One Viking in Ardnamurchan

Viking Discovery of the MONTH
10/18/2011 Port an Eilean Mhòir, Ardnamurchan, Scotland


A full boat burrial. Perhaps the most complete ever found in the UK.

1 Viking Boat’s worth of rivets
1 Viking, whole
1 Sword with decorated hilt
1 Axe head
1 Boss from a Shield
1 Spear
1 Irish Bronze ring pin
1 Norse Whetstone
Viking Pottery
Remnants from what could be a drinking horn
Several bits of as-yet unidentified iron

Image Jon Haylett

Image: University of Manchester

Historical Importance:
This particular discovery is amazing: An untouched boat burial. But it doesn’t stop there. The contents of the grave were preserved very well, which allows archeologists to learn a great deal from the excavated materials. What few other boat burials archeologists have found in the past were subject to sub-par, older excavation methodologies and much potential information was forever lost. This will be different.

Already, archaeologists can tell by the artifacts found with the Viking that this individual was high ranking and well respected in his community.

And the significance of this find reaches beyond this one man. Dr Oliver Harris, project co-director from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “This [excavation/research] project examines social change on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula from the first farmers 6000 years ago to the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The international nature of the artefacts already identified at the Ardnamurchan boat grave also suggests further evidence for strong links between the Vikings that occupied Ireland, Scotland and north west England at that time.

And they will only learn more!

This post concludes the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the first post, click here, to see the series page click here.

Viking Comings and Goings

Historical Revelation of the Week:
May 2011 Rhode Island, USA — Brown University


This “finding comes from the first reconstruction of 5,600 years of climate history from two lakes in Kangerlussuaq, near the Norse “Western Settlement.” Unlike ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet hundreds of miles inland, the new lake core measurements reflect air temperatures where the Vikings lived…”

Image: William D’Andrea/Brown University


“An extended cold snap, called the Little Ice Age, gripped Greenland beginning in the 1400s. This has been cited as a major cause of the Norse’s disappearance. Now researchers led by Brown University show the climate turned colder in an earlier span of several decades, setting in motion the end of the Greenland Norse.”

“Beginning around 1100, the climate [in Greenland] began an 80-year period in which temperatures dropped 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit), Brown scientists concluded from lake readings. While that may not be considered precipitous, especially in the summer, the change could have ushered in a number of hazards, including shorter crop-growing seasons, less available food for livestock and more sea ice that may have blocked trade.”


Historical Importance:
The less friendly the climate, the more mobile its people. It’s something I’ve noticed in my wanderings through history. Look at the denizens of the African deserts, and let’s say the Eskimos. Before modern technology found them, they wandered around and spent a few generations, or maybe only a season where they could eke out a living.

In the more stable parts of the globe, small climate changes still made a big difference. One generation, a land was welcoming and comfortable, but in the next? “Just what was pops thinking when he decided to live in this godforsaken place?”

No one is quite sure what exactly drove the Vikings to Greenland, as the Viking Age began as Europe came out of a “little ice age,” but this study seems to have discovered what drove them out. Weather, the great herder of life.

In the late 10th century, the Norse Viking’ed over to Greenland. At that time the weather was fair and accommodating settlers. However, the honeymoon ended soon enough, driving the Norse yet again to search out new homes. But by the 15th century there were plenty of other opportunities, and they knew of better ways to find a place to live. Maybe they did learn from history…

The next post will be the last post of 2011 Viking Discoveries. I’ve saved the best for last!

 This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next, and last, post, One Viking in Ardnamurchan, click here. To see the series page click here.

Magic of the Viking Sunstones Unlocked?

Historical Viking Revelation of the Week
November 2011 University of Rennes, France

Norse legends (let’s face it, there aren’t many stories out of Scandinavia that aren’t legends-but that’s another post) tell of mariners holding up stones to the sky, sólarsteinn, to discern the direction of the sun on a cloudy day. How could this be? How could a stone tell them where the sun was when people couldn’t see the sun–and this in the Dark Ages? It must have been sorcery! And, that may have been what they thought… But, think they may have solved the mystery with a clear calcite stone native to Iceland called Iceland spar. I’ve seen these referenced online as sunstone, however the gem sunstone is a feldspar (like moonstone or labradorite), and is not calcite.

“Iceland spar behaves theoretically and experimentally like a perfect depolarizer.” In other words, with the crystal held up to the sky, there is one specific angle of rotation, called the isotropy point, at which the crystal eliminates all polarization of the light passing through it…if you look through the crystal in its depolarizing position and then pull it away suddenly from your line of sight, you can catch a glimpse of a faint, elongate yellowish pattern known as a Haidinger’s Brush. The key here is that the ends of that yellow shape point directly toward the sun.”

Haidinger’s Brush, image-Daniel P. B. Smith

Here is the science of how it works:

“They would have relied upon the sun’s piercing rays reflected through a piece of the calcite. The trick is that light coming from 90 degrees opposite the sun will be polarised so even when the sun is below the horizon it is possible to tell where it is.”

“They used the double refraction of calcite to pinpoint the sun by rotating the crystals until both sides of the double image are of equal intensity.”

