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A Norse Age Boatman from Newark Bay

Theya Molleson
The Natural History Museum, London, SW7 5BD.


There is a remarkable skeleton excavated from the Norse Age cemetery at Newark Bay, Deerness, by DR Brothwell in the late 1960s (Brothwell and Krzanowski 1974). The morphology of the bones suggests a seaman who had suffered great physical hardship for his way of life. In the following description, the unusual features of the skeleton have been noted (Plate 1). An attempt is made to interpret them.

Plate 1

Plate 1. Some of 69/67A's bone anomalies, both normal variation and degenerative. Click the image for an enlarment and full details.

The remains of 69/67A comprise the skull and post-cranial skeleton of an old adult male.

At 1.749m he was above average height for an Orcadian male of the time. His teeth are extremely worn especially on the back molars (Pl. 1.1). In the lower jaw the second and third molars are more worn than the first (eg lower left M1: 5, M2: 5+, M3: 5+ on the Brothwell (1981) scale.

There are advanced degenerative changes to the cervical and lumbar vertebrae; also a detached neural arch, spondylolithesis, of the fifth lumbar vertebra (L5).

The sternum is very wide, expanded in the middle region (Pl. 1.2). The lateral condyles of the tibias at the knees are severely arthritic and eburnated - polished where bone has rubbed on bone (Pl. 1.3). Long-standing periostitis of the shins (tibias) suggests a general vitamin deficiency.

The most remarkable changes are to the arms. There is severe osteoarthrosis with eburnation of both shoulder (scapulo-humeral) joints (Pl. 1.4).

On both upper arm bones (humeri) there is a marked depression on the inner side below the humeral neck where the scapula impacted against the shaft (Pl. 1.5). The bone is extremely thin. This seems to be a constriction atrophy that can only have been made by intense pressure forcing the two bones together. Both arms are affected.

The wrists too are greatly affected; the distal ends of both radii are grossly eburnated (Pl. 1.6) as are the carpal bones of the right wrist (the left carpal bones are missing). The left wrist must have been severely wrenched at some time, dislocating the ulna, which became impacted in the radius shaft above the distal articulation (Pl. 1.7). The forearm bones of the left arm are shorter than those of the right (ulna 269, 275mm.; radius 251, 255mm.) but not wasted and the wrist appears to have been functional. The hand bones are very robust and strong (Pl. 1.8).


The morphological changes to the skeleton of 69/67A are twofold, those that developed while he was still growing; responses to his early lifestyle; and those pathological or degenerative changes acquired during his long life.

He must have been a seaman in his youth and learnt to row a boat. The sternum or breast bone is widened in the middle instead of being parallel sided, indicating development, from an early age, of the pectoralis major muscles of the upper chest.

As a whole pectoralis major takes an active part in the movements of adduction and medial rotation of the humerus, but the activity is only marked if resistance is to be overcome - as when rowing backwards. (The sternum is similarly widened in those who have had to use crutches habitually, like the Bronze Age woman from Jericho on display in the British Museum and the woman from Al- 'Ubaid who must have spent her life pounding a pestle and mortar (Molleson and Hodgson 2003).

Caissie in Use
Caisie being carried with straps outside the upper arms. Picture courtesy of Orkney Library Photographic Archive

This old man had advanced osteo-arthrosis of both shoulder joints with loss of articular cartilage and eburnation of the joint surfaces where bone had rubbed on bone. These long standing degenerative changes could be the consequence of the physically demanding lifestyle of a medieval boatman. In addition, the effect of a cord binding the arms to the body is seen.

The constant pressure of the glenoid joint of the scapula on the humerus shaft has led to a depression and loss of bone in the area below the humeral neck of both arms. Orcadians, until very recently, carried loads in a basket or caissie suspended from the back.

The holding straps were taken over, rather than under, the arms. Thus the upper arms were pinioned to the sides of the body, the fore arms were left free. In general, it was women who carried cassies in this manner (Plate 2).

A strong marine isotopic signal, in fact one of the highest recorded for Newark Bay, has been obtained from stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of the bones (Richards et al. in prep.). It indicates a significant fish component in 69/67A's food and is consistent with a seafarer's diet. As a fisherman he would have needed to help carry ashore the catch of fish, presumably in a cassie carried typically with the straps over the arms.

But whether the degenerative changes to his shoulders resulted merely from carrying a cassie wasn't at all clear without the evidence of the dental attrition (Pl. 1.1). The wear on the teeth is concentrated on the back molars, a reversal of the normal wear pattern. From this we can conclude that the teeth were subjected to something other than simple chewing, and that stress was exerted on individual molars.

Tooth to tooth contact from clenching the teeth to fix the jaw during forced exertion would lead to attrition of the back teeth. This implies that some great force was required to achieve his task. Attrition can become extreme from clenching the teeth during sustained exertion, for example when using a screwdriver.

The wear is angled because the clenching has a crushing action and there may be over-closure of the jaws causing wear on the cheek side of the lower molar teeth. Such a task could have been hauling a boat with the hauling rope tied across the shoulders to add the weight of the body rather than just the strength of the arms.

