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

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]


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