Powerful storms in Scotland have caused flooding along river flood plains and coastal regions revealing skeletal remains from a 1,500-year-old Viking burial site on the Orkney Islands. Residents and volunteers from across Orkney along with university students and staff have been consistently monitoring the situation so that the site does not get swept away by erosion.

Orkney Islands, an archipelago is famous for its best-preserved Neolithic burial sites situated on the northeastern coast of Scotland. Archaeologists from the University of Highlands & Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute, Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology together with a group of volunteers inspected the archaeological site at Newark Bay. The site is known to archaeologists for some time and about 50 years ago, 250 skeletons were removed from the site while hundreds are still thought to be buried there.

Residents and volunteers from across Orkney along with university students and staff have been consistently monitoring the situation so that the site does not get swept away by erosion. The landscape in the area mostly consists of soft boulder clay which is susceptible to erosion. According to the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), both structural and human remains have been lost in the decades since the Viking burial site was first excavated.

Viking burial site, a chapter in Scottish history

Archaeologists have shown a lot of interest in the Newark cemetery because it may contain insights on an important transitional period. The presence of Norse people on the islands is well documented—by the end of the ninth century, a Norse settlement was firmly established in the region—but the nature of the takeover is ambiguous.

From 550 to 1450 A.D., the cemetery shows 2 key periods of habitation on Orkney: first by Picts (confederation of tribes that once habited northern Scotland), and then by Norse Vikings, who colonized Orkney in the eighth century. No records left by ordinary Picts (who were colonized by the Vikings) exist, but Scandinavian sources propose that Orkney may have been abandoned by the time the invaders arrived or that it was violently disposed of its settlers. A lack of battle sites on the islands has led some to conclude that Orkney’s indigenous people integrated, relatively peacefully, into the culture of the colonizers. The Viking burial site at Orkney offers one of the few opportunities to understand a part of Scottish history.

The site is being threatened by erosion caused by storms which could erode this century-old cemetery in a matter of few years. To protect the site, sandbags and rocks are being used to slow down erosion, while covering exposed skeletal remains with clay. According to ORCA archaeologists, “The best method to protect skeletal remains is to remove them from the burial site after recording their positions.”

Landowner claying up on-site, to protect remains
Credit: Amanda Brend
Volunteers repairing damage to the sea defenses
Credit: Amanda Brend

While sandbags and rocks are not a permanent solution to the problem, it will slow down the rate of flooding and buy some time for archaeologists to collect and move the skeletal remains to a safe location. Apart from the conservation of the site, Historic Environment Scotland is funding a 3-year project to study the burial site and its remains. The project work is being undertaken by UHI Archaeology Institute and ORCA at Orkney College in Kirkwall and is led by a Steering Group made up of landowners, volunteers, ORCA archaeologists and Gail Drinkall of Orkney Museum.

The second and third year of the project will investigate the skeletal remains through genetic and other forms of analysis to determine as much as we can about the people buried there. The project will help in determining the little-understood Pictish/Viking transition in Orkney. A major exhibition at the Orkney museum will take place in the summer of 2022, which will showcase all the research findings.


Update from Newark, Orkney following Storms
Blog | February 28, 2020 | UHI Archaeology Institute, UK.

CITE THIS ARTICLE: "Violent storms unearth 1,500 years old Viking burial site," in Geoscience Daily, March 20, 2020, https://geosciencedaily.com/society/1500-years-old-viking-burial-site/.