When the Vikings arrived in Britain they brought with them the pagan burial customs of their forbears. The two main forms of this custom were full cremation and burial. Men were buried with grave goods and warriors with their weapons, while women were buried with grave goods of a domestic and possibly a healing nature. Cremation burials often contained items of grave goods. One cremation urn contained a comb, while others have been found with other such small personal items.
Evidence of this custom can be seen from the evidence of cremations situated from the Orkneys to the occupied areas of central England. A common boat burial of the pagan era is the single burial, the body laid out with weapons and tools, either inside a boat or covered by an upturned small boat hull1. This in turn was covered with a burial mound.
The distribution of the burials is a useful indication of Viking settlement within Britain. It also shows that the burial customs of the Viking communities changed rapidly after the settlements were established within Britain. The causes of this were the conversion to Christianity and the growth of wealth within the communities. This together with the influence of the Saxon upper class led to the habit of burying of Viking nobles with stone grave markers on church grounds.
Britain's best example of a Viking burial ground is in Cumbria, and comprises six graves holding four men and two women. The barrows appear to have been eroded and ploughed away after having sat undisturbed for 1,000 years. The graves contain bodies and a full selection of grave goods. The men all had weapons, and one appeared to have horse gear and spurs in his grave. There was also evidence of fire-making equipment and a drinking horn. The graves of the females had jewellery and weaving equipment and a box or chest. The burials were conducted after the pagan fashion but were laid out from east to west in the Christian manner, indicating that the individuals buried here were clearly of high status. The graves were all within 10 metres of each other and represent the best Viking cemetery discovered so far in Britain.
The only other recorded Viking burial grounds in Britain are:
- Repton in Cumbria, a battlefield cemetery.
- Ingleby in Derbyshire, a cremation burial ground where the ashes were buried in pots.
The custom of burying of a great person's body in a long ship is seen in several Viking burials. To describe the style of this type of burial it is best to use the Sutton Hoo boat burial in Suffolk as an example. This is in fact that of a Saxon king2 of East Anglia.
The burial site dates from c635 and is a cemetery of 19 mounds set close to a bend of the River Deben.
Ship Burial 1
The first burial lies to the north of Ship Burial 2 and was the first ship burial at the site. First, a pit was dug and in the bottom a chamber was created to take the body and grave goods. The barrow has since been robbed and there is now little left, but when opened there were signs found that indicated the presence of a shield and sword and some domestic items. The ship was then placed on top of the chamber, and the mound was constructed over the ship.
Ship Burial 2
The hull of this long-ship was 30 metres in length and 4.5 metres wide and was hauled up the slope from the river and placed at a pre-prepared site. The mast was then taken down and a central chamber was built in the middle of the ship to house the burial. Everything the king needed for the after-life was placed within the burial chamber, his head lying to the west in the pagan manner. Having laid amongst armour and weapons including a sword of state, the famous helmet is the best known article found in the grave. All other aspects were provided for, including feasting, which was represented by a quantity of drinking horns and a set of seven Byzantine silver bowls, and culture, which was accommodated by the presence of a lyre.
The Burial Site
First mistakenly reported in the Ipswich Journal in 1860 as a collection of Roman burial mounds, the site contains 17 other mounds, which resemble bowl barrows. This cemetery was built during the last years of the pagan era, during which the Christian religion was starting to dominate.
One of the more unusual burials and possibly the first on this site was for a nobleman and his horse. Two pits were dug, one for the man (8 metres long by 2 metres wide and 3.5 metres deep) and one for his horse (6 metres long by 1.5 metres wide and 1.8 metres deep). At first there may seem to be no connection between horse and ship burials, but with the nobility it may have been to provide transport to the afterlife. This also might explain the representation of the horse on some cremation urns.
Snape Boat Grave
Another ship burial has been found at Snape Common in East Anglia and is believed to date from c530. The ship was 15 metres long and contained goods from the Roman and Anglo Saxon periods. This burial mound was close to the Sutton Hoo burials and 100 years older, suggesting that this could possibly be a Viking burial site.
There are over 290 Norse gods and deities recorded as well as numerous Saxon gods. Listed below are the main deities with their Norse equivalents - note that some are listed separately as they have no direct equivalents.
- Chief god - Woden (Saxon), Odin (Norse)
- Fertility god - Ingui (Saxon), Freyr (Norse)
- War or sky god - Tiw (Saxon), Tyr (Norse)
- Thunder god - Thunor (Saxon), Thor (Norse)
- Sword god - Seaxneat (Saxon)
- Horse gods - Hengest and Horsa (Saxon)
- Smith god - Welund (Saxon)
- Trickster fire god - Loki (Norse)
- Guardian to the home of the Norse Gods - Heimdall (Norse)
- God of Love and Light - Baldur, son of Odin (Norse)
- Fertility goddess - Nerthus (Saxon)
- Midwinter goddess - Mothers (Saxon), Skadi (Norse)
- Love goddess Freo (Saxon) Freya (Norse)
- Harvest goddess - Frige(Saxon), Siffa (Norse)
- Chief goddess and marriage goddess - Helith (Saxon), Frigg (Norse)
- War and victory goddess - Hretha (Saxon)
- Birth and spring/summer goddess - Eostre (Saxon)
- Earth goddess - Erce (Saxon)
- Goddess of the dead and the afterlife - Hel (Norse)
Place Names With A Saxon Or Viking History
Taplow near Maidenhead in Berkshire is named after a Saxon barrow burial 'Taeppa’s law'.
The name 'Bury' can be found in various parts of the country, with Bury Road in Gosport, Hampshire and 'The Bury Ring' on the A518 near Stafford being just two examples, with others including:
- The Bury, Thorverton, Mid Devon, Devon.
- Bury Bank, Meaford, Stone, Staffordshire.
- Bury Road, Bury, Huntingdonshire.
- Bury Rise, Tilsworth, South Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire.
- Burial Brae, Fife.
- Burial Ground Lane, Tovil, Maidstone, Kent.
These names indicate the possibility that a Viking or other ancient burial ground lies nearby - there are many examples so check out your local area.