Seminar CLV: an uncertain number of Vikings in a boat (at Ardnamurchan)

As I work through this backlog of seminar reports I do begin to realise that maybe one reason I seemed to get less done in Oxford than I have done since is because I was at seminars all the time… In particular, on this occasion, on the 21st of January 2013, I was at two in immediate succession, in that way that the coincidence of the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar at Oxford currently makes possible. This post is about the former of them, when Dr Oliver Harris of the University of Leicester came to speak with the title, “Places Past and Present: the Ardnamurchan boat burial”.

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

You may have heard about this site, because it was all over the news when it was fresh; the BBC coverage includes a short video showing our speaker in full animation; that may make it clear how much fun this paper was, but it was by no means lacking in care and thought even so. Basically the story is that they were doing a much wider survey of this peninsula on the western coast of Scotland, interested in remains of all periods (and I mean all – they have found Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and early modern stuff here, all within a few kilometres of each other, though no medieval bar what I’m here describing), and identified a low mound that early modern ploughing had respected. Investigation revealed that this was probably because it was full of stones, and once the turf was cleared off them it began, as Dr Harris put it, to look suspiciously like a boat. If there’d been any doubt, the finding of a broken spear and a shield boss helped reassure them there really was something here, and that something, rivets made clear, had been an actual boat that was dragged up the beach, parked on a local rise in the ground, banked with kerb stones and then filled with stuff. That stuff also included a drinking horn whose fittings survived, an axe, a cauldron or hanging bowl with a hammer and tongs in it, a whetstone, a sickle, food, apparently a bag of spare rivets and under it all, perhaps originally down the side of the boat, a sword. (I do wonder in writing this up if the person in question were being marked as a shipwright, but if so obviously a fairly martial one.)

Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the Ardnamurchan boat burial

One of quite a number of pictures from the same press shoot by Jeff J. Mitchell that one can Google up of Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the burial

What it could not then be said to have included, however, was a body, though soil analysis may change that (or by now, may have, though I can find nothing newer on it). For now, though, the possibility that there was never a person in the boat remains intriguingly open, and a further possibility (suggested in questions by Lesley Abrams and David Petts in accumulation, on the basis that sickles usually occur in female graves) is that there was more than one, accounting for the multiple significations of the goods, though in that case the chemical action of the soil was unusually aggressive for the area just here. Likewise absent was any scientific dating as yet, but the sword, which had copper and silver interweave decorating the pommel, was enough for Colleen Batey to suggest the first half of the tenth century, and I am as happy with that as I ever am with stylistic dating, given that I am not expert enough to contest it and would rather have some figures out of a computer. I would also like some publication beyond the very short note in Medieval Archaeology for 2012 that seems to be all that has so far resulted, but the Historic Environment Record lists a report apparently submitted as part of a post-excavation budget submission, and maybe that’s where things rest. That would be a shame but hopefully eventually remediable.

Aariel view of the coats around Swordie Bay, Ardnamurchan

The coast around the site, which could you but see also houses a Neolithic chambered tomb and a Bronze Age kerbed cairn as well as the ship burial. The name of the place? Swordle Bay…

The main thing that Dr Harris was keen to stress, anyway, was the landscape into which this then-new monument was being inserted, which could fairly be characterised as funerary: the very stones they built the ship-setting with were robbed from a Neolithic cairn nearby! The wider landscape is also obviously maritime: though this is the only boat-burial so far found on the mainland, it’s really only just the mainland and has a lot more to do with the others on the islands to which the sea links it for users of such boats than the zones inland. The longue durée approach of the project here was good for showing depth in time but breadth in space is also pretty clear for its frame of reference; all the goods seem to be Scandinavian in type or manufacture and there’s no reason to suppose the person was at all local. (There were two teeth, so isotopic analysis may just be possible, but without a skull, who’s to say whose teeth were deposited for what reason?) The diggers presumably knew the coast, picked a very well-used bit of it full of monuments to make their own, built it and then sailed away again, a burial very much in keeping with how Vikings interacted with this coastline and others further south when they lived. There’s a lot more it would be nice to know here but this paper gave us a lot more than was on the web, so it’s nice to be able to distribute it a bit further.


