“Rare, Exciting and Complex” Mayback Viking Sword Discovered On Orkney
Among several finds at a Viking burial site on Papa Westray, Orkney, is “a rare, exciting, and complex artifact” – a Mayback sword in the form of a Pedersen Type D, associated with the 9th century. The find from 2015 is now being carefully examined for post-excavation work, and it is confirmed to be one of the heaviest types of Viking weapons. Substantial portions of the scabbard have survived, which rarely happens, in the form of mineralized wood which covers much of the blade, reports The Daily Mail.
The Mayback Viking sword. (Historic Environment Scotland)
The Petersen D Viking Sword and its Rare Scabbard
“Given that very few Viking Age scabbards have survived, the Mayback example is a very important addition,” explained Andrew Morrison of AOC Archaeology in reference to the scabbard, or Viking sword sheath. This particular Mayback Viking sword is one of just thirty blades discovered throughout the Viking world, archaeologists have only discovered one other Type D Viking sword, and that was found on the Isle of Eigg in the 1830s.
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When found, the sword looked in fragile health, so to preserve evidence the whole sword and the surrounding soil were lifted in a block, with the intention of lab analysis and forensic excavation. This is why the underside of the sword still remains a mystery.
The excavations at Mayback revealed a number of finds, including evidence of a rare Viking boat burial, and a second grave with weapons, including the sword. Archaeologists said the graves may be those of first-generation Norwegian settlers on Orkney, as per a report by BBC.
Still from 3D model of the Mayback burial shows the placement of the Viking swords and shield boss overlying the skeleton. (AOC Archaeology)
The Vikings and their Swords: A Matter of Honor and Killing Swords
The Vikings were Scandinavian seafarers active from the 8th to the 11th century. They have been remembered as raiders, pirates, and robbers, whose influence spread across Europe in this period. According to custom, all free Norse men were permitted to carry weapons at all times, and indeed, own them as well.
War and plunder were the most prestigious activities amongst Viking society. The appearance and finish of the weapons they owned, and the armor they wore, were all a vital part of the displaying of Viking wealth and status.
Swords in Viking society were markers of status and class, particularly as the Vikings were seen as warriors and raiders. Viking swords were generally owned by nobles and upper class men. Good blades were prized by successive generations of warriors, which is why they would be buried with them.
Vikings are associated with the cultural practice of killing swords. This implied that the blade was bent in such a way as to make it unusable. This served two potential functions – retiring the Viking sword with the deceased warrior, and deterring grave goods robbers who looked for precious metals and booty.
These swords were typically double-edged, with both edges of the blade being extremely sharp. They were meant to be used single-handed, which meant that an average Viking had to have sufficient arm strength. The other arm was in action with a shield and could not be used for sword fighting. The hilt and pommel provided the necessary weight to balance the blade. A typical sword weighed between 1 and 2 kilos (2 to 4 lbs), which included a taper that helped bring the center of balance closer to the grip. This was one of the heaviest kinds of Viking weapon to have existed.
The Mayback burial was block lifted from the grave to be further examined in laboratory conditions, including the skeleton and Viking sword. (AOC Archaeology)
The Mayback Viking Burial
The rest of the finds include a Viking boat burial (a cultural practice wherein a ship or boat is used as the tomb for the dead and their grave goods), a shield, arrows, and a buckle. These finds have been beautifully recorded and preserved on the Historic Environmental Scotland blog, by the authors of the find themselves.
The brass or bronze buckle is in intact condition with a D-shaped loop in the Borre style, including double contoured bands, knots, and geometric shapes, and a stylized animal paws grasping the tongue bar. This Borre style had become popularized in Scandinavia from the middle of the 9th century AD, with only 10 other known examples from the British Isles. It was also probably mass produced in Scandinavia itself. It is stuck to the sword only because of corrosion, an unintentional oversight.
The arrows are a bundle of arrowheads, probably numbering 6 in total within the lumpy mass. They are leaf shaped, and are probably dated to the 10th and 11th centuries. These arrowheads were likely used for hunting, rather than warfare. Finally, the shield boss is from the boat burial, and is also a Scandinavian type, dating back to between 850 and 950 AD.
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“It's not common to find arrows in Viking graves and when they are found, they're usually retrieved as single arrows,” added Andrew Morrison. “Interestingly, three quivers have now been found in Viking graves in Orkney, at Scar, Rousay, and now Mayback.”
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has funded research into the burials and said the work planned over the next few months could “blow some minds.” Excavations are still underway and it is very likely that more and more historically important Viking items will be found in the near future.
Top image: An X Ray of the Mayback Viking sword shows a decorative pattern. Source: Historic Environment Scotland
By Sahir Pandey