Buried Vikings: Excavating Cumwhitton’s cemetery

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Ten years ago, a single brooch led to the discovery of an exceptionally rare Viking-era site. Now that the post-excavation is complete, Adam Parsons and Rachel Newman of Oxford Archaeology North tell the inside story.

Today a tranquil farming landscape, these fields concealed a cluster of Viking burials, and (inset) the X-rayed hilt of one of Cumwhitton’s Viking-era swords.


In March 2004, Peter Adams was out metal-detecting; little did he know that he was about to make one of England’s most exciting discoveries in Viking-age archaeology. Peter had been given permission to search farmland on the western edge of Cumwhitton, a small village in the Eden Valley, south-east of Carlisle, when he detected an unusual metal object within the ploughsoil.

The oval brooch that led to the discovery.

Colleagues at his club tentatively identified it as a Viking-age oval brooch, so Peter reported it to the local Finds Liaison Officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), who observed that  such brooches are frequently found in pairs — and usually in female burials. Peter hastened back to the site, where he duly found the second brooch. The initial identification was confirmed, and the PAS gave the brooches a date of the 9th or 10th century.

These brooches are extremely rare, particularly in England, so the PAS immediately commissioned a team of us from Oxford Archaeology North to investigate the findspot. Our aim was to discover whether the brooches really came from a grave, and confirm that it was that of a woman.

Unlocking history

The answers came thick and fast. Stripping back the topsoil, we immediately identified the outline of a grave, aligned roughly east—west, with small disturbances towards the western end, where Peter had found the brooches. The soil in this part of Cumbria is particularly acidic, so neither human  nor animal bones usually survive, and the only bone that we found was a small fragment of skull at the western end of the grave. However, the grave contained numerous other artefacts.

Excavating a segment of skull from the first grave — the only skeletal material to survive in the acidic soil.

Among them was a bead, perhaps from a hair decoration, a key, and a knife with a silver-bound handle; the key and the knife had probably both been suspended from the brooches. We also identified the fragmentary remains of an iron-bound maplewood box at the foot of the grave, complete with a locking mechanism that was found to match the key. Inside the box were objects associated with  textiles, including a glass linen-smoother, shears, a comb, a lead spindle-whorl, and apparently some needles. This, almost certainly, was the grave of a high-status Viking woman.

Meanwhile, Peter continued to metal-detect on the surrounding hilltop, and recovered a mass of other objects from the ploughsoil. In among the tractor parts, barbed wire, and indiscernible bits of corroded metal were several small fragments of another Viking-age oval brooch, plus the instantly recognisable remains of an Early Medieval sword hilt. Yet surely these other items could not have come from the grave we had just excavated?

The first grave was that of a high-status woman — she had been laid to rest with a box of objects related to cloth-making.

Not only were the sword and brooch fragments found quite some distance away, but three oval brooches have never been found in a single  grave, even in Scandinavia. A sword in a woman’s grave would also be highly unlikely. However, Viking graves are usually found on their own, rather than as part of a cemetery. Indeed, only one other Viking cemetery is known in England: the cremation site at Ingleby in Derbyshire (CA 184). If there really was a cemetery at Cumwhitton — as all the evidence suggested — then this would make the site more rare and important than first thought.

Shadows in the soil

The site was under immediate threat from ploughing, so English Heritage agreed to fund an excavation in the summer of 2004. As suspected, some 10m from the first burial (labelled Grave 1) we found another grave, and  then another, until we had found a total of five more graves (Graves 2-6). Clustered together in two closely spaced rows, all of the graves were orientated broadly east—west, and one, if not all, may have been marked above-ground. All  the burials appeared to have been richly furnished, and could be dated to the early 10th century.

A sword hilt was found in ploughsoil some distance from Grave 1; this, along with other finds such as fragments of a third oval brooch, suggested that more burials were likely.

Though we recovered many different artefacts,  most were poorly preserved. We therefore decided that the best solution was to block-lift many of the objects to allow careful excavation and recording under controlled laboratory conditions. The soil blocks were sent to English Heritage’s conservation laboratory at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. Initially, all were X-rayed to determine their contents. Then, using the X-rays as a guide, the blocks were carefully excavated, and the objects stabilised, cleaned, and conserved as they emerged from the encasing soil.

This approach proved invaluable: while some of the objects were reasonably intact, others merely survived as shadows on the instance, at least one needle from the maplewood box found in Grave 1 could be seen on the X-ray, but it had no physical integrity and could not be retrieved by excavation. Meanwhile, other objects appeared relatively intact on the X-rays, but could only be partially retrieved — however, by comparing the surviving fragments with the  X-ray images, we were able to reconstruct their original forms.

