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Storms In Scotland Unearth Viking Skeletons

Storms In Scotland Unearth Viking Skeletons



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Fierce storms ravaging Orkney, an island group in the far north of Scotland famous for its Neolithic standing stone circles and burial tombs, have unearthed hundreds of ancient human bones in what is now a coastal cemetery dating back 1,500 years ago, to Pictish and Viking times.

At the Newark Bay cemetery, above a beach on the Orkney Islands, archaeologists are being helped by local volunteers to pile sandbags and clay against the exposed coastline in an effort to protect the unearthed human remains. In the 9th century, Norse Vikings settled on the islands and replaced the dominance of the Picts and this cemetery holds the remains of both cultures. But Peter Higgins, of the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology ( ORCA), part of the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands told Live Science that the recent storms are causing the sea to “eat away at the low cliff where the ancient cemetery lies.”

Volunteers repairing damage to the Viking burial ground. (Amanda Brend / ORCA)

Battling Nature’s Wrath To Save The Skeletons

Orkney is perhaps best known for its prehistoric village Skara Brae, or Maes Howe passage tomb and the standing stone settings of Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, all dating to around 3,000 BC. However, the Newark Bay site was first excavated in the 1960s and 1970s by British archaeologist Don Brothwell and representatives of the Archaeology Institute said in a statement in Archaeology Orkney : that the immediate concern is the vulnerability of the remaining graves to flooding and damage from Orkney storms battering the soft sandstone cliff with “enormous waves and storm surges.”

The Ring of Brodgar with Loch of Harray in the background at Mainland, Orkney Islands, Scotland. ( Manel Vinuesa / Adobe stock)

Higgins also told Live Science that in the initial excavations in the 60s and 70s around 250 skeletons were removed from the cemetery, and nobody knows how far back the graveyard extends from the beach, so this ancient site might hold many more human remains as: “hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are thought to be buried there still,” Higgins added.

Protecting Clues That Might Answer a Historic Problem

The exposed human bones are being covered with clay or removed after their positions are mapped and recorded, but the scientists are still unclear if the newly exposed bones are those of Picts or Vikings as no grave goods or clothing has been found. The relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands is debated among scholars with some thinking the Norse took over by force while others maintain they settled, traded and possibly even intermarried with the Picts. And according to Higgins the Viking burial ground at Newark Bay might just answer that question.

Reconstructed grave from a Viking burial ground in Orkney. An exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland. (Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Scotsman reports that the first Norse immigrants to Orkney settled there in the late 8th-century fleeing an emerging new monarchy in Norway and the islands had become a Norwegian earldom by the late in the 9th-century. One of the most interesting features in the early Norse arrivals in Scotland are Viking ‘ things’ - ancient tribal governmental assemblies consisting of influential people from Norse communities.

Things Suggest Invasion and Domination

In pre-Christian Germanic Scandinavia the most popular method of conflict resolution was feuding, and things managed potentially escalating tribal feuds to avoid social disorder. According to Dr. Sanmark’s 2009 paper, “ The Case of the Greenlandic Assembly Sites published in the Journal of the North Atlantic, ‘ things’ served Norse communities as forums for conflict resolution, including the negotiation of tribal alliances through marriage and they settled inheritance disputes.

All across Scandinavia and Britain things were built at man-made ancestral burial mounds and outdoor locations with abundance of natural power, for example, the Alþingi (” Althing”) national parliament of Iceland founded in AD 930 at Þingvellir (“ assembly fields ”,) situated 45 kilometers (28 mi) east of the modern capital city, Reykjavík.

On Orkney, the first of two Viking things was “ Dingieshowe,” which is located in the east of Mainland on the border between the parishes of Deerness and St Andrews and it was built upon a “ Pictish broch ” that had been built around 300 BC, which itself was built on a Neolithic site dating to 3000 BC years ago. “ Tingwall” is in the west of Mainland Orkney on the border between the parishes of Rendall and Evie, and just like Dingieshowe, this thing was built on the grassy ruins of another Iron Age broch.

Dingieshowe beach in Orkney near to where the Viking thing was found. (Fabio Sassi / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

And on mainland Scotland, “ The History of Things reports that evidence of a medieval Norse thing has been found at an archaeological site in the Scottish Highlands, located about one mile north of Thurso in Caithness. And a recent geophysics survey of the site revealed, again, “ Thing's Va” was an Iron Age broch, a vast stone-built roundhouse, upon which the Viking assembly (things) was created. In conclusion, all three Norse things were built on Pictish brochs, which suggests the Vikings invaded and ‘took over’ the north of Scotland.

  • Millennium Old Structure Unearthed at Medieval Pictish Fort in Scotland
  • More than Blood and Bling: Our Many Visions of the Vikings
  • 1,400-year-old Pictish Remains Finally Unearthed in Scotland

Answers From Newark Bay Cemetery Perhaps?

The new scientific study of bones from the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay might shine further light on the transitionary period from Pictish to Norse domination on the Orkney Islands. According to Higgins, the site presents “one of the few opportunities we've got to investigate that [transition].”

But like in most modern archaeological investigations, the answers are expected to come from genetic testing of the ancient bones, which as a side result might also show modern folk on Orkney are descended from the people who lived and died on their wind and storm torn island over 1,000 years ago, and whether those origins were Pictish or Norse.


Archaeologists Claim Possible Remains of Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson

Scottish archaeologists have proposed a theory that outlines the possibility that an excavated skeleton is that of Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson. The skeleton was unearthed in Auldhame in East Lothian during a 2005 dig conducted by the AOC Archaeology Group.

Remains of the skull possibly belong to Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson.

Archaeologists point to the artifacts uncovered along with the skeleton as indications that the bones may be those of the 10th century Viking king. One artifact in particular, a belt buckle like those popular in Viking controlled Ireland, is seen as an indication that the burial was for a person of high rank who probably spent time in the royal household of the Uí Ímar dynasty. This particular dynasty was dominant on both sides of the Irish sea during the early decades of the 10th century.

Definitive identification of the remains as belonging to Guthfrithsson may be impossible, as there are no known living descendants with which to compare DNA evidence. Archaeologists are still confident that location of the remains, the date of the burial, and the artifacts that were buried with the body all add up to a conclusion that “this death was connected with Olaf’s attack on the locale.”

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, examines the belt buckle unearthed with the Viking skeleton.

Olaf Guthfrithsson was a Viking king during the Uí Ímar dynasty known to have led a sack of both Auldhame and Tyninghame, two cities that were part of a church complex in East Lothian. Guthfrithsson had once sat as the King of York before being forced out by the Saxon King Æthelstan in 927. He became king of Dublin and Northumbria in 934 and subsequently participated in a Viking raid that attempted to retake York from Æthelstan, a campaign that culminated in the Battle of of Brunaburh in 934. The Annals of Ulster had this to say in describing the English victory:

A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Northmen, in which several thousands of Northmen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king Amlaib [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.


Ancient Viking Cemetery Exposed by Powerful Storm

An ancient Viking cemetery on a Scottish island is under threat from the elements. Archaeologists usually excavate the bodies, but weather is now playing a dramatic role in exposing the entire cemetery on Newark Bay in the Orkney Islands.

Recent storms have literally been making waves. Buoyed by south-easterly winds, these have been taking their toll on a soft sandstone cliff where the graveyard is found. As a result bones are starting to stick out after being exposed and, like something out of a Ray Harryhausen movie, some are falling down onto the beach.

Location of the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right CC by 3.0

Looking after the site – which dates back to the mid-6th century – is a team effort, involving both experts and residents. ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology) are working alongside the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Volunteers also pitch in.

Archaeologists and volunteers working to preserve the Viking bones exposed by recent storms.
(Image: © ORCA Archaeology)

A combination of clay, to cover any bones sticking out, and sandbags has been deployed thus far. Archaeology Orkney released a statement on their website, saying “We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term, but they provide some protection, and as soon as the weather makes it safe to replace and secure them again, we’ll put out a shout for help.” Newark is partly composed of soft boulder clay, meaning the island is prone to landslides. Authorities are advising caution at all times.

The cemetery dates back almost 1,500 years and was used for almost 1,000 years. (Image credit: ORCA Archaeology)

The size of the Viking cemetery has yet to be determined, though hundreds are thought to have been laid to rest. ORCA’s Peter Higgins commented to STV that “although its physical extent is not known, it is thought to be extensive.” The location was in use for around a thousand years (550 AD – 1450 AD) and has many secrets yet to reveal.

So who is buried in the Viking cemetery? The tribal Picts were native to the area but received guests – unwanted or otherwise – in the form of Vikings. They’re believed to have landed there in the late 8th century and evidence of them exists up until the 15th.

The site could reveal clues to the cultural transition from Pictish to Norse domination of the Orkney Islands. (Image credit: ORCA Archaeology)

“The islands became a Norwegian earldom late in the ninth century,” writes Live Science, “and they remain the region of the British Isles that is most influenced by Norse culture.”

During the 1960s and 70s British archaeologist Don Brothwell removed approx 250 skeletons, which ended up at London’s Natural History Museum and Kirkwall’s Orkney Museum. The precious finds are being genetically tested to determine what relationship the 2 groups had with each other.

“No records left by ordinary Picts who were colonized by the Vikings exist,” writes Smithsonian Magazine, “but Scandinavian sources suggest that Orkney may have been deserted by the time the invaders arrived—or, alternatively, that it was violently purged of its inhabitants.” It’s also feasible the Picts and Vikings lived in relative harmony.

Historic Environment Scotland have supplied funds for a 3 year program, so questions may finally be answered. Archaeology Orkney explains that “Years 2 and 3 of the project will be examining in depth the human remains, completing DNA analysis and other work to determine as much as we can about the many folk buried there.”

It isn’t just bones that are found on Newark. The Orkney Islands in general has a rich archaeological backstory. Among the treasures there are 13 burial mounds that comprise the Ring of Brodgar (3,000 BC). 2016 saw a Pictish stone revealed by the elements, and going forward in time a 17th century manor house stood proudly on Newark before the weather did its worst.

Like many, Higgins is concerned about the tight time frame organizations have to complete the work. Quoted by STV, he says the coastline is “under constant threat from storm surges and huge waves blowing in from the North Sea”, adding that “with the continual procession of bad weather we have experienced in the past few months, the site is under constant threat of further destruction – revealing more human remains as each storm passes.”

Things could all be over for the Picts and Vikings within months. Conditions have reportedly calmed, with snow taking the place of waves. However, as history has shown, powerful forces have a habit of changing the game whether players are ready or not…


U.K. Storms Unearth Bones From Historic Scottish Cemetery—and Archaeologists Are Worried

A series of storms battering the United Kingdom recently unearthed human bones from a 1,500-year-old cemetery on the Orkney Islands, an archipelago that sits off the northeastern coast of Scotland. Normally, this would spark interest among archaeologists. But as STV News reports, experts are now racing to stop the site from being entirely swept away.

The cemetery sits on the coastal site of Newark Bay and has been known to archaeologists for some time. According to Tom Metcalfe of Live Science, 250 skeletons were removed from the site 50 years ago hundreds more are still thought to be buried there.

In use from at least 550 to 1450 A.D., the cemetery covers two key periods of habitation on Orkney: first by the Picts, a confederation of tribes that once dominated northern Scotland, and then by Norse Vikings, who began to colonize Orkney in the eighth century.

Soft boulder clay makes up the landscape along this windswept coast, and erosion due to the elements is an ongoing concern. According to the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), both structural and human remains have been lost in the decades since the site was first excavated.

“[W]ith the continual procession of bad weather we have experienced in the past few months, the site is under constant threat of further destruction,” explains Pete Higgins, senior project manager at ORCA, to STV News.

The human remains revealed by recent storms will be collected and moved to a safe location. Local volunteers, along with staff and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands, are keeping an eye on the cemetery and have laid sandbags to prevent further flooding.

“We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term,” says the university in a statement, “but they provide some protection.”

Archaeologists are particularly interested in the Newark cemetery because it may hold 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 area—but the nature of the takeover is unclear.

No records left by ordinary Picts who were colonized by the Vikings exist, but Scandinavian sources suggest that Orkney may have been deserted by the time the invaders arrived—or, alternatively, that it was violently purged of its inhabitants. A lack of battle sites on the islands, however, has led some to conclude that Orkney’s indigenous peoples integrated, relatively peacefully, into the culture of the colonizers.

The cemetery offers “one of the few opportunities we’ve got to investigate” this little-understood chapter of Scottish history, Higgins tells Live Science. Last year, ORCA announced that it had secured funding to study the hundreds of skeletons that have already been extracted from the cemetery—a project that will include genetic testing of the bones.

Salvaging the site from further erosion continues to be a priority. Efforts have involved bolstering the area with sandbags and rocks, as well as covering exposed bones with clay to protect them. Sometimes, Higgins tells Live Science, the best way to safeguard the skeletal remains is to remove them from the site after recording their position. Without ongoing work to protect it, says Higgins to STV News, this centuries-old cemetery could disappear “within a few short years.”


DNA Sequencing Reveals Vikings Are Not Scandinavian, Contrary to What History Books Say

The world’s largest-ever DNA sequencing of over 400 Viking skeletons from excavations all over Europe and Greenland just revealed that the fearsome blonde and blue-eyed Vikings in history books were not Scandinavians at all.

Researchers from St John’s College, University of Cambridge conducted the study. They were led by Professor Eske Willerslev, director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen.

For this study, archaeologists sequenced the DNA of 422 Viking Age men, women, children, and babies. They found out that the Viking warriors had “high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry”.

10th or 11th century A.D. Ridgeway Hill mass grave on the crest of Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth.

According to Willerslev, the modern imagery of blonde and blue-eyed Viking warriors of Scandinavian heritage were suggested by history books and television, but “genetically we have shown [with this study] for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world.”

Instead, the study proves that these fearsome seafarers had genes influenced by those from Asia and Southern Europe before it flowed to Scandinavia and other Northern European countries before the Viking Age.

Viking Age archaeological site in Varnhem, Skara (Sweden). Map of church foundation (left) and excavated graves (red marks) in Christian cemetery in Varnhem foundations of a stone church in Varnhem (middle).

The study also suggested that the Viking groups were more independent of each other. Genetic differences among the different Viking populations in Scandinavia suggested that trading communities from the coastal areas had more genetic diversity compared with those from inland Scandinavia.

The remains of a 182-cm-tall male individual (no. 17) buried in a lime stone coffin close to the church foundations near an early Christian cemetery in Varnhem (Sweden).

They also compared the ancient Scandinavian genes to modern-day genes and found the Viking raid-and-trade routes. This revealed that Vikings from Denmark moved to England. Those from Sweden went east. The Vikings from Norway had travel routes headed to Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and the Isle of Man.

A Viking burial site: an oak ship at Balladoole, south east of the Isle of Man.

Some excavation sites also offered unique cultural tidbits. In Estonia, there was a two-boat burial site which may be the earliest evidence of a Viking voyage. It housed the remains of 41 men with similar genes who died violently. All had “high-status” weapons which suggest that raiding may have been a family or local activity.

Salme II ship burial site excavated in Estonia. Schematic of skeletons (top left) and aerial images of skeletons (top right, and bottom).

Another excavation site revealed that not every person buried as a Viking was genetically a Viking. In Orkney, Scotland, the researchers found two male skeletons in a Viking burial site with genes similar to modern-day Irish and Scottish people. The men had swords and other Viking items, but they were not Vikings.

If you wish to read more about this, the findings of this research is on the September issue of the journal Nature.

Meanwhile, you can watch this video and see if what you knew about the fearsome seafarers who raided and pillaged their way across Europe and America were correct.


World's largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons reveals they weren't all Scandinavian

An artistic reconstruction of 'Southern European' Vikings emphasising the foreign gene flow into Viking Age Scandinavia. Credit: Jim Lyngvild

Invaders, pirates, warriors—the history books taught us that Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

Now cutting-edge DNA sequencing of more than 400 Viking skeletons from archaeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland will rewrite the history books as it has shown:

  • Skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings actually had brown hair not blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. The study shows the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.
  • The genetic legacy in the UK has left the population with up to six percent Viking DNA.

The six-year research project, published in Nature today, debunks the modern image of Vikings and was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen.

He said: "We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books—but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn't that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was—no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age."

The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term 'vikingr' meaning 'pirate'. The Viking Age generally refers to the period from A.D. 800, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great became the King of England, Leif Eriksson is believed to have been the first European to reach North America—500 years before Christopher Columbus—and Olaf Tryggvason is credited with taking Christianity to Norway. Many expeditions involved raiding monasteries and cities along the coastal settlements of Europe but the goal of trading goods like fur, tusks and seal fat were often the more pragmatic aim.

Professor Willerslev added: "We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed. Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia."

DNA from a female skeleton named Kata found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. Credit: Västergötlands Museum

The team of international academics sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries. They analysed the DNA from the remains from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four Viking brothers died the same day. The scientists have also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

There wasn't a word for Scandinavia during the Viking Age—that came later. But the research study shows that the Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. The Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all male 'raiding parties'.

Dr. Ashot Margaryan, Assistant Professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen and first author of the paper, said: "We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age. The results were startling and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

"We discovered that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden."

DNA from the Viking remains were shotgun sequenced from sites in Greenland, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: "We found that Vikings weren't just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before. Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe."

The team's analysis also found that genetically Pictish people 'became' Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians. The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Credit: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

Dr. Daniel Lawson, lead author from The University of Bristol, explained: "Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway. This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging."

The Viking Age altered the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe in ways that are still evident today in place names, surnames and modern genetics.

Professor Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who collaborated on the ground-breaking paper, explained: "Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Importantly our results show that 'Viking' identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied."

Assistant Professor Fernando Racimo, also a lead author based at the GeoGenetics Centre in the University of Copenhagen, stressed how valuable the dataset is for the study of the complex traits and natural selection in the past. He explained: This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2,000 years of European history. The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism. We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today."

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today with six percent of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10 percent in Sweden.

Professor Willeslev concluded: "The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated."


Skeleton discovered may be Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson

The hypothesis – which will be published next year by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in a book funded by Historic Scotland – was revealed as Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs today visited Newgrange, a Neolithic monument in County Meath, to highlight archaeological links between Scotland and Ireland.

The remains, which were excavated by AOC Archaeology Group at Auldhame in East Lothian in 2005, are those of a young adult male who was buried with a number of items indicating his high rank. These include a belt similar to others from Viking Age Ireland.

This artefact signals that the body was that of a man who may have spent time in the household of the kings of the Uí Ímar dynasty which dominated both sides of the Irish Sea from about 917 until at least the middle of the 10th century.

Olaf Guthfrithsson sacked Auldhame and nearby Tyninghame – both part of a complex of East Lothian churches dedicated to the eighth-century Saint Balthere – shortly before his death in 941, and the proximity of the burial to the site of the conflict along with the high-status items found with the body, and the age of the skeleton, has led archaeologists and historians to speculate that it may be that of the young Irish king or one of his followers.

In the absence of known living descendants, DNA analysis cannot be carried out to confirm the identity of the body, leaving archaeologists and historians to rely on circumstantial evidence to reach their hypothesis.

Olaf Guthfrithsson was a member of the Uí Ímar dynasty. In 937 he defeated his Norse rivals in Limerick, and pursued his family claim to the throne of York. He married the daughter of King Constantine II of Scotland and allied himself with Owen I of Strathclyde.

A seminar will take place at Edinburgh Castle on 30 October 2014 to look at archaeological collaboration between Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The day will be a chance for those involved in archaeological research and management to look at opportunities for greater collaboration between the countries.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs said: “This is a fascinating discovery and it’s tantalising that there has been the suggestion that this might be the body of a 10th century Irish Viking king. Scotland and Ireland’s archaeological communities enjoy a close working partnership, and this find and subsequent research is of particular interest to both, further emphasising the myriad ways in which the two countries’ histories are entwined.”

Dr Alex Woolf, senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, and a historical consultant on the project said: “Whilst there is no way to prove the identity of the young man buried at Auldhame, the date of the burial and the equipment make it very likely that this death was connected with Olaf’s attack on the locale.

Since we have a single furnished burial in what was probably perceived as St Balthere’s original foundation there is a strong likelihood that the king’s followers hoped that by burying him in the saint’s cemetery he might have benefitted from some sort of post-mortem penance.”


Sweeping DNA Survey Highlights Vikings’ Surprising Genetic Diversity

The term “Viking” tends to conjure up images of fierce, blonde men who donned horned helmets and sailed the seas in longboats, earning a fearsome reputation through their violent conquests and plunder.

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But a new study published in the journal Nature suggests the people known as Vikings didn’t exactly fit these modern stereotypes. Instead, a survey deemed the “world’s largest-ever DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons” reinforces what historians and archaeologists have long speculated: that Vikings’ expansion to lands outside of their native Scandinavia diversified their genetic backgrounds, creating a community not necessarily unified by shared DNA.

As Erin Blakemore reports for National Geographic, an international team of researchers drew on remains unearthed at more than 80 sites across northern Europe, Italy and Greenland to map the genomes of 442 humans buried between roughly 2400 B.C. and 1600 A.D.

The results showed that Viking identity didn’t always equate to Scandinavian ancestry. Just before the Viking Age (around 750 to 1050 A.D.), for instance, people from Southern and Eastern Europe migrated to what is now Denmark, introducing DNA more commonly associated with the Anatolia region. In other words, writes Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica, Viking-era residents of Denmark and Sweden shared more ancestry with ancient Anatolians than their immediate Scandinavian predecessors did.

Other individuals included in the study exhibited both Sami and European ancestry, according to the New York Times’ James Gorman. Previously, researchers had thought the Sami, a group of reindeer herders with Asiatic roots, were hostile toward Scandinavians.

“These identities aren’t genetic or ethnic, they’re social,” Cat Jarman, an archaeologist at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo who wasn’t involved in the new research, tells Science magazine’s Andrew Curry. “To have backup for that from DNA is powerful.”

Overall, the scientists found that people who lived in Scandinavia exhibited high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, pointing to a continuous exchange of genetic information across the broader European continent.

Contrary to popular belief, Vikings weren't simply blonde, seafaring Scandinavians. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to comparing samples collected at different archaeological sites, the team drew comparisons between historical humans and present-day Danish people. They found that Viking Age individuals had a higher frequency of genes linked to dark-colored hair, subverting the image of the typical light-haired Viking.

“It’s pretty clear from the genetic analysis that Vikings are not a homogenous group of people,” lead author Eske Willerslev, director of the University of Copenhagen’s Center of Excellence GeoGenetics, tells National Geographic. “A lot of the Vikings are mixed individuals.”

He adds, “We even see people buried in Scotland with Viking swords and equipment that are genetically not Scandinavian at all.”

The ongoing exchange of goods, people and ideas encouraged Vikings to interact with populations across Europe—a trend evidenced by the new survey, which found relatively homogenous genetic information in Scandinavian locations like mid-Norway and Jutland but high amounts of genetic heterogeneity in trade hubs such as the Swedish islands of Gotland and Öland.

Per the Times, the researchers report that Vikings genetically similar to modern Danes and Norwegians tended to head west on their travels, while those more closely linked to modern Swedes preferred to journey eastward. Still, exceptions to this pattern exist: As Ars Technica notes, Willerslev and his colleagues identified an individual with Danish ancestry in Russia and a group of unlucky Norwegians executed in England.

The study also shed light on the nature of Viking raids. In one Estonian burial, the team found four brothers who’d died on the same day and were interred alongside another relative—perhaps an uncle, reports the Times. Two sets of second-degree kin buried in a Danish Viking cemetery and a site in Oxford, England, further support the idea that Viking Age individuals (including families) traveled extensively, according to National Geographic.

“These findings have important implications for social life in the Viking world, but we would've remained ignorant of them without ancient DNA,” says co-author Mark Collard, an archaeologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, in a statement. “They really underscore the power of the approach for understanding history."

About Tara Wu

Tara Wu is an editorial intern with Smithsonian magazine. She is a senior at Northwestern University, where she will major in journalism and environmental science.


Storms In Scotland Unearth Viking Skeletons - History

Invaders, pirates, warriors – the history books taught us that Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

Now cutting-edge DNA sequencing of more than 400 Viking skeletons from archaeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland will rewrite the history books as it has shown:

  • Skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings actually had brown hair not blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. The study shows the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.
  • The genetic legacy in the UK has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA.

The six-year research project, published in Nature today (16 September 2020), debunks the modern image of Vikings and was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Credit: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

He said: “We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was – no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term ‘vikingr’ meaning ‘pirate’. The Viking Age generally refers to the period from A.D. 800, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great became the King of England, Leif Eriksson is believed to have been the first European to reach North America – 500 years before Christopher Columbus - and Olaf Tryggvason is credited with taking Christianity to Norway. Many expeditions involved raiding monasteries and cities along the coastal settlements of Europe but the goal of trading goods like fur, tusks and seal fat were often the more pragmatic aim.

Professor Willerslev added: “We didn’t know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed. Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”

“Our research debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia”

The team of international academics sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries. They analysed the DNA from the remains from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four Viking brothers died the same day. The scientists have also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

There wasn’t a word for Scandinavia during the Viking Age - that came later. But the research study shows that the Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. The Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all male ‘raiding parties’.

An artistic reconstruction of ‘Southern European’ Vikings emphasising the foreign gene flow into Viking Age Scandinavia detected in the study. Credit: Jim Lyngvild

Dr Ashot Margaryan, Assistant Professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen and first author of the paper, said: “We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age. The results were startling and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

“We determined that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden.”

DNA from the Viking remains were shotgun sequenced from sites in Greenland, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: “We found that Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before. Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe.”

The team’s analysis also found that genetically Pictish people ‘became’ Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians. The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

Dr Daniel Lawson, lead author from The University of Bristol, explained: “Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway. This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging.”

The Viking Age altered the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe in ways that are still evident today in place names, surnames and modern genetics.

Professor Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who collaborated on the ground-breaking paper, explained: “Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Importantly our results show that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied.”

DNA from a female skeleton named Kata found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. Credit: Västergötlands museum

Assistant Professor Fernando Racimo, also a lead author based at the GeoGenetics Centre in the University of Copenhagen, stressed how valuable the dataset is for the study of the complex traits and natural selection in the past. He explained: This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2,000 years of European history. The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism. We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today.”

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today with six per cent of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10 per cent in Sweden.

Professor Willeslev concluded: “The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated.”


Viking Scotland

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightening storms and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on the 8 th of June the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”

Lindisfarne, the Holy Island

Lindisfarne Priory The year was 793. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies of the northeast coast of modern England, but in the 8 th century it was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a territory that stretched from Yorkshire to Edinburgh. Earlier, in 635 a mission from the Abbey of Iona in the west of Scotland, led by St Aiden, established a monastery on the tidal island and it became the evangelical centre for the Celtic Church in this powerful Anglo-Saxon realm. It would be home to the famous St Cuthbert, and was where the historian, the Venerable Bede would write his chronicles.

Medieval monasteries were beacons of light during the Dark Ages places of learning and study, religious teaching and seats of subtle political power. As such they were patronised by kings, gaining vast revenues and lands as a consequence. Many were laden with gold and silver, while others held priceless treasures like manuscripts and saintly relics. Poorly defended, and often coastal, they were soft targets for anyone raiding from the sea and with the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 by the Norse a new chapter in Scotland’s story was begun – the Age of the Vikings.

The Age of the Vikings

Scandinavia in the middle ages was a patchwork quilt of semi-kingdoms, ruled over by opportunistic warlords. Like most of northern Europe its economy was based on farming and fishing but unlike the rest of the continent the Norse hadn’t yet converted to Christianity and this hampered trade relations with traditional markets. This in turn may have precipitated the dramatic development in sea craft and boat building techniques allowing them access to new markets. A population expansion at home seems also to have placed pressures on resource availability, especially along the fjord coast of Norway which in turn led to a period of instability. This, plus a myriad of reasons collective and personal, resulted in raiding parties crossing the North Sea by the end of the 8 th century.

These fierce raiders were known as ‘Vikings’ a Norse verb that meant literally to ‘go raiding’ the raiders themselves were the Vikingr. The Vikings don’t relate to a specific ethnic group, rather it describes the activity and those doing it. However, in the British Isles the term became synonymous with the Scandinavian people generally. Over the course of the next 500 years the Viking Norse would extend their rule and influence from Moscow to Africa, Ireland to North America but the main group to affect Scotland were the Norwegians. The story of the Vikings in Scotland is complex and changes through time and space, and coincided with the formation of the early Kingdoms of Scotland and Norway. There were various stages from raiding to conquest, from settlement and integration to collapse and withdrawal, but the legacy is massive and the influence reaches to our own time.

The Viking influence in Europe Following the surprise attack on Lindisfarne in 793 the Vikings then hit the mother abbey on Iona itself a year later wreaking havoc. Iona was part of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dalriada, which was itself a subordinate realm to the Kingdom of the Picts in the east and north. It was unable to cope, or come to Iona’s defence, and so the Vikings came again and again, including the great slaughter of the monks in 806.

Dalriada had once been an extensive sea kingdom, linking the coastline of Argyll with the fertile lands of Ulster through a network of islands and sea lanes and the Viking warlords saw the true potential here of combining their nautical abilities with this natural crossroads. They had already established a strong bridgehead and base on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Hebrides would provide them with a fertile platform to continue their raiding into the Irish Sea and to Ireland itself. The west coast landscape of island and fjord was also similar to their homeland, which must have been a further attractive feature in securing this area.

Fjords of Scotland – so similar to Norway Throughout the first half of the 9 th century more and more Norsemen, and women, were settling out the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland in some cases replacing the local population and removing all trace of native languages. These were no longer the wild warriors coming in on the morning tide, pillaging and heading home. These people were here to stay. This created tensions with rulers in the rest of the country. In 839 a Norse army defeated a combined Gaelic-Pictish army somewhere in central Scotland: a disaster that allowed the MacAlpine dynasty to fill the vacuum created and forge a union between Dalriada and Pictland to form Alba, the embryonic Scotland.

Unification was also sweeping across Scandinavia. In the 870s Harald Finehair consolidated the various Norwegian estates into one single kingdom and in 875 he annexed Orkney, Shetland and the Hebridean Islands to his crown. The greatest hour of the Viking Age in Scotland was dawning. Orkney was raised to a great earldom, befitting its prized strategic location, and under the rule of powerful earls it was at times semi-autonomous, extending its authority all the way down the west of Scotland to the Isle of Man. The Hebrides were more of a loose confederation, nominally controlled by Norway, but often pulled between the lordships of Man and Orkney. Yet the islands of Argyll, particularly Islay played a significant role as a base by which the Norse could shore up their rule in Ireland and launch attacks on Alba.

By the 10 th century the Norse throughout the Hebrides and parts of the Mainland had settled, intermarried, exchanged language and culture and had become the native stock known as the Norse-Gaels. To the Irish and the Gaelic speakers of the Highlands they were the Gall-Ghàidheil, or the ‘foreign Gaels’. Even today the Hebrides are known as Innse Gall in Gaelic, meaning the ‘Islands of the foreigners’. This mixed group were clearly seen as being of different heritage and language and contemporary chroniclers in Ireland and England identified them as a population differing from the Gaels and Norwegians equally. This enigmatic group are the ancestors of the Gaelic speaking Hebridean peoples today.

By comparison, the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland were fully Norse in manner, custom and law having been thoroughly settled from early on, and by the middle of the 10 th century the mighty Earldom of Orkney included large tracts of mainland Scotland as well. This was the high water mark of Viking Scotland. In the south a new star was rising.

Throughout the 9 th and 10 th centuries the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England had toppled like dominoes to the Viking Danes, who established a huge empire centred on York. The Scottish kings took advantage and snatched Lothian from Northumbria. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, having too been battered by Vikings and Scots alike was assumed into the ever growing country and by 1050 the Scots had even forced the Norsemen from Sutherland and Caithness. In 1058 Malcolm III became king and his dynasty, the Canmores, had but one ambition: to build their rule and territorial holdings to the greatest extent possible. It would put his descendents on a collision course with the powerful insular Viking lords, with far reaching consequences.

The Viking Trilogy parts 1 to 3

photo of lindisfarne priory © copyright N Chadwick – cc license


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