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Surprising Viking Boat Burial Found in Scotland

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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

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]


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