The slightly more robust metal objects often had traces of organic matter preserved on their surfaces,  but only in the corrosion products. These could tell us so much about the original look of the objects and the less durable goods placed in the graves. The swords, for example, preserved a remarkable amount of detail about the construction of their scabbards, demonstrating that they were made of fleece-lined wood, with a leather covering. Traces of linen were also found on the outer surface — perhaps the remains of a covering for the scabbard, or perhaps from the clothing of the deceased. One of the most startling discoveries came from between the plates of a buckle, as these had preserved seal-skin fibres, potentially from the belt or even  from a seal-skin garment. Such fragile remains are unlikely to have survived had the graves been excavated in a more conventional manner.

The buckle plates from Grave 2 contained seal-skin fibres sandwiched between the two surfaces.

While these artefacts are clearly of considerable importance in their own right, the fact that we excavated and recorded them to modern professional standards, and within the contexts in which  they were originally deposited, elevates them to national significance. It is worth noting that prior to this discovery, contemporary burial evidence tended to consist of single graves and chance finds. Added to this, all the other Viking-age graves in the North West were antiquarian finds made in the 18th and 19th centuries. These antiquarians recorded many of the artefacts associated with the burials, but left no information on how the items were placed in the grave or any of the subtler details.

Who was buried there?

Despite the lack of skeletal evidence, the grave goods told us something about the potential identities of the people once buried there. We found that Graves 1 and 2 contained a number of similar items, perhaps pointing to some shared symbolism: both had a pair of shears and a bone or antler comb, which were placed together. In Grave 1, these items were in the box at the foot of the grave, and in Grave 2 they were found near the head, along with a sickle.

A short distance from Grave 1, five more graves were found on a hilltop. One (Grave 5) was surrounded by a semicircular ditch, hinting that it might once have been covered by a mound.

Grave 2 also had a very small oil-shale arm-ring close by its left-hand side, suggesting the deceased had a slender wrist. We also found eight beads and an oil-shale finger-ring on the upper chest, probably part of a necklace. Taking all the evidence together, it seems highly likely that Grave 2 was also that of a woman.In contrast, Graves 3-6 were probably men’s graves. All contained weapons, especially swords and spears, and one burial even had an axe and a shield-boss, plus combinations of ringed pins, flints, and folding knives — none of which appeared in the ‘female’ graves. But, as with the female graves, each had its own variations. For instance, the man in Grave 3 had been buried with a fine pair of tinned spurs, but also a necklace made up of seven beads and three silver rings — unusual in a male burial.

The intricate design on a sword pommel from Grave 3.

Meanwhile, Grave 4 was quite starkly militaristic, with a sword, spear, axe and shield, in addition to the man’s items of clothing and dress. Grave 5, which we suspected had once been beneath a mound, appears to have been one of the wealthiest graves. Whereas the other graves had combinations of items, Grave 5 contained every object found in the other male graves — with the exception of a shield-boss and axe — but with the addition of a pair of spurs, a decorated drinking horn, a seax (a large knife, probably used as a hunting knife and a weapon) inlaid with silver wire, lead weights, a large iron chain and hook, and a collection of unusual items in a pouch at the waist.

Grave 6 appeared on excavation to be the poorest, with only a spear, knife, and buckle. However, it was very shallow and had been badly damaged by ploughing. Our analysis of the objects in the ploughsoil and their distribution patterns suggests that many of these came  from this grave. In which case, Grave 6 may have once contained a sword, and possibly beads, a ringed pin, and a folding knife, making it comparable in wealth to the other graves.

A widely connected family?

One striking feature of Graves 2, 4, 5, and 6 was a unique group of buckles and strap-ends. These beltfittings were made of copper alloy. Some had been tinned, and all had been decorated in a very similar manner, using designs incorporating ring-anddots and boss-capped rivets. The boss caps were all of a similar diameter, indicating that they may have been produced by the same punch. Moreover, the ring-and-dots also had two distinct diameters, suggesting they had been incised by the same scribers.

One of us, Adam Parsons, conducted experiments to determine how these objects were made, and discovered that he only needed two or three tools to produce all of the decorative schemes on the belt-fittings. Adam also found that the original  appearance. The best parallels come from roughly contemporary Christian cemeteries from nearby Carlisle Cathedral, and also Workington and Aspatria, all in northern Cumbria. This suggests a local origin for the objects, and perhaps the first evidence for either an individual craftsman or workshop in the area.

However, the overall material culture of the people buried is quite mixed, since the items found within the graves came from many different places. Some, including the aforementioned buckles and strap-ends, appear to have been locally made, while the seax, spurs, and the textile remains found in Graves 2-6 were all probably made elsewhere in Britain. In other cases, there seem to have been a variety of influences. For example, the sword in Grave 3 has a hilt that is Continental in type, probably of Carolingian origin. However, it was inlaid with silver wire, with a design most likely derived from northern Britain, the pattern being closest to a motif used on a series of Anglo-Saxon strap-ends.

