Cumbrian Heritage: Viking Cemetery
By Mike Pitts
British Archaeology, Issue 79 (2004)
Introduction: We learn at school that English history begins with Anglo-Saxons. ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ became a label for a certain type found around the world. Yet Angles and Saxons were settlers from the continent, and for 250 years before the Norman Conquest Britain and Ireland were subject to more invasion and settlement from Scandinavia. Perhaps then we are really all Vikings?
The Vikings’ problem is that it was the Anglo-Saxons who wrote the histories. In the past three decades, archaeology has also given Anglo-Saxons a presence in the landscape, thanks to distinctive houses – great timber halls and smaller structures built over sunken floors – and their large cemeteries of inhumations in graves or cremated remains in pots.
Archaeology has added greatly to our appreciation of Viking culture, as distinct from their caricature as wild raiders, not least through discoveries in York and Dublin, and recently, and controversially in the path of a bypass, at Waterford. The people themselves, however, remain elusive.
The rarity of Viking burials is highlighted by two recent discoveries. In January, British Archaeology reported the excavation of a grave in Yorkshire. Analysis of the woman’s teeth indicated she had been born in Norway. She had been buried in her clothes with two decorated copper alloy oval brooches, the first pair to be found in England since 1867. Now a similar grave has been excavated near Dublin: with the first oval brooches for over a century from Ireland.
So when Faye Simpson, the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer (FLO) for Lancashire and Cumbria, heard of another Viking brooch in late March, she knew that it might portend a significant discovery. A few days later the phone rang again: the finder now had two brooches. ‘I’ll be there’, she told him, ‘in the morning’.