“one of the most important Norse graves ever excavated in Britain”

The discovery of an intact Viking boat burial on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula – by the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, a team led by experts from the universities of Manchester and Leicester, CFA Archaeology Ltd and Archaeology Scotland – has generated plenty of coverage.  Believed to be from the 10th Century, it’s the first fully intact Viking boat burial site to be excavated on the British mainland.  As the BBC report notes

The term “fully-intact”, used to describe the find, means the remains of the body along with objects buried with it and evidence of the boat used were found and recovered.

The Ardnamurchan Viking was found buried with an axe, a sword with a decorated hilt, a spear, a shield boss and a bronze ring pin.

About 200 rivets – the remains of the boat he was laid in – were also found.

Previously, boat burials in such a condition have been excavated at sites on Orkney.

Until now mainland excavations were only partially successful and had been carried out before more careful and accurate methods were introduced.

Other finds in the 5m-long (16ft) grave in Ardnamurchan included a knife, what could be the tip of a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, a ring pin from Ireland and Viking pottery.

There’s a short, unembeddable, Press Association video report

And in a timely recent article in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole answered the question, “What have the Vikings ever done for us?”

IRELAND WAS ILL-PREPARED for this onslaught. Irish culture in the eighth century was supremely self-confident. It had its own style of Christianity, its own sophisticated legal system, distinctive and highly accomplished art, and a vernacular literature. Its agricultural economy and multitude of petty kingdoms did generate tribal and dynastic conflicts, but they were limited in scale. Indeed, one of the reasons Irish art is so spectacularly opulent in the eighth century is that this was a culture that could afford to put spare resources of wealth and craft into objects of beauty and devotional power rather than military technology and warriors.

The sudden eruption of an aggressive, pagan and initially destructive presence posed a real threat to this self-contained culture. It had to adapt or die. And there was a great deal to adapt to. Military technology had to be upgraded, most obviously by acquiring Viking weaponry. Kings had to develop at least a hard core of semiprofessional warriors. But the Vikings also changed the map of Ireland in ways that had long-term consequences for the natives.

The change can be symbolised by the shift in the centre of gravity from Tara to Dublin. The old Ireland looked, geographically as well as psychologically, inwards. It was the Vikings who developed not just towns but coastal towns: Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Not all of the Viking towns thrived: large settlements at Linn Duachaill, near Annagassan, in Co Louth, and Woodstown, just west of Waterford, both discovered only recently, lasted for relatively short periods.

There is a paradox here: the Scandinavians were no more an urban people than the Irish. Their own towns arose, in this same period of expansion, as merchant colonies. The founding of Ireland’s coastal cities was, moreover, as much a testament to Viking failures as to their successes. In Iceland, the Faroes and the Scottish islands, the Danish invaders simply occupied land. In northern England, they founded no cities, though they did occupy the old Roman town of York. What made them such prodigious founders of coastal towns in Ireland was the simple fact that they were unable to carve out large swathes of rural territory. They needed their fortified strongholds with quick access to the sea.

Yet, particularly as Irish power began to recover from the initial shock, native kings saw the value of this new way of life. They intermarried with the strangers and sucked them into their own quarrels and alliances. But they also tried increasingly to control and exploit the towns they had created. The Vikings brought with them a more developed commercial culture than Ireland had known: among the words that entered Irish from Old Norse is margad, market. And they gave the country one of the things it came to love more than all else: money.

And they’re not apologising for that either.

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  • michael-mcivor

    The vikings invaded britain- and now the brits are invading
    viking graves-

  • Pete Baker

    “The vikings invaded britain…”

    And Ireland, michael.

    Or did you not read that far?

    Perhaps you were just refering to the British Isles…

  • michael-mcivor

    I read every-thing pete- well i try to-

    The Irish beat the vikings at clontarf in 1014-

    The vikings then went back to invading easy england-

  • Cynic2

    It didnt take long.

