ECR Case Study: Buried identities – a study of regional and chronological variation within the furnished burials of Viking Age Britain and Ireland

Samuel Kinirons, University College Dublin


The practice of burying the deceased with grave-goods was reintroduced to Britain and Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries by Scandinavian settlers. These ‘furnished graves’represent a deliberate set of choices; not only what to bury the dead with, but also where and how to bury them. They stand out from the burials of local populations and as such can be seen as reflexive statements of cultural identity. My PhD seeks to define and interpret the regional and temporal variations and trends within these burials. This will lead to a greater understanding of the regional interactions and pressures which moulded conceptions of identity during the Viking Age in Britain and Ireland.

Shaded pencil sketch plan and section of a stone-lined grave with a skeleton partially preserved insode.
A plan and section drawing of a Viking Age furnished burial within a stone cist
at Gurness, Orkney © HES


The sheer variability of Viking Age burial practice within Scandinavia is well attested (Price 2008, 257–258). While broader patterns are sometimes observable, burial practices were generally incredibly localised. This means that it is difficult, if not impossible to map local trends within Britain and Ireland back onto regions within Scandinavia (Hadley 2006, 254). While there may be some truth to the long-held view that the Scandinavian settlers of eastern England hailed from the Jutland peninsula and those of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man were of Norwegian origin, both archaeology and historical sources show that these Scandinavians moved freely and paid little heed to political borders, be they medieval or modern (Shetelig 1945, 23; Dumville 2008, 357) .

The nature of the regional transcultural interactions with the local populace was of at least equal importance in moulding the settlers’ conceptions of their identity as their geographic origin. It has been suggested that the relatively expansive nature of the settlement of the north and east of England led to cultural integration and the relatively swift adoption of local burial practices (Hadley 2006, 262–264; Redmond 2007, 124). The Scandinavian settlement in and around Dublin was by contrast geographically constricted, which may go some way towards explaining the multitude of well-furnished burials found there. These burials probably reflect both a very different relationship with the preexisting population
and the intense competition among local elites arising from the imposition of physical proximity (Halsall 2000, 271; Harrison 2008, 114). Local influence can still be detected here however, with the distinct forms of many of the spearheads and shield bosses recovered from Dublin’s burials probably inspired by Irish examples (Harrison and Ó Floinn 2014, 102–107; 122–125).

Historical and archaeological evidence demonstrates that Scandinavians settled in different areas of Britain and Ireland at different times over the course of the 9th and 10th centuries (Barrett 2008; Ó Corráin 2008; Richards 2008; Wilson 2008). However, we do not yet fully understand the influence these temporal differences had in forming the regional patterns visible within the burial record. The relative chronology of Viking Age furnished burials remains poorly understood and is largely based on artefact typologies. Overreliance on this dating method can be problematic as it takes no account of the inclusion of old heirlooms within the grave-goods (McGuire 2010, 97). However, scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating have not yet adequately replaced typological chronologies. Given that the majority of these burials occurred between 800 and 950 CE, the date ranges provided by radiocarbon dating are often too broad to meaningfully situate a burial within these 150 years (Redmond 2007, 3; Harrison 2008, 79). Furthermore, isotopic analyses have highlighted the fact that the marine reservoir effect has skewed the radiocarbon dates of a number of these burials (Barrett et al 2000; Jarman et al 2018). The establishment of a more precise chronological framework for these burials must be considered a priority for future research.

Two oval, green-coloured brooches, with a latticed pattern, and a corroded U-shaped sickle lie on a yellow silky material in the shape of a smiley face.
The oval brooches and sickle from the Gurness burial © HES


To increase our understanding of the regional and temporal patterns within these burials it is planned to create a comprehensive and interrogatable database of the Viking Age furnished burials in Britain and Ireland. This database will build upon existing catalogues, adding recently excavated burials and further data to older burials. The data gathered will not just relate to the number and typologies of the grave-goods, but also to the form of the grave, the available osteological data, the probable date range, as well as the landscape context.

While much of the data will be gathered through the collation of material from publications, unpublished reports and antiquarian accounts, new data on the landscape contexts will be gathered through a series of site surveys. As it is not feasible to conduct these at every site, fifteen case studies will be chosen from across the study area. Their selection will be based on the accuracy with which the burials can be plotted and the amount of previous work that has been undertaken at these sites. GNSS survey equipment will be used to produce Digital Terrain Models and photographic records will be created. On those sites which cannot be visited, GIS will be used to generate data, such as the creation of viewsheds highlighting intervisibility between burials and earlier monuments. This phase of work will lead to the motivations behind the placement of these burials within their specific landscape context to be better understood.