Historical Importance:
With the magnetic compass not reaching Europe until the 13th Century, and the astrolabe not until the 15th Century what was a Viking who wanted to explore far and wide to do on a cloudy day, or when land was no longer visible?

Well, many researchers are saying that if the Vikings had this kind of “technology” available, it lends plausibility to the Vikings sailing across the Atlantic to North America, well before Columbus did.

Yes, archaeologists have found distinctly Viking artifacts in Canada and the US, but this new discovery helps us piece together the puzzle left by these people who did not record their history.

Further, it appears they shared their secret with someone else because a sunstone had been found “in the wreck of a ship the Spanish Armada sunk [at Alderney] in 1592. Magnetic compasses had been common in Europe for some 300 years by then, but Ropars and La Floch have reason to think an optical compass…might still have been useful in these later times. ‘We have verified that even only one of the cannons excavated from the ship is able to perturb a magnetic compass orientation by 90 degrees’,” which would render it useless for navigation.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, Viking Comings and Goings, click here. To see the series page click here.

A Viking Conference

Modern Viking Event of the Week
Dundalk, Ireland October 21, 2011

“Raiders, Traders and Innovators: The Vikings and County Louth” Exhibition and Viking Conference

Historical Importance:
These folks are taking their roots seriously. To kick off the museum exhibition, the city is hosting a landmark Viking Conference. Unlike the annual Annagassan Viking Festival, which I’m taking to be similar to the Rennaissance festivals I’ve been to, this was an academic affair coinciding with the confirmation of the “Vikingness” of their discovered settlement. They are focusing on what this discovery means in a global context; how Ireland fit into the westward expansion/exploration of the Scandinavians. “Amongst those scheduled to contribute include Dr. Donnchadh Ó Corráin (UCC); Dr. Eamonn Kelly; Dr. Howard Clark, Dr. Cathy Swift (University of Limerick), Dr. John Sheehan (UCC), Dr. Mark Clinton, Dr. Gareth Williams (British Museum) and Linzi Simpson.”

The Viking exhibition runs until mid-February 2012. If I were in Ireland, I’d make a point to see this.

The significance of this conference is obvious. These locals have pride in their past. Pride in being a part of Viking history. Not too long ago, the word Viking brought to mind ruthless invaders. However, all we’ve learned about them in the last few years have brought them into a different light. Despite the violence they brought with them, they brought other important things with them too.

We’ll take a look at some of these things in coming posts.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, Magic of the Viking Sunstones Unlocked?, click here. To see the series page click here.

Here there be Vikings, Not Just Legends

Historical Revelation
October 2011 Annagassan, Ireland

Unearthed September 17, 2010
Viking Fortified Settlement dated at 841 AD

Image: Luke Torris

Historical Importance:
Five years of hard work by archeologists and geophysicists, and a year’s time to study (and secure funding), has proven a legend lay under a barley field in Northern Ireland. Linn Duchaill was a Viking settlement, a base where they repaired ships and hunkered down between raids, almost the oldest in Ireland and has been lost to history until now. Ned Kelly, keeper of Irish Antiquities at a local museum says,

“There’s been a bit of a mystery about where exactly the site was located or what exactly the site consisted of, and antiquarians and historians and archaeologists have been trying to sort that mystery since about 1750.”

Things like this always make me wonder how exactly landmarks and cities are completely forgotten. All the people just left, and no one saw it again until, thousands of years later someone digs up something “old” and history is made, again.

According to Irish history, no longer legend, from Linn Duchaill the Vikings plundered the christian monastaries in County Louth, traveled 60 miles north to Armagh, and 100 miles west into Longford on multiple raids during their occupation of Linn Duchaill.

This is a fortunate find as few Viking bases have been excavated, and this will only tell us more about its inhabitants in time to come.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, A Viking Conference, click here. To see the series page click here.

History, as Written by the Victors

Historical Revelation of the Week:
August 2011 Oxford, England

Unearthed January 2008:
Grave Site

35 male skeletons, aged 16 to 25

Historical Importance:
So, who were all these corpses?

“The bodies buried at Oxford were those of vigorous males of fighting age, most between 16 and 35 years old. Most were unusually large; an examination of the muscle-attachment areas of their bones revealed extremely robust physiques. Some victims had suffered serious burns to their heads, backs, pelvic regions and arms.”

That just might be a good way to tell if you may have found a Viking burial site. However, that wasn’t a good day to be a Viking.

While most stories may paint the most brutal picutures of these northern warriers, don’t be fooled. Remember, when Einstein said everything is relative, he meant it. What the English, or Anglo Saxons did to the Vikings in their own turn was equally atrocious. History is written by the winners and England is not called Vikingland. Keep reading to find out how this one discovery shows how true this is.

“It was obvious at the time of excavation that many of the skulls had been fractured or crushed, but after piecing these skulls back together, she found that many of them were covered in blade and puncture wounds mostly to the back of the head.”

I particularly love it when we find physical evidence of old legends and lift them off the page, even if they be gruesome…

“It is possible that the Oxford skeletons were victims of an event called the St Brice’s Day Massacre, recorded in a number of historical sources.

