Rare Viking sword and scabbard found in Orkney burial

A weapon found in a burial in Orkney has been identified as a highly decorated 9th century Viking sword with a rare scabbard still attached. It was discovered in a 2015 excavation of the Mayback farm mound, and this year funding was secured for a detailed scientific analysis of the graves and their contents.

In March 2015, the owner of a farmstead on the northeast coast of Papa Westray, one of the North Isles of Orkney, came across human remains during home renovations and alerted county authorities. When the bones were confirmed to be human and ancient, archaeologists excavated the find site. The bones belonged to a simple grave dug into the sand. It was in crouch position on its right side and there were no surviving grave goods. Radiocarbon dating found the burial was from the Iron Age.

A month later, a Viking boat burial was found. It was a stone edged grave cut underneath a stone cairn. Organic materials from timber planks had stained the sand. Iron clench bolts and 200 iron fittings typical of clinker-built wooden boats indicate the presence of a boat, now decayed, that would have originally been about 16 feet long and 4.5 feet wide. It is one of only ten early Viking boat burials found on Orkney.

In August, a second grave richly furnished with weapons a few feet away from the first. Beneath the remains of a truncated rectangular stone cairn was a grave lined with slabs that had collapsed inward, covering the remains of the deceased. Despite the collapse, the skeletal remains were relatively well preserved, with only the feet heavily damaged. The body was buried in crouch position on its right side and a large iron sword laid across it, possibly still in a scabbard. An iron shield boss was found near the shoulder, indicating a wooden shield had been placed in the grave, leaving only the boss behind when the wood decomposed. Also buried in the grave with him was a spearhead or large knife, a group of iron arrowheads, some iron tools and some textiles. The type of burials and the artifacts inside the two graves indicated they belonged to first-generation Norwegian settlers.

Most of the Viking burials found on Orkney were excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century when archaeological practices were much cruder than they are now. The discovery of two important early graves gave archaeologists the opportunity to study graves from this period using the latest scientific methodologies, including DNA and strontium isotope analysis. The weapons were removed en bloc for meticulous cleaning and examining in laboratory conditions.

The bundle of arrowheads, which are still being excavated but it looks like there are about six of them, still have significant lengths of their wooden shafts attached. They have broad leaf-shaped blades likely used for hunting animals rather than battle and their position suggests they were placed in the grave in a quiver. They’re of a style produced in the 10th-11th centuries. An arrow bundle is an unusual find in a Viking grave. If any arrows at all are found, they’re usually individual deposits. Orkney, for some reason, has a bit of a concentration of quivers, with three of them found in Viking graves on the islands.

The sword was heavily corroded when found, and archaeologists are working so deliberately on the fragile artifact that they don’t know what the bottom looks like yet. To get a glimpse of the sword underneath all the rust concretions, the team used an X-ray. They identified the sword as Pedersen Type D, produced in the 9th century, and characterized by highly decorated hilts. The Mayback hilt is richly decorated with geometric design, a line of octagons that look like a honeycomb pattern with diamond-shaped accents.

X-rays also found that the a D-shaped buckle stuck to the sword by corrosion is an intricately decorated buckle in the Borre style, characterized by geometric shapes, interlacing design and stylized animal paws. The Borre style was widely manufactured in Scandinavia between around 850 and 950 A.D. Only 10 are known from Britain and Ireland, and this is one of only two known from Scotland.

Given very few Viking Age scabbards have survived, the Mayback example is a very important addition.

Most Viking Age scabbards are made up of an inverted fleece lining next to the blade. This would have been contained within a sheath made from thin lathes of wood, then bound – possibly with strips of a fine textile.

We know of at least 30 of these blades throughout the Viking world. Approximately half have been found in Norway, with others discovered as far west as Dublin, and as far east as Slovakia, Poland, and Russia.

However, the only other Type D sword is from the Isle of Eigg. That one was excavated in the 1830s.

The position of the sword within the Mayback burial is very unusual, as it was laid over top of the body with the hilt at the hip and the blade tip over the face, as opposed to the more common placement of the sword positioned alongside the body blade downwards.

Here is a 3D scan of the weapons burial: