of Orkney's most important archaeological finds of the 20th century came to light
on the island of Sanday after a fearsome
In 1985, while walking along
the long, sandy shore at Scar, on the north-western coast of Sanday, a local farmer,
the late John Dearness, found a number of bones jutting out from an exposed
The ferocity of a storm, a few days
previously, had stripped away the side of the bank, revealing the bones. Lying
nearby was a small round lead object, about a quarter of an inch in diameter.
he had stumbled across the grave a sailor who had perished at sea, Mr
Dearness picked up the lead object and carried it home. After showing it to a
friend, they decided it was simply part of a car battery so it was placed in a
kitchen drawer, shut away and forgotten about.
lead object proved to be the key to an 1,100 year old mystery.
1991, after lying hidden for six years, the object was shown to visiting archaeologist,
Julie Gibson, who recognised it as a significant archaeological find.
object was taken back to Kirkwall where it was identified as a lead bullion weight
once used by Norse traders to weigh gold and silver on a balance scale.
the find, Julie Gibson returned to Sanday with Dr Raymond Lamb where they uncovered
a few rusty pieces of iron rivet at the site. The true significance
of Mr Dearness' chance discovery was rapidly becoming clear.
It looked as though
they had found a Viking boat burial.
instigated a frantic race against time.
notorious autumn storms - the Gore Vellye
- imminent, an urgent rescue mission had to be mounted before the storms that had
revealed the site, returned again and destroyed it.
Scotland acted quickly. A team of archaeologists was sent north to investigate
and record the discovery before the rest of the archaeological evidence was washed
away for ever.
Their efforts were soon rewarded when the
excavation uncovered a pagan Norse boat burial.
Boat to the Otherworld?
Although all wood of the boat had rotted away, the marks left in the sand by over 300 rusted
iron rivets marked out the shape of the vessel that had carried its occupants
to the Viking otherworld.
The 6.5 metre long
boat had been a wooden, plank-built, oared rowing boat of a type known as a faering,
but, by the time of the excavation, one side had already been washed away by the
The boat had been buried in a stone-lined pit - a pit, the excavations
revealed, had been dug too big. Because of this, the vessel had been packed
securely into position with stones.
A stone wall had been
built across the interior of the boat, forming a chamber of sorts and in this were the remains
of three people - a man, a woman and a child.
the human remains was a treasure trove of grave goods - objects that were included
to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. These objects were unparalleled
in Britain both in quality and state of preservation.
these discoveries was a decorated whalebone plaque
- now known as the Scar Plaque - and a gilded brooch. Beside the man was an iron
sword, a quiver containing eight arrows, a bone comb and a set of 22 gaming pieces.
the woman was a comb, a sickle, a weaving sword, shears and two spindle whorls.
the basis of these artefacts and later radio-carbon dating, the grave was dated
to between 875 AD and 950 AD.