Scar: A Viking boat burial
Plan of the boat burial at Scar. The third of the boat at the top of the plan had been eroded away.
The first discovery. This was thought at first to be part of a battery, but it is in fact a Viking bullion weight, used for weighing out bullion. It implies that this was a rich burial: presumably there were originally scales that went with it which had been eroded away.
ONE of the most impressive recent dis coveries has been that of a Viking boat burial at Scar, on the north coast of Sanday, one of the Orkney islands. This was dis covered (and excavated) because it was eroding out of the sea shore. It was originally noted by a farmer who several years ago found a small circular lead button, the size of a pound coin. A neighbour suggested it was part of a car battery, but being puzzled by it, he took it home and kept it in a cupboard.
Several years later, the shore began to recede further, and several human bones were washed out of the dune face, together with a couple of iron rivets. The archaeologists were called in, and were shown the lead object which was taken away and tentatively identified as a Viking lead bullion weight, a small lead weight used for weighing out bullion. Two boat rivets were also found, and so an excavation was arranged and financed by Historic Scotland, and directed by Magnar Dalland, a Norwegian who is a Viking expert.
It turned out to be a boat of which a slice, about one third in all, had already been eroded away. The boat was about 6.5 m long, divided by an upright stone into two compartments. The east partition, about 2/5ths of the total, was filled with stones, perhaps to weigh it down. The west compartment formed the burial chamber.
When the boat was finally excavated, although the wood had completely decayed, the shape of the boat was shown by the position of some 300 iron rivets. These were marked in the photos by yellow golf tees, using up in the process all the supplies of golf tees on the isle of Sanday.
In the chamber the bodies of three people were found, male, female and a child.
Unfortunately the centre had been disturbed, probably by an otter nesting there, but a rich haul of finds was made. Along one side of the male was a fine sword, its wooden scabbard still partly preserved by the corrosion of the iron. Overlying it was a quiverful of arrows, presumably originally accompanied by a bow, of which no trace remained.
Adjacent to it was a large bone comb. There was also an iron sickle, overlying a finely decorated equal-armed brooch of Norwegian type which can be dated to the ninth century AD. There was also a pair of scissors and a pile of gaming pieces, 22 in all, for playing Hnefatafl.
However, finest of all was a bone plaque originally standing up against the stone partition, but which had fallen forward onto its face. This is assumed to be an ironing board and was made out of a single piece of whalebone, beautifully preserved and highly decorated. More than 50 of these are known, mostly from Scandinavia. A few of them are accompanied by a glass or stone smoother that formed the 'Iron' for smoothing out textiles. Scandinavian folk history has it that these plaques were betrothal gifts carved by young men during the long winter evenings, to be presented to their beloveds as part of a marriage proposal!
The excavation took place in November and December 1991 in some haste as the sea was threatening to remove the whole site. Even during the excavation, a wave washed over the site, but fortunately no harm was done. However, two days after the excavations were finally completed there was a big storm which finally washed away much of the site. The rescue excavations had not been a moment too soon.
CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 131