Another Papay burial hints at possible viking cemetery

High hopes that well-preserved organic material could shed new light on Norse funerary practice

The outline of the pommel, hilt and crossguard of the viking sword, overlying a thigh bone, in the latest Papa Westray burial. (Julie Gibson)

The outline of the pommel, hilt and crossguard of the viking sword, overlying a thigh bone, in the latest Papa Westray burial.
(Julie Gibson)

The discovery of another viking burial in Papa Westray has archaeologists pondering whether they are now dealing with a cemetery.

The latest grave turned up earlier this month, and county archaeologist Julie Gibson, accompanied by Professor Jane Downes of the UHI Archaeology Institute, travelled out to the site last Monday.

Mrs Gibson explained: “The remains had been reported to us a few days before, so we made our way to Papay as soon as possible so that we could see what needed to be done.

“There’s at least one burial in a trench that had been dug to lay pipework.
“Some of the bones were rescued from the trench by the owner, the rest remain in situ.”

Because of the sensitive nature of the find, the exact location of the burial is not being released to the public, but preliminary investigations suggest the remains belonged to a large man, buried in what may be a crouched position, with a sword by his side.

The sword, which is a typical design of the period, places the burial firmly in the Viking Age. The grave also contained the remains of what appear to be a knife and possibly a broken spearhead.

The burial is the third to be found in the same area in recent months, but the second dating from the Viking Age.

It follows the discovery of a viking boat burial in April, which was subsequently excavated by AOC Archaeology Group, who are contracted by Historic Scotland to deal with human remains.

Prior to that, remains were found in adjacent sand dunes, but these have been dated to around 200AD — centuries before the arrival of the vikings.

“The fact that we now have a cluster of three burials in such a small area suggests there are more, and that the site may be a cemetery,” said Mrs Gibson. “We have examples from Pierowall, in Westray, which was excavated in the 19th century, and Westness, in Rousay, which was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Westness seems to parallel what we’re seeing in Papay — if we are dealing with a cemetery here, it seems, from the remains recovered so far, that it was also used in the late Iron Age, before being taking over by the vikings.”

Aside from the grave goods, of particular interest is that organic material has survived because of a combination of the sandy soil and waterlogged conditions.

In these conditions, where oxygen is excluded, preservation of organic materials is generally good. The absence of oxygen means the bacteria that break down organic remains cannot survive.

A scrap of finely-woven cloth was found alongside the man’s lower spine, and what could be the remains of a woollen garment.

Although perhaps not as glamorous as the jewellery and other high-status artefacts found at viking graves before, the organic finds are pure treasure to the archaeologists.

The cloth and wool hint that other textiles could have survived, and these, along with other organic material, could, using techniques not available in the late 20th century, shed a whole new light on viking burial practice.

Mrs Gibson said: “What we’ve now got is an opportunity to look at what happened when the vikings came here, and even how they interacted with the islanders.

“At Westness, for example, we were able to see that, when the vikings arrived, there was a clear, and definite, shift from Iron Age and Pictish burials to viking ones — there was no intermingling. That, in my view at least, indicates a replacement of population.

“The Papay remains may be able to give us information that backs up or contradicts that. There may have been different situations in different islands — who knows?”

“There’s a wealth of new archaeological techniques that can now be called upon to help piece together the story of the Papay viking. Going back to Westness, we know from isotope analysis of their teeth that some of those buried in Rousay had come from north of the Arctic Circle.

“All going well, we’ll be able to do the same with the Papay remains and see where our viking came from. Was he born in Orkney or from across the North Sea? Or somewhere else entirely?

“Bone analysis will speak volumes, not just his age and perhaps cause of death, but any diseases or trauma he suffered from and also his lifestyle and diet.

“Did he die of natural causes or come to a sticky end? And if we can extract DNA from the remains, we’ll be able to see whether there was any connection to persons buried in the nearby boat grave.”

She added: “We need to approach this carefully and methodically, as the information that could be gleaned from a thorough, scientific excavation could tell us lots about the circumstances of the burial.

“We could, for example, sieve the soil to look for organic material on the bottom of the grave. The presence of fly casts, for example, would tell us if the grave stood open, or whether it was immediately covered over.

“In terms of a Scottish viking site, it’s definitely up there at the top level of excitement and interest.”
In response to the urgency of the situation, a team from AOC Archaeology, sponsored by Historic Scotland, was due to arrive on site on Tuesday.

Mrs Gibson said: “I’m looking forward to what is to be a top-notch excavation, planned to extract as much data as is humanly possible.”

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