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Surprising Viking Boat Burial Found in Scotland

The Vikings cut a boat-shaped depression into the earth before they entombed the ship.

 
Perhaps because of their penchant for plundering, the Vikings developed elaborate funerary rituals. In an ancient act of conspicuous consumption, Norsemen would sometimes drag an entire ship ashore to use like a monumental coffin, surrounding the deceased with grave goods like metal weapons, jewelry, and textiles. Recently, archaeologists reported the first discovery of a rich Viking boat burial on the UK mainland. Such ships have previously been unearthed across Scandinavia and on UK islands.

It's an important find, Oliver Harris, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, tells mental_floss. “We know very little about the nature and depth of Viking occupation of huge parts of Scotland.”

The burial, which is described in the February issue of the journal Antiquity, was uncovered in 2011 in a low-lying mound near Sworlde Bay on western Scotland’s Ardnamurchan peninsula.

“It’s a very nice harbor, it’s easy to land in, and it’s got wide flat areas that would have been good for farming,” Harris describes. So far, no Norse settlements have been found nearby, but Swordle Bay was occupied for at least 5000 years before the Vikings arrived. Other monuments at the site include a large Neolithic chamber tomb, which may explain the location of the boat burial. “Vikings are known for wanting to bury their dead close to or inside of prehistoric burial monuments as a way of connecting themselves to the ancestral dead in different places,” Harris says.

A sword and some remnants of textiles were recovered from the grave.

 
The boat burial dates back to the early 10th century CE, a period when the Vikings were starting to settle in Scotland, particularly in the islands in the north. Most of the vessel’s wood has rotted away; all that’s left of the 16-foot rowboat are more than 200 metal rivets that were once used to keep the planks in place.

The body of the deceased didn’t fare so well, either. Archaeologists only found two adult teeth—but those skeletal remains were enough to conduct an isotopic analysis, which revealed that this person had a diet that was occasionally rich in fish, typical of Viking Age Scandinavia.

The only human remains discovered at the site were two molars from the same person.

 
“Our best guess is that this is someone who grew up in Scandinavia and then traveled about in the Viking world, perhaps visiting the Scottish island, perhaps visiting Dublin, which at this time was a large Viking settlement,” Harris says.

The archaeologists also think this person was of quite high status, as they found a rich array of grave goods, including a sword, an axe, a spear, a shield, a drinking horn mount, a sickle, a large iron ladle, a hammer, and a pair of tongs.

The team can’t say for certain whether the deceased was a man or a woman, though the weapons suggest that this person was a warrior. But not all of the grave goods were related to warcraft; many of the objects were used in daily activities like farming, cooking, eating, and crafting. “There’s a whole range of different aspects of identity that are presented in the grave,” Harris says.

Archaeologists also uncovered a broad-bladed axe, a shield boss, a ringed pin, a pair of tongs, and a hammer at the site.

 
That this is the first Viking burial discovered on the UK mainland “reminds us that there are probably others that we haven’t found yet,” Harris says. The discovery also shows “how our emphasis on what counts as the mainland is slightly a product of a modern way of looking at a map of Britain.”

In other words, the distinction between the craggy coasts of mainland Britain and its surrounding islands might have been blurrier in the past. Harris imagines that Ardnamurchan, connected to the rest of Britain by a small strip of land, would have had an island-like quality for someone sailing up and down the Irish Sea a thousand years ago. If that’s true, this might be the first of many such finds, which could reveal more about Viking culture in the region that the centuries have concealed.

All images courtesy of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3100 Years Ago, an Elite Family Stashed Their Silver Jewelry in a Beer Jug
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

Instead of containing traces of alcohol, a 3100-year-old beer jug discovered by archaeologists in Israel was stuffed with silver jewelry. Unearthed in 2010 at the Bronze Age settlement of Megiddo, the vessel contained several dozen ancient baubles, ranging from bracelets to beaded works, according to Science News. One of the researchers, Eran Arie, presented the findings earlier this month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The jewelry-bearing jug likely belonged to a high-ranking Canaanite family, who hid it in the corner of a courtyard. A bowl, and perhaps a cloth shroud, was placed over the container to conceal it. It's unclear why the family left their expensive hoard there, as it likely comprised the majority of their personal wealth, but the find does shed light on how wealthy families tried to keep their valuables safe.

A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

 A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

The owners removed the jug's narrow neck to place the jewelry inside. The cache included 35 silver works—including earrings, rings, and a bracelet, wrapped in two linen cloths—along with carnelian and beads made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, which were once probably park of a necklace.

Experts haven't figured out who the jewelry's owners were, but one theory is that they were connected to the government because the courtyard and its surrounding building were once located near the city palace. Since the building appeared to have been destroyed—perhaps in a battle—it's thought that the family fled during a time of crisis, leaving their treasures to sit undetected for millennia. 

[h/t Science News]

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