    Clearly this poor Viking was murdered by the agents of the British State colluding with the hated forces of the English Hundreds which it has been irrefutably proven were the predecessors of the RUC.

    We demand an independent international inquiry headed by an impartial judge (eg from Zimbabwe) and staffed by experts in Colonial oppression to report on the gross abuses of human rights inherent in this neo fascist colonial adventure.

    We have available an internationally renown (for their fees) team of QCs and lawyers who will be delighted to assist in this vital process of assuaging the understandable grief of the Viking people and blaming the Brits

  • Pete Baker

    “The Irish beat the vikings at clontarf in 1014-

    The vikings then went back to invading easy england-”

    Ever try. Ever fail. Try again. Fail better.

  • USA

    Well, there goes that thread. Not one of them is worth responding to.

  • Cynic2


    You do do satire do you?

  • “among the words that entered Irish from Old Norse is margad, market.”

    Ballycastle was once known as Marketon and the confluence of the rivers flowing into the bay is known as the Margy. Islay appears to have been a significant Norse settlement and what is now Ballycastle could well have been a trading point for the Islay Norse.

  • Is there a teensy-weensy bit of word-play and PR going on here?

    The term “fully-intact”, used to describe the find, means the remains of the body along with objects buried with it and evidence of the boat used were found and recovered.

    What about the Scar Viking burial on Sanday in the Orkneys, excavated in (as I recall) 1991? That fulfils all those three criteria of body (actually three at Scar), burial objects (including that remarkably plaque) and boat.

  • Pete Baker


    “What about the Scar Viking burial on Sanday in the Orkneys…”

    Those would be the Orkney Islands.

    As I pointed out in the original post.

    it’s the first fully intact Viking boat burial site to be excavated on the British mainland [added emphasis]

    But there is probably “a teensy-weensy bit of word-play and PR going on”. As the quoted BBC report notes

    Until now mainland excavations were only partially successful and had been carried out before more careful and accurate methods were introduced.

  • I’m aware we non-Orcadians, non-Scillonians are supposed to bow to local wishes and so are not allowed to use terms like “the Orkneys” and “the Scillies”. However, in Shetland Norn the name is “Orknear” — and that is a plural form, I believe. Similarly, the Old Icelandic is “Orkneyjar” and that, too, is a plural form. The Latin is “Orcades”, most definitely plural. All told, I think I have a bit of precedent on my side.

    I’d stick my original supposition that the Scar boat was the more significant: two objects of amazing value (and I don’t mean monetary) came out of it — the plaque and the brooch. Both are normally in the Orkney Museum, but have travelled as far as Australia on loan. For the first time since the excavation they were returned to Sanday this spring — for all of six hours.

    There was a previous find of a ship burial in Ardnamurchan in 1924. Unfortunately that was not properly documented; and the exact site has (I believe) been lost.

    Now, Mr Baker, which side on you one in the great turnip/swede debate?

  • Whilst burial finds such as these are not uncommon in Norway, others in the UK have previously only been found on the Orkneys.

    An equally exhilarated Viking expert and archaeologist, Knut Paasche, tells NRK the boat will be reconstructed to learn more about its history.

    “There is no doubt that the discovery is from the late Viking age, and there are indications there this has been a state burial”. source

    Vikings and Scotland.

    Could Seneirl – seat of the earl/jarl – on the west bank of the River Bush south of Bushmills have been a Viking settlement?

  • They intermarried with the strangers …

    Does he mean that the Irish are a bastard “race”, not pure celts. I don’t believe it. Next someone will be claiming that the Irish and English interbred too!

  • It would be nice to know which rule I broke so that I don’t risk another yellow in the future. My comment was simply an attempt to point out how interconnected we all are on these islands.

  • No, JoeCanuck @ 8.44 pm.

    I think your crime was to imply that the Norse stayed in Ireland because one lot of Irish were happy, over a century or two, to sell another lot of Irish into slavery in North Africa.

    Which is historically verifiable.

    And then came the Saxons.

  • wee buns

    Widespread dislocation of course – the evidence is the Viking destructiveness has been much exaggerated as the annuls tell us of war on going between the Irish kings as well as between Irish & Vikings , as well as Vikings & Irish fighting together against their own countrymen. (Hmm sounds familiar.)

    The Gaelicization of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland is proverbial and so it was with many earlier intrusive people and cultures. It was Edmund Spencer who wrote in the 16th century ‘Lord, how quickly doth that country alter one’s nature.’

  • Pete Baker


    “I’m aware we non-Orcadians, non-Scillonians are supposed to bow to local wishes and so are not allowed to use terms like “the Orkneys” and “the Scillies”.”

    Read my reply, and the original post, again.

    That is, read beyond the headline.


    The fact that you don’t know why you’ve been warned about your comments, again, is simply evidence of your lack of comprehension.

    You projected a meaning onto the linked article that did not exist, and proceeded to, in effect, invite others to pile in.

    If you wanted to “attempt to point out how interconnected we all are on these islands” there are easier ways to do so.

  • Same back at you, Pete. To quote what someone else pointed out recently on a different subject (not about you), you have a complete misunderstanding of the difference between fact and opinion. Once again, please tell me which of Mick’s rules did I breach.
    I await my red card for daring to challenge your superior knowledge.

  • A final comment before my banishment. Mick has repeatedly said that he likes robust challenges so long as they are respectful. I’m not aware of ever disrespecting you or any commenter. The deck is stacked against us peons. Which rule did I breach?

  • Pete Baker @ 1:36 am:

    Forgive me for asking, but what’s the grief? Why the note of prickly hostility?

    For the record, I had read, with great interest, Fintan O’Toole in last Saturday’s Irish Times. I am an admirer of this series; and have already blogged it twice.

    I had also read the BBC report and a couple of the earlier releases from which this thread derives.

    What does that leave of your “original post” except plucking out a phrase for headline?

    My point is that I suspect a degree of populist hype has been grafted on to a significant but not “unique” discovery. Set aside the local interest factor (i.e. flag-waving nationalism) and the Ardnamurchan site is little league stuff. The Norwegians turn up something not dissimilar every year or so. This is definitely not another Osebergskipet. Is the Port an Eilean Mhòir site going to tell us much new about Norse ship-building? Or funerary rites? Or trading routes?

    Once the dust settles, this site will merely take the number of similar finds in the Highlands and Islands into double figures, and provide a few not-exactly-spectacular exhibits for rubber-neckers in regional museums.

    The local (i.e. NI) interest was implied by Nevin. Why are we short of finds similar to Port an Eilean Mhòir and Scar in Ulster? Can we start to suppose that it wasn’t a lack of interest by “Vikings” of either period? Can we muse that Muirchertach na Cochall Craicinn and Conghalach Cnoghbha ran too successful an operation in Ulster, so points south were easier meat?

  • “Why are we short of finds similar to Port an Eilean Mhòir and Scar in Ulster?”

    Malcolm, the North Antrim coast was a relatively short jaunt from Islay for Viking and local sailors – and the latter could have provided useful knowledge about how to avail of the power of the tides. The Islay base meant that there would have been no need for a major fortification on the north coast or to use it as a place to bury people of prominence.

    I’m a bit puzzled by Fintan’s assertion that ‘the old Ireland looked, geographically as well as psychologically, inwards’; it looks like the sort of claim you might find in a primary school history book with a nationalist agenda. Back in the Viking era it would have been much easier to transport people and goods by sea and river than overland. Prior to the arrival of the tractor, local McLaughlin farmers travelled to Islay horse fairs and brought back their purchases to Ballintoy or nearby, probably using a Drontheim-style fishing boat.

