather than warfare, were another “extremely rare survival” and were possibly deposited in the grave in a quiver, he added.

The shield boss from the boat burial is a Scandinavian type dating from around 850-950 AD. Traces of wood from the shield also “remarkably” survives.

Meanwhile, the sword and its surrounding soil was lifted and transported to the lab in an entire block to preserve as much evidence as possible.

It has been so-far identified as a Pedersen Type D, some of the heaviest swords of the Viking Age, which are typically associated with the ninth century and usually elaborately decorated. Only one other has been found in Scotland, on the Isle of Eigg.

Mr Morrison, who collaborated with Caroline Paterson and Dr Stephen Harrison on the article, described the sword as "possibly one of the most exciting and most complex artefacts” from the cemetery, with the iron in the sword now heavily corroded, with many of the striking details only visible through X-ray.

Mr Morrison added: “This rare survival will have many stories to tell.”

This article originally appeared on the Historic Environment Scotland blog

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