As far as I can discover, so far the only academic publication of the site (a somewhat unfair judgement-by-comparison on the press releases and website, which contain nearly as much information but fewer site photos) is Oliver Harris, Hannah Cobb, Héléna Gray & Phil Richardson, “A Viking at Rest: new discoveries on Ardnamurchan” in Märit Gaimster & Kieran O’Conor with Rory Sherlock (edd.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland – Fieldwork Highlights in 2011″ in Neil Christie (ed.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland 2011″ in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 333-339 of 321-339 of 301-339, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.00000000011.

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11 responses to “Seminar CLV: an uncertain number of Vikings in a boat (at Ardnamurchan)

  1. Rivets: do you mean rivets with roves, or clenched nails? Were there any other tools that would indicate a shipwright?

    • Rivets is the term in my notes, but having a look at the finds report the project have on their website reveals the phrase “rivets and roves” used a lot, so I would guess the former. As for the tools, beyond the hammer and tongs, no, and I suppose that’s more smithing (or rivet-making) than actual ship-building…

      • That’s really interesting, I would have thought clenched nails. Are they copper, or bronze?

        • My notes don’t say, so all I have is the report linked in the comment above. That only makes this clear in the final categorisation of finds, but the answer is: iron. I should say that while looking for that it became clear that there were also finds which the excavators classified as nails, albeit fewer of them, so there’s obviously a category distinction that was in use, but it’s not explained what that was as far as I can see.

  2. Just a wee correction – the name of the bay in which the boat was found is Swordle not Swordie

  3. Any foreign modern visitor to Ardnamurchan might appreciate the attractions of being buried at a spot looking out across the sounds towards Rum, Eigg, Muck, and Skye. I’d like to think that’s not an entirely anachronistic fancy.

    But this idea firstly that the grave — if that’s what it was — was that of a foreigner rather than a local, because the artefacts are ‘foreign’, and secondly (and more to the point) that for the same reason they are not those of someone who resided on Ardnamurchan, sounds quite political, in a wholly modern way. Ideas about local identity, and the rootedness of people in the local past, are serious issues in areas like this, where old communities have all but gone, or have disappeared entirely. There’s nothing to rule out the possibility that this was the grave of a visitor, of course, but it’s interesting that it seems to be the interpretation that’s been promoted. I wonder how much ‘local’ tenth-century archaeology there is from the area?

    As regards whether or not it was a grave, these are notoriously dangerous waters, with North Atlantic conditions, and prevailing northerly and southerly winds meeting a complex rocky coastline with swirling currents and tides. It’d be nice to know how early medieval sea-going peoples inhabiting or visiting coastal and island regions such as this commemorated those who were lost at sea, apart from with memorial inscriptions and poetry (both known from contexts in Scandinavia and Iceland).

    • With the proviso that I’m going from notes alone here, jpg, I don’t think there’s much tenth-century or indeed medieval archæology of any kind come up in the survey thus far apart from this boat. What that silence should or shouldn’t tell us, though, I find harder to figure. You will probably not be surprised that Lesley Abrams especially was interested by the idea that this might be a local person buried in a Viking style with Scandinavian kit, but even if the teeth turn out to be analysable, it will be hard, given the uncertain number of bodies (0, 1 or 2) to say that they and the goods belong to the same person.

  4. For southerly, read westerly!

  5. Allan McKinley

    On the shipwright issue, along the west coast of Scotland would it not be the norm to know how to work on ships? The kind of equivalent of knowing how to make one if the surprisingly ubiquitous fences (for various purposes) found in more arable environs perhaps. The statement here is more likely to be that the buried or their heirs were wealthy enough to destroy relatively valuable resources in a burial – not that this was a ship wright, but rather someone with the resource to build (and bury) ships.

    • I see the logic of your argument here, although there would still be a difference, I suppose, between the kind of skin-covered boat the monks use in the Navigation of St Brendan and a clinker-built vessel like this one, which might be represented in the spare nails. All the same: the ship itself makes that point quite well, surely, without the tools being needed. I feel that they must have been meant to say something else (if we assume that they were not, in fact, intended for the deceased’s use on the other side…).

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