Plate 1
Plate 3. Burlaki hauling a boat up the Volga River as depicted by Ilya Repin 1874. The straps pass across the chest and over the arms, which are pinioned to the sides. The prow of the huge boat can just be seen on the extreme right.

As a seaman 69/67A could have travelled widely. In the Middle Ages links between Orkney and Norway , Iceland, Ireland and the Western Isles are revealed in artifacts found in Orkney. Trade routes extended eastwards to include the Volga River (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 26).

It seems perfectly possible that an Orcadian should travel east, following the trade route through the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Finland, thence to Staraya Ladoga, an important trading centre, and overland to the head of the Volga River (Graham-Campbell et al. 1994).

The greater part of the traffic was up the rivers towards the Baltic. For most rivers, which drained into the Baltic Sea , passage along them by laden boats did not present particular problems, but the Volga is one of the few rivers to flow south so that laden ships had to be hauled upstream to reach the Baltic. Formerly tens of thousands of burlaki were employed in dragging laden boats up the Volga and its tributaries.

The work of the burkali or barge haulers was notoriously hard. Illustrated by Ilya Repin in the nineteenth century the haulers were linked to the boat by means of a strap that passed over the arms, which were pinioned to the sides of the body (Plate 3). It would take many continuous hours of intense hauling for the atrophy of the bone seen in the upper arm bones of 69/67A to develop. It is also possible that 69/67A was a burlaki from the east who had 'retired' to Orkney.

The severe osteo-arthrosis of the knees may indicate how the hauling was achieved. The outer condyles are affected much more severely than the medial. An extreme weight-bearing strain must have been persistently levered against the knees. This could result from rolling from one side to the other with each pace taken.

The damage to the knees seems contrary to that which would be sustained in a normal fisherman's activity, arduous though it was. In rowing the weight of the body is used to drive the boat by pushing with the feet against a fixed board, with the knees as fulcrum. Specifically the strain should be imposed on the inner not the outer condyle of the knee. The detached neural arch of L5 is consistent with extreme loading of the spine.

The Norsemen often dragged boats overland. In western Scotland the isthmus of Kintyre, at Tarbert (gaelic: portage) is so narrow that ships were regularly hauled across the land (Graham-Campbell & Batey 1998, 86, 91).

The Orkneyinga Saga recounts how King Magnus Barelegs (1098-1103) was drawn across in a boat he himself holding the helm in order to claim the 'island' for Norway (Anderson 1975, 56). This would have been about 1098 AD. I doubt, however, if any individual ever had to haul boats across the isthmus so persistently or intensively as to result in the bone changes seen in 69/67A.

Plate 4. Bargemen hauling a boat up the River Thames depicted by Peter Tillemans (1720-25). The ropes pass across the chest and under the arms. The prow of the boat is on the right.

Although there are few if any illustrations before photography, carrying a caissie with the straps over the arms seems to have been a northern technique, mostly undertaken by women in the carrying of peats for example, and was extended to hauling. In historic times, teams of men dragged boats up the River Medway and the River Thames, but illustrations from the nineteenth century show that their hauling straps passed under the arms and the men hauling on the ropes rather like a tug-of-war but backwards (Plate 4).

At one time, probably while young and still growing, 69/67A had suffered a severe tension dislocation of the left forearm. The ulna bone was wrenched out of the joint to become impacted in the lower end of the radius.

A single unexpected sudden and severe jerk to the wrist could have resulted in the dislocation of the ulna from the radius. This is an unusual injury and happened presumably because the shoulders were fixed; in most circumstances the shoulder would have been dislocated. Such an injury could have occurred while launching a boat or hauling a net or a boat ashore if it suddenly stuck fast or dragged away.

The Bayeaux Tapestry illustrates how boats of the time were launched using a pulley system fixed to a post placed offshore (Plate 5).

The dislocation was never reduced but evidently the man still had to work with his wrists and a false joint developed between radius and ulna above the wrist bones. The degree of eburnation, of the carpal bones is a testament to the amount of movement of the joints that he continued to make.


Plate 5

Plate 5. Detail from the Bayeaux tapestry (11th century) showing a boat being launched using a pully system from a post placed offshore.

A medieval Norseman from Orkney, 69/67A, has been identified as a seaman from the morphology of the bones of his post-cranial skeleton. He could have been a fisherman who not only rowed and hauled in heavy nets but also carried home his catch in a cassie.

The changes to his skeleton, however, are so severe as to suggest that his arms were pinioned to his body for many hours a day and that rather than merely carrying a heavy cassie he hauled a great load for so long that he sustained constriction atrophy of his upper arm bones.

Such an activity would be consistent with the unusual dislocation of the arm bones at the wrist, rather than the shoulder, the shoulder being fixed.

It seems perfectly possible that an Orcadian should travel east, following the trade route through the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Finland, and overland to the head of the Volga River (Graham-Campbell et al. (1994).

If this interpretation of the bone morphologies, both normal variant and pathological or degenerative, seen in 69/67A is tenable then we have an insight into the techniques of hauling and carrying in medieval northern Europe. And evidence that oarsmen rowed with their backs to the direction of travel.


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  • Molleson, TI and Hodgson, D 2003 The Human Remains from Woolley's Excavations at Ur . Iraq , 65, 91-129.

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