Investigating a Viking burial in a monastic graveyard
After a farmer found human bones in plough soil at Auldhame, East Lothian, excavation revealed a lost Anglo-Saxon monastery. Within its cemetery lay a tantalising link to historical accounts of a Viking king, supposedly struck down after wronging a saint. Anne Crone, Alex Woolf, and Rod McCullagh told Matthew Symonds about a most incongruous burial.
His body was unlike any that had previously been laid to rest in the Auldhame cemetery. The deceased was an adult male who probably died in the 10th century AD, and was neither particularly elderly, nor in the first flourish of maturity. If any telltale signs existed to alert onlookers to the manner of his demise, they were destined to be erased by the passing centuries. Those who gathered for the burial were also witnesses to the end of an era: the Auldhame graveyard had been established in the mid 7th century AD, but this would be one of the last ceremonies conducted within its bounds for many decades.
When the body was lowered into the ground, it was probably against the backdrop of buildings that bore the scars of recent conflict. It may be that not everyone present felt moved to mourn the young man. His simple grave was orientated east-west, and sunk into the soil of a cliff-top promontory jutting into the Firth of Forth. Many such shafts had been opened in the cemetery plot over the preceding centuries. Occupied by bodies unencumbered by the sumptuous metal often gracing early Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, these graves appear to hold the mortal remains of a monastic order’s brethren. This latest burial, though, was not conducted to honour any monk.
The male was distinguished from his neighbours in death by bearing the trappings of his earthly status. Rather than religious paraphernalia, he sported equipment distinctly martial in style. As well as a belt-set typical of 9th- and 10th-century craftsmanship from the Irish Sea zone, which may have been manufactured in Dublin, the deceased was wearing prick spurs — the first such pair to be found in Scotland. Once the body had been placed in the grave, a spear was placed alongside. Such burial rites are recognisably Viking in character, but do not adhere to the Norse traditions practised in northern Scotland. Instead, its closest parallels lie in Cumwhitton, Cumbria, where Vikings belonging to the York—Dublin axis were laid to rest. How, then, did this alien burial occur in a monastic cemetery in southern Scotland?
The chain of events that would lead to the discovery of the Viking grave began in 2005, when a farmer noticed that his plough was turning up articulated human bones. ‘There was absolutely no record of a church or burials at the site’, says Rod McCullagh, Deputy Head of Archaeology Strategy at Historic Scotland, ‘but it was immediately clear this was not a random scatter of bone. Historic Scotland manage something called the “human remains call-off contract”. This is designed to deal with unforeseen discoveries of human remains, which don’t concern the police, and don’t come up in a commercial development. It usually involves skeletons exposed by coastal erosion or ploughing. The contract allows for a minimum intervention solution, so excavation work is normally quite limited. In this case, though, it quickly became apparent that the disturbed area was the centre of a cemetery. We had a massive task on our hands.’
AOC Archaeology Ltd was responsible for undertaking the fieldwork, and over two seasons they excavated 242 disturbed graves at Auldhame. ‘The burials span 1,000 years,’ explains Anne Crone, a project manager at AOC, ‘and the radiocarbon dates split them into four phases. About 25% of the graves belong to the first phase, which runs from around AD 650 through to about AD 1000. There’s a surge in activity towards the very end of that period, and then nothing until the 11th century. Almost all of the burials in the cemetery are unaccompanied by grave goods. There’s the odd buckle or pin from some of the later Medieval burials, but apart from that the only furnished grave belongs to “the Viking”.’
The AOC work picked up evidence for the nature of life, as well as death, at Auldhame. ‘The southern cemetery boundary is a massive ditch,’ says Anne, ‘and we found domestic waste such as cereal grains, bones, and shells dumped in it. Every single radiocarbon date from that waste belongs to the first phase of the site.’ Some of this domestic activity may have been carried out directly to the south of the ditch, where the team found the corner of a timber building foundation. A far more intriguing set of structures, though, lay right at the heart of the cemetery. ‘We think we’ve got the first church’, Anne says. ‘It’s another earthfast timber building, and we only saw about half a metre of it, because it’s on the same site as a later, rectangular stone structure. The masonry building has very similar dimensions to other early churches, so we think the original timber church was replaced in stone.’
