In what has been described as an “amazing coincidence”, a viking runestone with a religious inscription has been discovered on a farm owned by archaeologist Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, an expert on Norse church history.
Found by Dr Gibbon’s father, Donnie Grieve, a retired teacher from Harray, the runes on the broken stone are a 19-character Latin passage of part the Lord’s Prayer — “who art in heaven hallowed”.
Measuring approximately 8cm by 24cm, it was discovered by Mr Grieve at Naversdale farm in Orphir while he was gathering building stone from a field on September 26.
He said: “I recognised it right away as being runes. It’s very recognisable and very clear.
“It’s unusual, because it’s a Latin inscription — part of the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think there’s any record of any inscription like that in Orkney or Shetland, so it’s unusual.
“There are plenty of runes, but they are mostly viking graffiti. This is something a bit different.”
Mr Grieve said that since the find he has been looking out for the remaining parts of the stone.
“When looking for other stone, I’ve been keeping my eye open for the other piece, but I think there’s little likelihood of it turning up,” he said.
“It could have come from anywhere, and it’s probably long separated from the other half.”
Dr Gibbon said: “Dad’s discovery of the runestone is really exciting and, as far as I know, a first for Orkney. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw the stone. We have sent photographs to Professor Michael Barnes, expert on Orkney runic inscriptions, and I am looking forward very much to hearing what he has to say about the find.
“I am hoping he will be able to shed light on the date of the inscription so that we can begin to put it in its proper local and wider ecclesiastical contexts.”
Dr Gibbon said it was not known how or when the runestone came to Naversdale, but there were a number of possible scenarios.
“Was the inscription carved on a stone in a medieval structure on the farm, or was it brought here at a later date from somewhere else, perhaps from elsewhere on the Swanbister Estate?” she said.
“It would be fascinating to find out more about the history of our farm and the buildings on it, and we would be delighted to hear from anyone with information.”
Dr Gibbon added: “I am looking forward to discovering as much as I can about the runestone, especially as the preliminary findings indicate it is from a medieval Christian context, which is my main area of interest. The fact it was found where I live, by my dad, just makes this even more fascinating.”
Julie Gibson, Orkney county archaeologist, said: “The stone is a very beautiful one, each character evenly placed. I love that it is a religious inscription, and what an amazing coincidence that it should turn up at Dr Gibbon’s house.
“We are so lucky Sarah Jane’s father found it, and that Sarah Jane could recognise its value right away.”
Mrs Gibson added that photos of the stone were sent to Terje Spurkland and Professor Michael Barnes, at Oslo University, where a year long runology project is under way.
“Terje confirmed suspicions that the runes represented slightly corrupted Latin, and he translated them as meaning ‘who art in heaven hallowed’,” she said.
The stone is currently with the Orkney College archaeology department, but it is hoped it will soon be on display at the Orkney Museum.
Viking graves in Norway contain a grisly tribute: slaves who were beheaded and buried along with their masters, new research suggests.
In Flakstad, Norway, remains from 10 ancient people were buried in multiple graves, with two to three bodies in some graves and some bodies decapitated. Now, an analysis reveals the beheaded victims ate a very different diet from the people with whom they were buried.
"We propose that the people buried in double and triple burials might have come from very different strata of society, and that slaves could have been offered as grave gifts in these burials," study co-author Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, wrote in an email.
From about the 790s until about A.D. 1100, the Vikings were fierce, sea-faring raiders and often took slaves as booty. But this vicious lifestyle wasn't a full-time job. In everyday life, many Vikings were actually farmers, relying on slaves, or thralls, for agricultural work. Though some thralls were treated well, many were forced to endure backbreaking physical labor, Naumann said. Women were often used as sex slaves, and any children who resulted could either be considered the master's children or treated as slaves themselves. [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen]
The Viking burials were first discovered in the early 1980s, but only partially excavated at the time. The ancient graves were partly damaged by modern farming and contained just a few grave artifacts, such as an amber bead, some animal bones and a few knives. At the time, archaeologists noticed that four of the bodies were beheaded whereas the rest were intact.
That led many to conclude that the decapitated bodies were those of slaves sacrificed and buried with their masters.
To bolster that notion, Naumann and her colleagues analyzed the skeletons' mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on through the maternal line. The team found that bodies buried together were most likely not related, at least on the maternal side.
Next, they analyzed the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, or elements with different molecular weights, in the bones of the ancient Scandinavians.
Because food that comes from the sea or the land contains different proportions of heavy and light isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, the concentration of these chemicals in bones can reveal the dietary history of a people.
Results showed the beheaded people ate more fish protein, whereas the others ate land-based protein sources, such as meat and dairy products. That suggests the people buried together came from very different strata of society.
Naumann proposes the beheaded victims were slaves who were sacrificed as gifts to be offered in death on behalf of their masters. Though such human sacrifice was uncommon in Viking society, it wasn't unknown.
"There are other examples of sacrifice in burials, where individuals had tied hands and feet and were sometimes beheaded, or in other ways treated in ways that indicates sacrifice," Naumann said. "It is assumed that such persons were grave gifts, and would follow their masters in death. One historical account from Ibn Fadlan (an Arab traveler who chronicled his journeys) describes how a slave woman volunteered to follow her master — a Viking chieftain — in the grave."
The find will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.