Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial

Susan Kruse

In 1991 storms revealed a grave eroding out of the dunes at Balnakeil Bay in northwest Sutherland (MHG11310). When excavated they were found to belong to a Viking youth buried with a rich array of gravegoods. Fortunately, many of the finds were block-lifted and then excavated and examined in laboratory conditions, providing evidence of ephemeral organics.

The boy was probably around 13 when he was buried. Mineralised organics indicate that the body was exposed a while before burial, suggesting there may have been a settlement nearby. The bones on his right arm were shown to be enlarged, suggesting that he was right-handed. Despite his age, he was buried with adult weapons, including an iron sword which was missing its tip even when deposited. Other Viking burials show similar damage, often interpreted as ritual destruction, though they could be a pragmatic response to a damaged object. The intact organic binding on the grip is an exceptional survival. The scabbard was made of laths of wood, bound together with textile. Embedded in the sword’s corrosion were feathers and straw, suggesting bedding materials laid down before the body was placed in the grave. He was also buried with a domed shield boss, and there is evidence of mineralised wood for the shield board which may have been covered with leather. A spear with remains of a mineralised wooden shaft was a light throwing spear. A small iron knife, much corroded, was also found, and possibly with a leather sheath.

Figure 1: Reconstruction drawing of the grave at Balnakeil. ©Alan Braby

He was buried with a copper alloy penannular brooch pin, a small copper alloy pin as well as two amber and one glass bead which were probably part of a necklace. The brooch pin preserved mineralised yarn, either for the garment it was fastened to or was the fastening itself. The pin is of a type similar to other Viking burials in Scotland, including on Eigg. These were in fashion in the second half of the 8th to the 9th century. The glass bead has four protruding knobs, and is of a type generally dated to the later 9th century or beginning of the 10th century and similar types have been found in Scandinavia, the Baltic and Staraja Ladoga.

Figure 2: Beads from the grave assemblage. ©National Museums Scotland

Other finds included a copper alloy pendant capping, perhaps for a whetstone, an iron fish hook with preserved line, a cluster of three needles neatly wrapped with yarn to create a cylinder, a possible iron shear arm blade, a copper alloy stud, an antler composite single-sided comb, 14 bone gaming pieces with pegs to slot into a gaming board, a pumice stone, five flint flakes (perhaps residual to the area when the grave was being infilled) and a small white, quartzite pebble which may be natural or deliberately deposited.

Figure 3: Single-sided antler comb decorated with vertical grooves ©National Museums Scotland

Taken together it is a rich ensemble, showing the boy was of some status. The mixture of adult objects, together with some objects usually found in female burials (the needle cluster) or children’s burials (the knife and beads) raises questions as to whether he was considered an adult or a child. There are very few Viking children’s burials in Scotland or even elsewhere, and when found they generally have only a few simple items such as a bead or a pin. Perhaps he had just passed the age of maturity, or the grave goods may say more about his status than his age. The fish hook is unique to Scottish pagan graves, and it is interesting that the nearby Smoo cave complex has occupation dates to this period, including evidence of fishing.

Isotopic analysis suggests he had a mixed diet. Radiocarbon dating of the body suggests a range of cal AD 680-860, but many of the artefacts suggest a later date towards the end of the 9th century. If the dating is accurate, it suggests that some objects had a longer lifespan than had been previously thought. If, as is generally thought, the initial raids were carried out around AD 800, this burial is within a generation of first contact. Genetic analysis has been undertaken, and the results awaited.

The grave is important because it is one of the few Viking graves in Scotland which have been excavated in modern times and shows the information which can be obtained by careful excavation and in particular the identification of organics. It allows us to reconstruct a possible burial rite with a pit dug into the sand then lined with straw. The body was then placed on some form of bedding or pillow, after which more straw was used to cover the body. The burial also adds to evidence of Viking presence, and later Norse presence along the north coast of Scotland.

Further information

Batey, Colleen and Paterson, Caroline 2013 ‘A Viking burial at Balnakeil, Sutherland’ in Reynolds, Andrew and Webster, Leslie E. (eds) Early Medieval Art and Archaeology in the Northern World: Studies in honour of James Graham-Campbell, Brill: Leiden, 631-659. Available online at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/45706/

Pollard, Tony 2005 ‘The excavation of four caves in the Geodha Smoo near Durness, Sutherland’, Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 18.