Further finds from the site also hint at the presence of a religious foundation. ‘We found some nice Anglo-Saxon objects,’ Anne observes, ‘including a little garnet stud and a pin, but the real clincher is a glass inkpot. Only six of these have ever been found in the UK, and they are almost always associated with a monastery and indicate the presence of a scriptorium.’ This archaeological evidence for a seat of monastic learning at Auldhame dovetails with historical records that say St Balthere lived as a hermit on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, returning to the mainland to discharge his pastoral responsibilities. As the nearest landing ground to the Bass Rock lies at Auldhame, it would make a logical setting for his monastery. The great ditch running to the south of the Auldhame cemetery, seemingly severing the cliff-top promontory from the mainland, would also support the presence of an early Christian foundation. Rather than a fortification, such ditches symbolically separated the physical and spiritual worlds.
Harrying East Lothian
The Auldhame brethren may well have had cause to regret that their ditch was not more defensible in AD 941, when Olaf Guthfrithsson, the Viking ruler of Dublin and Northumbria, sacked the East Lothian houses of St Balthere. Although the precise motivation for this attack is unclear, it is unlikely to be a simple case of pagan Vikings plundering vulnerable Christians.
‘Olaf had become king of Dublin in 934′, explains Alex Woolf, Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. ‘In 937, he invaded England and fought what 50 years later was still called the “Great” Battle of Brunanburh. Olaf was defeated, but returned in 939 and this time successfully took Northumbria. In alliance with Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York, Olaf then conquered a large chunk of northern Mercia. But within the Kingdom of Northumbria, the area north of the River Tyne had far fewer Viking settlers, and its inhabitants seem to have enjoyed a semi-independent status. So Olaf may well have made a punitive raid to show these people that they had to obey orders from York.’
‘We’re not sure whether Olaf was a Christian. His father is certainly described as a pagan, although he seems to have been quite friendly to Christians. According to a later source, Olaf married the daughter of Constantine, King of Scotland, which would probably have required a commitment to be baptised. Either way, Olaf was certainly closely aligned to the Archbishop of York, so we’re not looking at a simple clash of religions.’
Could the Viking burial found by the AOC team be a relic of Olaf’s assault on the churches of St Balthere? ‘I think that’s a pretty sure bet,’ says Alex. ‘I’d be fairly comfortable saying that the 10th-century cessation of activity at Auldhame is almost certainly a result of that destruction. When you have someone being buried at the end of that phase of the cemetery, in a way that does not reflect either native East Lothian Angles’ traditions, or those previously seen in the graveyard, I think that suggest someone of high status from Olaf’s army.’
Anne agrees. ‘There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to the Viking being a member of the raiding party,’ she says. ‘The radiocarbon date gives a range of AD 770-970, while two other bodies buried during that period received fatal axe-blows to their heads. One was quite an elderly individual, so it is easy to speculate that these were monks killed in the attack.’
If the Viking was a member of the group that laid waste to the monastery, it begs the question of why his body would be treated with such respect by the survivors of the slaughter. ‘If it was all the battle dead, you might expect there to be more of them,’ Alex says. ‘So it does look as though he’s getting special treatment, and that the other Viking dead were buried elsewhere. We do know that Olaf himself died immediately after the attack, aged about 30. According to some accounts, it was seen as a punishment from the Saint, which does raise the question of whether Olaf himself could have been buried in the St Balthere’s cemetery as a sort of postmortem penance.’
As the Viking burial was damaged by another, later grave, only about 60% of the skeleton survived. A large part of the shoulder and ribs had been removed, leading to speculation that other burial goods such as brooches or possibly even a sword could have been destroyed. But is it really conceivable that these are Olaf’s remains? ‘There’s no way to get DNA confirmation because we do not have clear lines of descent,’ Alex points out, ‘and isotope analysis shows that the individual could have been born over a large swathe of Britain or Ireland. Identifying early Medieval burials with certainty is almost impossible, because of the lack of documentation and lack of DNA comparanda. This is probably as close as you can get to a 10th-century king.’
This article featured in issue 293 of Current Archaeology.