The Vikings Part 2 – The Scar Boat Burial
One of Orkney’s most important archaeological finds of the 20th century came to light on the island of Sanday after a fearsome storm.
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 sandbank.
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.
Thinking 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.
This little lead object proved to be the key to an 1,100 year old mystery.
The Scar boat burial
In 1991, after lying hidden for six years, the object was shown to visiting archaeologist, Julie Gibson, who recognised it as a significant archaeological find.
The 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.
Excited by 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.
This instigated a frantic race against time.
With Orkney’s 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.
Historic 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 forever. Their efforts were soon rewarded when the excavation uncovered a pagan Norse boat burial.
Boat to the afterlife?
Although all the wooden structure had rotted away, the marks left in the sand by over 300 rusted iron rivets marked out the shape of the vessel which had been used for a boat burial.
The 6.5 metre long boat was a 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 fierce tides.
The boat had been buried in a stone-lined pit. The excavation revealed that the pit was too large and so 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.
Alongside 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.
Among these discoveries was a carved whale bone 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.
Alongside the woman was a comb, a sickle, a weaving sword, shears and two spindle whorls.
On the basis of these artefacts and later radiocarbon dating, the grave was dated to between 875 AD and 950 AD.