Ship Burial: A Viking Funerary Tradition

In the Scottish highlands, arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth, a fully intact Viking ship burial has been recovered. The boat was recovered at Ardnamurchan, and is thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Archaeologist Dr Hannah Cobb said the “artefacts and preservation make this one of the most important Norse graves ever excavated in Britain”. The burial is considered unique and intact because it included the entire ship, all grave goods and the body itself. Artifacts associated directly with the remains include an axe, a highly decorated sword with hilt, a spear, a shield, and a bronze ring pin. Within the boat there was also a knife, potentially a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, a ring pin from Ireland and Viking pottery and dozens of pieces of unidentified iron. Based on these finds and the type of burial, it is argued that these are the remains of a Norse warrior.

BBC 2011 Ardnamurchan Viking Burial Grave Goods

Other ship burials that have been recovered across the domain of the Vikings. One famous one for comparison against the Ardnamurchan burial is the Oseburg ship burial in Norway, which dates to the same period. Within the ship were the remains of two individuals, although they lacked any grave goods- presumably robbed from the burial soon after it was created in the 10th century. What is interesting about this burial is that the two individuals, initially thought to be male warriors are actually female. Regardless of the gender or sex, the burials themselves are quite similar (Holck 2006). A burial mound at Vaslgarde in Sweden contains the burned remains of a ship-burial. The deceased individual was placed inside the ship, which was burned on a pyre. When the ashes cooled, earth was heaped upon the remains to create a mound. Within the boat a number of exotic animals and precious artifacts were recovered (Price 2008).

The Norse funeral is a fairly well known occurrence in history. Ibn Fadlan vividly described a funeral of a Norse warrior in the 10th century CE:

“When the day arrived on which the man was to be cremated and the girl with him, I went to the river on which was his ship. I saw that they had drawn the ship onto the shore, and that they had erected four posts of birch wood and other wood, and that around the ship was made a structure like great ship’s tents out of wood. Then they pulled the ship up until it was on this wooden construction…

Siemiradzki, Funeral of a Rus Viking Noble (Wikipedia)

One of the Rus was at my side and I heard him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter what he said. He answered, “He said, ‘You Arabs are fools.’ ” “Why?” I asked him. He said, “You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honor most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once.” Then he began to laugh uproariously. When I asked why he laughed, he said, “His Lord, for love of him, has sent the wind to bring him away in an hour.” And actually an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the girl, and her master were nothing but cinders and ashes.”

This report notes a number of important things, first that the ship burial used a real ship rather than a makeshift one or a model, second that the ship burial had important religious meaning for the norse people, and third that cremation was important. From reading on in Ibn Fadlan or the tale of Beowulf, we also learn that this type of burial was reserved primarily for elite warriors and chiefs. All of these statements are backed by the archaeological record, and the recent find  in Scotland lends further evidence.

What I find interesting about these burials is looking at the reported symbolic meaning behind burials and comparing the burials themselves. The report by Ibn Fadlan states that the cremation was the most important aspect because it prevented the desecration of the body. However, it would appear from the archaeological record that the ship as the container appears to be the important feature. Price (2008) argue that the ship might have acted as a stage for funerary drama, where the importance of the individual was symbolically acted out- which leads to the differences between burial goods, forms, and locations. They also note that the boat may symbolize a journey in this drama; sending the deceased to the next realm regardless of whether they are cremated or inhumed, buried on land or sent out to sea. Why is it then that cremation is seen as being so important in Fadlan’s account? Perhaps the form of the body does not matter as much as the symbolism, perhaps the vikings were effected by christianity, perhaps the weather didn’t permit fires in the Highlands burials.

This is an interesting area of study, and as we find more of these ship burials we can better understand the patterns of inhumation and cremation in order to note the broader processes that might have caused this. Looking further into the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Vikings may also elucidate reasons behind the variation in burials and accounts.

Works Cited

BBC News. Ardnamurchan Viking Ship Burial. BBC Highlands and Islands. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-15333852

Holck 2006. The Oseburg Ship Burial: new Thoughts on Skeletons from the grave mound. In European Journal of Archaeology.

Smyser, H.M. “Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf.” Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. eds. Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press. 1965. pp 92-119.

Price 2008. Body Lore and Archaeology of Embedded Religion: Dramatic License in the Funerals of Vikings. In Belief in the Past: theoretical approaches to the archaeology of religion. Whitley and Hays-Gilpin, eds. Left Coast press.

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6 responses to “Ship Burial: A Viking Funerary Tradition

  1. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 16: Pestilence and Burials « Contagions·

  2. Pingback: Everybody look at me cause I’m sailing on a boat! « Bones Don't Lie·

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