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The Vikings in Cumbria



Cumbrian Heritage

A detector find near Cumwhitton, Cumbria, led to the excavation of a complete Viking cemetery, the first of its kind seen in England. Mike Pitts heard the inside story from Peter Adams, Alan Lupton and Faye Simpson

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’.

Peter Adams has been metal-detecting for a good decade, but in the last two years he has ‘taken it up regular’, out every fortnight, pursuing a strong interest in local history. He was intrigued by the landscape around Cumwhitton, Cumbria, by the remains of a Medieval field system and, in particular, a path.

There is a footpath leading to the next village which is long and straight. Adams thought it might be Roman. He and his mate George Robinson were packing up after a day’s detecting by the path when Adams got a signal. At first he imagined he had a piece of farm equipment, but then he saw a brooch. They took it to the Kendal Metal Detecting Club, thinking it was probably Victorian. When they looked it up in a book they realised it was Viking. So they phoned Faye Simpson. They also contacted Viking specialist Ben Edwards, who told them such brooches come in pairs. So they went back to the field, and Simpson received her second phone call.

She took the brooches to the York Archaeological Trust for stabilisation, where it was ascertained that there were textile fragments preserved in the corrosion, and worm casts (nanotodes) indicative of a body.

Simpson, who had been the regional FLO since December but has now moved to London, told Adams and the farmer that there was likely to be a grave, and she wanted to excavate. With their approval, the next issue became funding. English Heritage expressed interest, but would wait to see what she found before committing money. Lancashire and Cumbria county councils, however, offered enough for a small dig, and Oxford Archaeology North agreed to help.

In April they opened a 4 by 4 m square. ‘We hit the grave smack on’, says Simpson. Alan Lupton, project manager for Oxford Archaeology North, explains that the evaluation gave the chance to show Adams, and through him fellow detectorists, that ‘by digging holes to recover finds, they were removing them from their context and, therefore, important archaeological information could be lost’. They removed the turf, and Adams scanned for metal objects. They excavated another 10 cm, and he scanned again. Going down like this, always working by hand, allowed him to see the whole process.

The result was the recording of the base of Adams’original pit just cutting into the top of the grave. ‘Our feeling was very strong’, says Lupton, ‘that the brooches had been moved from their original location by ploughing and were in the topsoil directly above undisturbed grave fill’. They found other artefacts, ‘almost certainly from that grave’, spread further away: excavation clearly showed the upper part of the grave had been disturbed by ploughing.

The red sandy soil had preserved little of the woman’s bones. As well as the oval brooches and a fragment of trefoil brooch found by Adams and Robinson in the topsoil, the grave contained an iron knife, a bead and, at what would have been the feet of the body, a wooden chest with what looks like a bent weaving sword. This was lifted by conservators from York and Durham, who stabilised the block of earth with dry ice.

Though the archaeologists were expecting just the one burial, Adams and Robinson were encouraged to survey the land immediately around the grave

‘They started to come up with bits and pieces’, says Simpson. First was the key, thought to be from the woman’s grave, though 10 m to the south; latch-keys were a Viking symbol of marriage (there was one in the Yorkshire grave). When Adams found further oval brooch fragments to the west, and then a sword hilt 10 m to the north-east, they realised there must be more than one grave. English Heritage came on board with funding and an offer to conserve whatever might be found. In June, they were back on site.

The team from Oxford Archaeology North excavated a 30 by 30 m square, working as before, taking the soil down in narrow bands, each having been systemically surveyed by metal detector: where this indicated several metal items they dug by hand, otherwise they used a machine. Finally, two weeks later, after hand-cleaning the entire site and, remembers Simpson, a rain shower, they could see a group of five graves in one corner, all lying east-west. They were looking at the first complete cemetery of individual Viking inhumation graves ever excavated in England.

It transpired that all six contained artefacts dating from the mid 10th century. One had the remains of an enclosing ditch, but otherwise there were no signs of any markers. A detailed topographic survey revealed nothing, so if there had been barrow mounds, farming had removed them. ‘The plough had done an awful lot of damage’, says Simpson.

Conservation and study of the artefacts will take a long time, and it is likely that as work progresses more discoveries will be made, and some initial impressions may need revising. The soil block containing the chest awaits X-ray photography at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology in Portsmouth.

What is apparent now is that the graves were dug for four men and two women, the former identified from items such as swords, spears, horse-riding and fire-making gear, and the latter by distinctive jewellery – though the largest group of beads, including a Roman ‘melon bead’, lay in a male grave. This man (‘Skeleton 24’on the plan) also had three silver rings.

Why is this cemetery there? The site has beautiful views, says Simpson, close to a brook on the ridge of a hill. They extended the excavation in all directions, but found nothing more. A 3 ha geophysical survey, with evaluation trenches to explore anomalies, found no evidence for settlement.

James Graham-Campbell, emeritus professor at UCL specialising in Viking age art and archaeology, says the field is visible from Cumwhitton. He suggests this was probably where the Viking community lived. If the people were to stand up in their graves, he points out, they would face the village – the orientation of pagan graves was not determined by religious tradition.

‘This confirms the picture we have of Viking settlement in north-west England’, says Graham-Campbell, ‘only beginning in the early 10th century’. Previously the archaeological evidence was ‘very thin’, consisting of single graves and chance finds.

The artefacts, he says, suggest the individuals were ‘quite wealthy’. Vikings converted rapidly to Christianity, so these people would be immigrants or of very recent Scandinavian descent. ‘This is a truly important and exciting find’, he concludes.

He is not the only one to think so. When I spoke to Peter Adams, he had just been watching Faye Simpson and Rachel Newman, from Oxford Archaeology North, talking about the dig on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy.

‘It’s been a fantastic experience’, he says, ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Watching the field archaeologists was the experience of a lifetime, they did a tremendous job’.

The farmer and Peter Adams have given everything found in the excavation to the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle. ‘English Heritage said they would finance the dig if we’d donate the artefacts’, says Adams. ‘We both felt it belongs locally. It’s the Cumbrian heritage’.

Source: British Archaeology, Issue 79, November 2004