The discovery of a handful of ancient iron nails, a belt buckle and some silver coins in northeast England has sent a thrill through the world of Viking scholarship, hinting strongly that a Norse boat burial site may lie beneath the Yorkshire soil.
“We may have the opportunity now to find and date, once and for all, England’s first Viking boat burial, which would be one of the most significant Viking finds for the British Isles,” archaeologist Simon Holmes said Tuesday, as some of the ninth-century artifacts went on display at the Yorkshire Museum.
The site, which is being kept secret, was found in December by amateur metal detector enthusiasts who reported their discoveries to antiquities experts at the museum in January.
The presence of the nails, specifically designed for use in boat making, along with fragments of two swords and the coins, raised hope that excavation will uncover the remains of the Norse ceremony in which the dead were buried in a boat with their possessions to take with them to the afterlife.
The vessel itself appears to be about 30 yards (meters) in length, “a proper Viking longship,” judging by the spread of the nails as shown by the metal detectors, Holmes said.
It was the narrow, highly maneuverable longship that enabled the invaders from Scandinavia to move swiftly and strike before defenders could rally to fight them off.
The Yorkshire find apparently dates from the late ninth century, Holmes said, a time when the Vikings were beginning to conquer and settle in England rather than just invading and pillaging.
Wave of excitement
The prospect of excavations at the site has provoked a wave of excitement among Viking scholars, particularly in Scandinavia, Holmes said.
Such burials already have been found in the Orkney and Shetland Islands and in Ireland.
“There have been a few sites in England where burials within boats have been found, but it is not possible to say they are Viking. We just don’t know,” Holmes said in a telephone interview.
“We know we have a Viking burial now. We just have to put him in a boat,” the archaeologist said. “It’s a very tantalizing situation that we find ourselves in at the moment.”
Who was buried?
About a dozen nails have been recovered so far, including boat building nails of a kind that were driven into boards through metal washers. Some still have the washers attached, Holmes said.
This would more likely be a burial of a wealthy merchant than of a prince or king, he said.
The coins include seven of the reign of King Burgred of Mercia in what is now central England, two from the kingdom of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex in what is now southern England, and one fragment of an Arab dirham coin.
“There’s a good possibility it was struck in Baghdad,” Holmes said.
The Norsemen from Scandinavia traded widely in addition to their invasions and conquests in Britain between the eighth and 11th centuries. The last major Norse invasion was in 1066, shortly before the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror.