Archaeologists say discoveries from Papa Westray are “mind-blowing” as work continues to unravel the evidence of early Viking settlers on the islands.
A Viking sword discovered on the Orkney Islands locked into a block of soil by corrosion has been shown by X-rays to have “many stories to tell”, including a rare ornate geometric design on the hilt.
The unusually heavy iron sword is one of several “mind-blowing” discoveries from the burials at Papa Westray, one of the smallest islands of Orkney, following the first in-depth analysis of artefacts including a decorated buckle and a bundle of hunting arrows.
In a blog for heritage body Historic Environment Scotland, archaeologists leading the investigation said the sword, first discovered in 2015, had proved to be a “rare survival” from around the 9th century whose secrets were being unlocked by post-excavation analysis. It is believed the burials may contain the remains of a first generation of Norwegian settlers on the Orkney archipelago.
Andrew Morrison, of AOC Archaeology, said: “To preserve as much evidence as possible, we lifted the whole sword and its surrounding soil in a block to be transported to the lab and forensically excavated there. The iron in the sword has heavily corroded, with many of the striking details only visible through x-ray.”
He added: “This rare survival will have many stories to tell.”
The subsequent investigation showed that behind the existing corrosion is a highly-decorated hilt with a honeycomb-like pattern, probably using contrasting metals, made from elongated octagons and possibly raised lozenges.
The sword also appears to have secrets to give up about how the Vikings constructed scabbards for their bladed weapons, few of which survive. A substantial amount of the wood used in the sheath for the Orkney sword remains in place.
Another riddle for the archaeologists is the unusual positioning of the sword in the grave – known as the Mayback burial – with the blade being laid diagonally over the body of the warrior and the tip over the face. In most Viking burials the sword lies beside the body, pointed downwards.
The analysis also examined a buckle featuring stylised animal paws clasped around the bar – one of only two found in Scotland – and a quiver of arrows, thought to be used for hunting rather than warfare.
Mr Morrison said: “It’s not common to find arrows in Viking graves, and when they are found, they’re usually retrieved as single arrows. This find gives us the rare opportunity to learn more about Viking quivers and how they were constructed.”
Milmo, Cahal. Viking sword gives up its secrets as X-rays reveal ornate decoration on ‘rare survival’ from Orkney burial. iNews. London. 09 dec. 2021. 14 dec. 2021. <https://inews.co.uk/news/viking-sword-burial-orkney-islands-mayback-secrets-x-rays-history-1344720>.
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