A map of Southern Scotland and Northern England with red dots showing the location of Viking Age furninshed burials. Some areas which have more than one site in a cluster are annotaed with an aerial image showing the location of each site in more detail.
A distribution map created as part of a preliminary pilot study
of the furnished Viking Age burials of northern England © Samuel Kinirons

The resultant database will therefore be a synthesis of both old and new data. This data will be explored using a series of statistical techniques such as multiple correspondence analysis and cluster analysis. These aim to highlight correlations between various data points, allowing for the regional and chronological trends within these burials to be brought into focus. The results will need to be interpreted within their wider context, a process which will involve engagement with existing theoretical frameworks. This stage is crucial, as while the statistical techniques outlined above are effective at identifying patterns within the data they are incapable of explaining them. The resulting sharpening of our definition of the changes in mortuary practice across time and space will thus lead to a greater understanding of the formation and evolution of regional identities and the specific local, cultural and societal factors which underlay these developments.

Graph showing the clusters of data from the project at hand. The clusters are grouped on oval shaded shapes in green, orange, purple and blue.
The results of multiple correspondence analysis conducted on the Viking Age furnished
burials of northern England as part of a preliminary pilot study © Samuel Kinirons

Future Work

I have just completed the first year of my PhD. During the past year, I have conducted a review of the existing literature and gained specialist training in data management, GIS and statistical analysis. I have also undertaken a pilot study of the Viking Age furnished burials of northern England which has produced encouraging results. Going forward, I plan on expanding my database and begin to conduct my field surveys. This next phase of work will undoubtedly include an extensive period of time studying the Scottish burials.

Scotland contains the majority of the Viking Age furnished burials of Britain and Ireland, including some of the most spectacular examples, such as the boat burials at Kiloran on Colonsay and at Scar on Sanday, Orkney. The Scottish burials are also noteworthy since there is a higher proportion of furnished burials with oval brooches here than anywhere else on these islands (Wilson 1976, 99; Harrison 2008, 128). This regional trend is precisely the type of archaeological observable pattern that this PhD seeks to better understand. It is therefore envisaged that the Scottish burials will form a crucial part of this PhD. The opportunity provided by ScARF’s student bursary to attend the SIRFA symposium in Orkney and visit some of these sites was therefore greatly appreciated.

This PhD is funded by the Irish Research Council.

Drystone structures in a green, grassy area on top of a hill, overlooking the ocean, with large cliffs and hills off in the distance.
The setting of the Gurness brooch burial. The stone
cist is in the foreground © Samuel Kinirons


Barrett, J 2008 ‘The Norse in Scotland’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 411–427.

Barrett, J, Beukens, R, Simpson, I, Ashmore, P, Poaps, S, and Huntley, J 2000 ‘What Was the Viking Age and When did it Happen? A View from Orkney’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 33(1), 1–39.

Dumville, D N 2008 ‘Vikings in Insular chronicling’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 350–367.

Hadley, D M 2006 The Vikings in England: settlement, society and culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Halsall, G R W 2000 ‘The Viking presence in England?: The burial evidence reconsidered’ in Hadley, D and Richards, J (eds), Cultures in Contact, Turnhout: Brepols. 259–276.

Harrison, S H 2008 Furnished insular Scandinavian burial: artefacts & landscape in the early Viking age, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Dublin, Trinity College.

Harrison, S H and Ó Floinn, R 2014 Viking graves and grave-goods in Ireland, Dublin: National Museum of Ireland.

Jarman, C L, Biddle, M, Higham, T, and Ramsey, C B 2018 ‘The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel’, Antiquity 92(361), 183–199.

McGuire, E-L H 2010 Manifestations of identity in burial: evidence from Viking-Age graves in the North Atlantic diaspora, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Ó Corráin, D 2008 ‘The Vikings and Ireland’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 428–433.

Price, N 2008 ‘Dying and the dead: Viking Age mortuary behaviour’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 257–273.

Redmond, A Z 2007 Viking burial in the North of England: a study of contact, interaction and reaction between Scandinavian migrants with resident groups, and the effect of immigration on aspects of cultural continuity, Oxford: BAR Publishing.

Richards, J 2008 ‘Viking settlement in England’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 368–374.

Shetelig, H 1945 ‘The Viking Graves in Great Britain and Ireland’, Acta Archaeologica xvi, 1–55.

Wilson, D M 1976 ‘Scandinavian Settlement in the North and West of the British Isles: An Archaeological Point-of-View’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 26, 95–113.

Wilson, D M 2008 ‘The Isle of Man’ in Brink, S and Price, N (eds), The Viking World, London: Routledge, 385–390.