In AD 1002, the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready recorded in a charter that he ordered ‘a most just extermination’ of all the Danes in England.

He made the decision after he was told of a Danish plot to assassinate him.”

And this too, is very interesting for a number of reasons. Read on and I will tell you why.

“The charter also recorded how on that day, the Danes in Oxford fled to St Fridewides church expecting to find refuge, but instead were pursued by the townspeople, who then set the church on fire.”

Vikings seeking refuge in a church? They get burned out by the English locals? On how many occasions were Vikings and other Scandinavian peoples accused of doing the same thing? Many! In fact, I think that was the favorite accusation of the Vikings from their victims. Funny how the people who accused Norse the most of sacrilegious acts burn a church at the first word of their king.

And that’s all England had in Vikings for 2011. Next week we are on to Ireland.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, Here there be Vikings, Not Just Legends, click here. To see the series page click here.

A Link in the Viking Chain

Viking Discovery of the Week:
July 1, 2011 Furness England

Unearthed: Treasure Horde
All those folks with metal detectors might be onto something…Another metal detecorist landed on Cumbria’s largest to-date (always hope for more) treasure hoard, ruled as such by the local coroner and valued at over tens of thousands of pounds.

90 silver coins and artifacts
2 Arabic Dirham coins
Several ingots
1 nearly complete bracelet

Historical Importance:
A wallet without ID makes it hard to place the person who dropped it. But this is different, this person thought they would be coming back for it, and didn’t think to leave a note. Even without any identifying contents, this hoard still gives some clues about north-western England at this time. For instance, Viking expert at the British Museum, Dr. Gareth Williams sums it up nicely: “By the mid-950s, most of England had become integrated into a single kingdom, with a regulated coinage, but this part of the north-west was not integrated into the English kingdom until much later, and the hoard reflects that.” And this discovery proves the Vikings were there to stir things up.

I wonder what else this discovery will tell us down the road…


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, History, as Written by the Victors, click here. To see the series page click here.

A Viking Mystery

Historical Viking Revelation of the Week
July 2011 Dorset, England

Unearthed 2009 Weymouth:
54 skeletons
51 skulls
all male and in their late teens to about 25
1 individual with intentional dental modification

Image: Oxford Archaeology

Historical Importance:
This 10th or 11th century find in Weymouth has indicated that Vikings participated in tooth filing like other Scandinavian cultures. “Teeth with neat parallel grooves have been found in Viking graves in Sweden, Denmark and England, and farther afield”

The purpose behind such an uncomfortable practice is still being sorted out by
experts. However, some pose that it was to frighten, or intimidate opponents.

Image: Oxford Archaeology

I like this idea in an amusing sort of way:
To show their furrows, the individuals would have had to smile quite broadly and to be visible from any distance they would need to be ‘coloured’. However, this would have disappeared when they ate and drank, so they would have had to reapply regularly. Their “dental bling” would have needed to be applied after meals, like lipstick, and really, how intimidating is the look of rotten teeth?

Image: Hans Splinter, Flickr.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, A Link in the Viking Chain, click here. To see the series page click here.

The Truth About Vikings

Viking Discovery of the Week:
October 27, 2011 Lancashire England

Unearthed: Treasure Horde
What treasure hunter hasn’t dreamed of stumbling across the find of a lifetime? Maybe a source of not only his, but local pride? What Darren Webster found in Lancashire was not only those things, but also was once the very dear belongings of a Viking leader from around 900 AD.

200 pieces of jewelry
Engraved Bracelets
27 coins
Hack silver

Historical Importance:
“Big hoards such as this paint a new picture of what Vikings were doing in England,” says anthropologist Stephen Oppenheimer from Oxford University, “Burying large amounts like this indicates they were settling here.”

One coin, of a type never seen before, could prove that Vikings were not all just heathen, bloodthirsty invaders raping and pillaging their way across the countryside. They were, in fact, looking for a place more hospitable to settle than the frozen wastes of the North.

On one side, this coin may carry the name of Viking ruler in Northern England, one that no one has heard of before. The name Airdeconut may be a representation of the Scandinavian name Harthacnut.

On the other, it features the words DNS, abbreviation of “Dominus” and REX arranged to form a cross. This is a reminder that many Norse converted to Christianity when in England.


This post is part of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, A Viking Mystery, click here. To see the series page click here.

January is Viking Month

2011 was a good year for the Vikings. In pop-culture itself, they found themselves featured in the video game Skyrim and the movie Thor. I’ve also noticed an influx of Viking books and music over the last few years. Perhaps that is why I am writing this now. Historically, three discoveries were unearthed and four revelations came to light from studying former discoveries, these and their importance are what I’ll be focusing on during my month long blog dedication.

With each new discovery and revelation, we understand the Vikings a little better. In 2011 alone, we’ve learned much more about their presence in the lands they so ruthlessly, or maybe desperately invaded.

Hopefully by the end of January as we learn what the dirt reveals to us about the oft misunderstood Norse-Cultural-offshoot that are the Vikings, you’ll also have learned something new about these magnificent warriors.


This post is the first post of the January is Viking Month blog series. To read the next post, The Truth About Vikings, click here. To see the series page click here.