A seax (a large knife), showing silver wire inlay on its handle (the broken material to the left of the image), and the angled back of its blade.

This suggested the sword might have been traded, or acquired overseas, and embellished objects would have had a very striking two-tone  later, probably in Britain. The axehead, some of the spearheads, a Borre-style buckle, and the oval brooches were, however, probably all manufactured in Scandinavia. Interestingly, Grave 1 appears to be wholly ‘Scandinavian’ in character. This, together with its slightly outlying location, makes Grave 1 stand out from the others. Was the woman buried there culturally distinct, more conservative, or perhaps just from a different generation than the others? Otherwise, the commonalities in the material culture and indeed the burial rites, together with the close-knit arrangement of the graves, suggest that we were dealing with no more than two generations of early settlers from the Scandinavian world, potentially from the same kin-group.

Shrouded pagans

On studying the spatial distribution of the grave goods, it became apparent that, like the woman in Grave 1, all the bodies had been laid with their heads to the west. This could perhaps be seen as a gesture towards Christianity, although it is a practice that is also found in many pagan graves in Scandinavia. In all other ways, with the inclusion of the grave goods, the burials at Cumwhitton are predominantly pagan. At least two of the people, one man and one woman, had been placed on fleeces laid on oak biers. This could be deduced from a layer of wood and fleece seen on the underside of a strap-end found on the floor of Grave 2, and also on the edge of an axe thrust into the base of Grave 4, perhaps as some lost rite accompanying the burial.

This layer of fleece and oakwood was preserved on the back of a strap-end, and once formed part of a bier (the stand on which the corpse or coffin would have been placed before burial). This example was found in Grave 2.

Most, if not all, of the bodies appear to have been shrouded. This is indicated by numerous textile impressions in the graves, and by the positions of the ringed pins buried with the men. For though these pins are normally interpreted as cloak-fasteners, we found them in the waist area and lower, suggesting they served to pin the cloak as a shroud around the deceased.

But who buried these Viking pagans, and what happened to them? By comparing our cemetery to other sites, a clearer picture emerges of these seemingly first-generation Scandinavian settlers, and the world in which they moved. Though cemeteries of the period are very rare, with only a handful of published examples from England, two have been found in Cumbria — albeit in a Christian context: at St Michael’s Church, Workington, and to the west of Carlisle Cathedral, both of which contain the aforementioned comparable metalwork to the buckles and strap-ends of the Cumwhitton group. This certainly indicates some level of interaction, and perhaps even the first steps towards integration. Despite this, the prominent position of the graves within the landscape, on a hilltop overlooking the settlement at Cumwhitton, is likely to represent an overtly social and political act on behalf of the mourners.

Contact with a strap-end also aided the survival of this linen textile fragment. With a seam or repair still visible, it may have formed part of the deceased’s dress or shroud.

However, given that this is a relatively shortlived cemetery, did those who buried the dead then move on, or did they convert to Christianity, taking elements of their own culture with them? In the North West, we certainly find a great wealth of stone sculpture in a Christian context decorated with Scandinavian motifs, as well as the unique ‘hogback’ stones, found only in Yorkshire, the North West, and southern Scotland.

The stone crosses clearly adapted the Northumbrian tradition of Christian stone sculpture, but shaped for people with knowledge of  and taste for Scandinavian legends and decorative patterns. The hogbacks  seem to have been fashionable for only a brief period in the middle of the 10th century, and have often been interpreted as monuments marking the point at which the Viking community became Christian. Indeed, it is the rapid conversion of the Vikings to Christianity that has been used to explain the scarcity of pagan Viking graves in England.

A unique site

The discovery of even a single grave with demonstrably Viking attributes in England is undeniably important; but the excavation of a whole small Viking-age cemetery in the North West is unique.  The site’s importance is redoubled thanks to the fact that we were able to record highly fragile  remains and even  get an insight on the organic material in the graves — such as textiles, leather, horn, antler, and bone — that would have been so vibrant and visible in life, yet archaeologically leaves almost no trace.

This  rare site has offered a tantalising glimpse of the cultural origins, beliefs, status, burialrites, and cultural connections of some of the earliest Scandinavian settlers in Cumbria. It is true that the lack of skeletal material has limited the scientific analysis with respect to the date or distinct geographical origins of this community. Yet the wealth and variety of their grave goods have created a sense of the complex nature of these individuals’ lives and their burial practices, and the way in which they may have fitted into the volatile political landscape of 10th-century Cumbria. Now that we have completed our postexcavation analysis, the results from this field in a quiet corner of Cumbria have been more exciting than any of us — detectorist Peter Adams included — could have dreamed.

This article appeared in issue 294 of  Current Archaeology.



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