Rare Viking Sword Discovered in Grave on Scottish Island

The weapon is covered in rust and dirt, but a new X-ray analysis suggests it once boasted rich decorations

encrusted sword with dirt, rust and sediment
Archaeologists have identified a rare ninth-century Viking sword discovered at a burial site on one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Historic Environment Scotland

Archaeologists have revealed new X-ray scans of a Viking sword found on Scotland’s Orkney Islands in 2015, reports David Walker for the Scottish Daily Express. The ninth-century weapon was one of several Viking artifacts discovered in a hidden cemetery on the northeast coast of Papa Westray.

“Possibly one of the most exciting and most complex artifacts [found at the site], this rare survival will have many stories to tell,” writes Andrew Morrison of AOC Archaeology, which is leading the project, in a blog post for Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Dubbed the Mayback sword after the site where it was found, the artifact is a Pedersen Type D sword—one of the heaviest used by the Vikings, report Ellie Forbes and Jennifer Russell for the Daily Record.

“Type D swords ... would need the balance of a substantial hilt to stabilize them,” notes Morrison.

According to the blog post, just 30 or so comparable swords survive today. Half were found in Norway; others were recovered in Ireland, Slovakia, Poland and Russia. But the Mayback is one of just two Type D swords known to scholars. The second was excavated in the 1830s on the Isle of Eigg, one of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

x-ray of sword hilt shown in black and white with visible circular patterns
X-rays of the Mayback sword show elaborate patterns and ornate decorations on the pommel. Historic Environment Scotland

As Adrián Maldonado wrote in a 2020 blog post for National Museums Scotland (NMS), defining “Viking swords” is difficult, as “two different scholars might classify a sword differently using the same system.” The 20th-century typology created by Jan Petersen, who lends the Type D Pedersen sword its name, is based on just one section of the weapon: the hilt.

Due to extreme corrosion and rust, the Mayback sword is extremely fragile.

“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,” writes Morrison. “… [T]he iron in the sword has heavily corroded, with many of the striking details only visible through X-ray.”

The team also found the remains of a scabbard fused to the blade through mineralization. Few Viking-era scabbards survive, making the discovery particularly special.

“Most Viking Age scabbards are made up of an inverted fleece lining next to the blade,” adds Morrison. “This would have been contained within a sheath made from thin lathes of wood, then bound—possibly with strips of a fine textile.”

The sword’s protective covering was placed in an unusual position: “laid over the top of the body with the hilt at the hip and the blade tip over the face, as opposed to the more common placement of the sword positioned alongside the body blade downwards,” per the blog post.

Scans of the weapon show that its hilt was highly decorated, featuring a honeycomb-like pattern probably created with contrasting metals. Researchers detected the elaborate geometric designs on the sword’s upper and lower guards, as well as its pommel.

long cylindrical tubes with pointed tips covered in sediment, dirt and rust
Several other Viking items were found at the site, including these arrows. The wooden shafts still attached to the arrowheads are a rare find made possible by the sediment mineralizing over and preserving the wood. Historic Environment Scotland

According to a July HES statement, an Orkney landowner found human bones on a sand ridge on his property in March 2015. Archaeologists contacted by the individual confirmed that the remains were centuries old and embarked on an excavation. They discovered an Iron Age burial predating other graves at the site by more than a millennium, a Viking boat burial and stone cairns.

Specific artifacts unearthed during the dig included up to six 10th- or 11th-century arrowheads, still attached to their shaft; a Borre-style buckle; and two intact shield bosses, or central sections of shields. Per the HES blog post, most Viking-era shield bosses found in Scotland date to between 850 and 950 C.E.

As BBC News reported in July, the cemetery may have been used by first-generation Viking settlers on the Orkney Islands. Per the Danish Viking Ship Museum, Vikings probably migrated to Scotland’s Northern Isles—Orkney and Shetland—due to overcrowding in their homeland of Scandinavia.

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