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Storms In Scotland Unearth Viking Skeletons

Storms In Scotland Unearth Viking Skeletons

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Fierce storms ravaging Orkney, an island group in the far north of Scotland famous for its Neolithic standing stone circles and burial tombs, have unearthed hundreds of ancient human bones in what is now a coastal cemetery dating back 1,500 years ago, to Pictish and Viking times.

At the Newark Bay cemetery, above a beach on the Orkney Islands, archaeologists are being helped by local volunteers to pile sandbags and clay against the exposed coastline in an effort to protect the unearthed human remains. In the 9th century, Norse Vikings settled on the islands and replaced the dominance of the Picts and this cemetery holds the remains of both cultures. But Peter Higgins, of the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology ( ORCA), part of the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands told Live Science that the recent storms are causing the sea to “eat away at the low cliff where the ancient cemetery lies.”

Volunteers repairing damage to the Viking burial ground. (Amanda Brend / ORCA)

Volunteers repairing damage to the Viking burial ground. (Amanda Brend / ORCA)

Battling Nature’s Wrath To Save The Skeletons

Orkney is perhaps best known for its prehistoric village Skara Brae, or Maes Howe passage tomb and the standing stone settings of Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, all dating to around 3,000 BC. However, the Newark Bay site was first excavated in the 1960s and 1970s by British archaeologist Don Brothwell and representatives of the Archaeology Institute said in a statement in Archaeology Orkney : that the immediate concern is the vulnerability of the remaining graves to flooding and damage from Orkney storms battering the soft sandstone cliff with “enormous waves and storm surges.”

The Ring of Brodgar with Loch of Harray in the background at Mainland, Orkney Islands, Scotland. (Manel Vinuesa / Adobe stock)

The Ring of Brodgar with Loch of Harray in the background at Mainland, Orkney Islands, Scotland. ( Manel Vinuesa / Adobe stock)

Higgins also told Live Science that in the initial excavations in the 60s and 70s around 250 skeletons were removed from the cemetery, and nobody knows how far back the graveyard extends from the beach, so this ancient site might hold many more human remains as: “hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are thought to be buried there still,” Higgins added.

Protecting Clues That Might Answer a Historic Problem

The exposed human bones are being covered with clay or removed after their positions are mapped and recorded, but the scientists are still unclear if the newly exposed bones are those of Picts or Vikings as no grave goods or clothing has been found. The relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands is debated among scholars with some thinking the Norse took over by force while others maintain they settled, traded and possibly even intermarried with the Picts. And according to Higgins the Viking burial ground at Newark Bay might just answer that question.

Reconstructed grave from a Viking burial ground in Orkney. An exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland. (Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reconstructed grave from a Viking burial ground in Orkney. An exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland. (Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Scotsman reports that the first Norse immigrants to Orkney settled there in the late 8th-century fleeing an emerging new monarchy in Norway and the islands had become a Norwegian earldom by the late in the 9th-century. One of the most interesting features in the early Norse arrivals in Scotland are Viking ‘ things’ - ancient tribal governmental assemblies consisting of influential people from Norse communities.

Things Suggest Invasion and Domination

In pre-Christian Germanic Scandinavia the most popular method of conflict resolution was feuding, and things managed potentially escalating tribal feuds to avoid social disorder. According to Dr. Sanmark’s 2009 paper, “ The Case of the Greenlandic Assembly Sites published in the  Journal of the North Atlantic, ‘ things’ served Norse communities as forums for conflict resolution, including the negotiation of tribal alliances through marriage and they settled inheritance disputes.

All across Scandinavia and Britain things were built at man-made ancestral burial mounds and outdoor locations with abundance of natural power, for example, the Alþingi (” Althing”) national parliament of Iceland founded in AD 930 at Þingvellir (“ assembly fields ”,) situated 45 kilometers (28 mi) east of the modern capital city, Reykjavík.

On Orkney, the first of two Viking things was “ Dingieshowe,” which is located in the east of Mainland on the border between the parishes of Deerness and St Andrews and it was built upon a “ Pictish broch ” that had been built around 300 BC, which itself was built on a Neolithic site dating to 3000 BC years ago. “ Tingwall” is in the west of Mainland Orkney on the border between the parishes of Rendall and Evie, and just like Dingieshowe, this thing was built on the grassy ruins of another Iron Age broch.

Dingieshowe beach in Orkney near to where the Viking thing was found. (Fabio Sassi / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dingieshowe beach in Orkney near to where the Viking thing was found. (Fabio Sassi / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

And on mainland Scotland, “ The History of Things reports that evidence of a medieval Norse thing has been found at an archaeological site in the Scottish Highlands, located about one mile north of Thurso in Caithness. And a recent geophysics survey of the site revealed, again, “ Thing's Va” was an Iron Age broch, a vast stone-built roundhouse, upon which the Viking assembly (things) was created. In conclusion, all three Norse things were built on Pictish brochs, which suggests the Vikings invaded and ‘took over’ the north of Scotland.

Answers From Newark Bay Cemetery Perhaps?

The new scientific study of bones from the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay might shine further light on the transitionary period from Pictish to Norse domination on the Orkney Islands. According to Higgins, the site presents “one of the few opportunities we've got to investigate that [transition].”

But like in most modern archaeological investigations, the answers are expected to come from genetic testing of the ancient bones, which as a side result might also show modern folk on Orkney are descended from the people who lived and died on their wind and storm torn island over 1,000 years ago, and whether those origins were Pictish or Norse.

Top image: Work continues to protect the fragile Viking burial site at Newark Bay, Orkney.          Source: Amanda Brend / ORCA  

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Gary Manners's picture

Thank you. I can confirm the cliffs were ravaged, not ravished on this occation. It has been corrected to reflect this fact.

Gary

I sure hope you mean the storms are ravaging and not ravishing!!!

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