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Part VII - Death and Burial

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Tom Horne
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Elizabeth Pierce
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

Perhaps one of the most enduring images in Viking studies is that of pagan burials, especially those containing swords, boats or horses. These graves allow us some understanding of Viking beliefs of the afterlife prior to Christianity and give us an intimate look at both the lives and deaths of individuals. Antiquarians discovered many Viking graves in the 18th and 19th centuries, but these tended to be poorly published (if at all) and only the ‘interesting’ parts of the burial, such as the weapons, were kept, and often subsequently lost. Later publications were also often riddled with errors and omissions that were perpetuated in modern academic works.

Vikings in Scotland gave a comprehensive overview of Scottish Viking burials known in the late 1990s, including questioning aspects of older interpretations of some burials such as Kiloran Bay, Colonsay. A long-term initiative called the Pagan Norse Graves of Scotland Project (Graham-Campbell et al., this section) has since sought to reassess known graves and artefacts by tracing the original written records documenting these finds to rectify any mistakes in interpretation. The result is a drastic increase in the number of known Viking graves, as well as the reinterpretation of artefacts and new insights into the origins and practices of the Norse buried here.

In addition to reassessing old finds, there have been a number of new burials found in recent years due to large-scale excavations, commercial projects and rescue digs on eroding shorelines, perhaps most notably the boat burial containing a man, woman and child at Scar, Sanday, Orkney (Owen and Dalland 1999). One highly publicised recent discovery was a boat burial found at Swordle Bay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Argyll in 2011 (Batey, this section). Although much was made in the popular press of this being the first Viking boat burial found on mainland Britain, its placement overlooking waters off the western coast of Scotland puts it firmly on the sailing route between the Irish Sea and North Sea areas, and it is similar to other nearby burials in the Western Isles.

A more surprising recent find is a cemetery used for centuries along the shores of Loch Lomond, a region traditionally considered outwith areas of Scandinavian settlement (Batey, also this section).

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 297 - 298
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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