    Jon Marshall, a local archaelogist, in his recently published tome ‘Dervock’, refers to Viking settlements on Rathlin and at Ballycastle and the operation of a silver mine at Moyarget, just west of Ballycastle. There have been Viking finds at various points along the coast between Ballycastle and the crossing of the River Bann at the Loughan near Coleraine. Half-way, at Derrykeighan, was found a hoard of 280 silver coins. Just south of there at Magheradonnell, near Dervock, a Viking gaming board was found. Jon claims that it and the one from Ballinderry, Westmeath, are the two finest such boards so far discovered in Ireland.

  • John Ó Néill

    There are recorded Viking burials on Rathlin plus an odd boat-shaped stone setting in a field known as the ‘Dane’s Grave’ (although Dane is an Anglicisation of the Danaan of mythology that unfortunately is mistaken as the Danes of Scandinavian origin). Still, it is a candidate of sorts for a boat burial.

    Otherwise there are recorded ‘Viking’ (probably Norse) burials from Larne and probably Ballyholme (two brooches typical of those from burials). There are also stray finds, placenames etc plus a structure which may be a Norse longhouse on Dunnyneill island in Strangford Lough.

    The main report of the Irish Viking graves project is by Stephen Harrison and Raghnall Ó Floinn (A Catalogue of Irish Viking Graves and Grave Goods published by National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy) summarises the current state of play.

  • Thanks, Nevin, for that. I think I’ve got some stuff shelved in the garret from the old “Office of Public Works” (sorry: I’ve forgotten the proper title of that branch of the old Stormont régime) which identifies and lists sites.

    Now, refer to today‘s instalment of the Fintan O’Toole History in 100 objects. We find, with remarkable synchronicity, the sword from Ballinderry (Cf: your last sentence). What O’Toole does with his little essay is suggest the remarkable lines of communication between the “native” Irish, the Viking arrivals and the continental trade-routes.

    Also in the Irish Times (page 5 of my “International edition”) is a short piece, Complexity of Tara brooch has golden geometric ratio, and suggesting its “mathematical methods of construction and design”.

  • Folks, you can do a ‘viking’ or other keyword search at this NIEA website. I see there is a record of a boat burial at Ballywillan, near Portrush. The mound was about 40 feet in diameter. There’s also a record of a Hiberno-Norse coin hoard on Rathlin (Moyle) dated c. 1040.

    I forgot to say that the silver coins in the Derrykeighan hoard were Anglo-Saxon from 924-975, the same era as the Ardnamurchan find.

  • [contd]I’ve used the Ballywillan variant – Ballywillin is used in the document.

  • Malcolm, the O’Toole Ballinderry sword article is online. Fintan makes a curious assumption: “You need to have this sort of stuff. But in order to have it, you need to be able to buy it, which means changing to an economic system that generates cash.” There are several other explanations as to how it could have ended up in the Ballinderry crannog, including theft and war trophy.

  • Nevin @ 12:13 pm:

    Indeed, indeedy.

    I noted that bit about a money economy. What makes that somewhat odd and probably anachronistic is that O’Toole is fixing our attention on the ninth and tenth centuries. The usual date for the first Irish coinage is c. 995 under Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson. Hmmm …

    Of course coins were used before that, but (I suggest) as a hybrid between barter and true currency.

    Then I noticed that O’Toole credits “Thanks to Andy Halpin”. That’s the co-author of the Oxford Archaeological Guide, and a fixture at the National Museum.

    So, a suspicious mind muses: one commercial interest that the “Vikings” had was slaves. Ireland was an attractive source because feuding local kings maintained a ready supply. What O’Toole is saying about the arms-race between Irish kings fits in nicely there. But admitting such may be politically incorrect (after all, it dilutes the wickedness of the Stuarts and Cromwell).

    There’s Clare Downham’s piece (also in History Ireland, May-June 2009) on The Viking Slave Trade (which is a trifle terse, to say the least) and David Pelteret in Peter Clemoes (ed.), Anglo-Saxon England. Beyond that, I cannot recall any in-depth study — or indeed surmise whether one is possible in the present state of the knowledge market.