The importance of the mystical Viking role of ‘seer’ is being retold at JORVIK Viking Centre with the arrival of a series of artefacts discovered in the Isle of Man and Orkney to coincide with this year’s theme for JORVIK Viking Festival – the untold story of women in the Viking age.
The artefacts include grave items from two important women of the Viking age, including the remains of a 10 th century women uncovered in a stone lined grave at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. Visitors to the centre will see a stunning necklace – which retains the glorious colours of glass, amber and jet – as well as a miniature mortar and pestle, and an ammonite fossil, which would possibly have been a talisman.
“These items clearly depict that this was a wealthy and influential women, and though she was found in a Christian burial site, the items found with her suggest that she was a ‘Volva’ – a pagan sorceress, who was buried with the tools of her trade,” explains director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, Sarah Maltby. “Also found in the grave was an iron rod, originally around a metre long and covered in textile, feathers and seeds, which would have been used in magical rituals. Although the original item is too fragile to travel, we have commissioned a replica, which will be carried by our own seeress, Thorbjorgr Litilvolva, during JORVIK Viking Festival’s dramatic evening extravaganza on Saturday 23 February.”
A remarkable whale bone plaque, which was found in a burial site in Orkney, also joins the displays. This kind of plaque would have been used along with a heated glass ball or stone pebble to smooth or pleat fine linen-wear, but the Orkney discovery, whilst old, had been hardly used, which suggests it may have been used just for precious clothes for ceremonial occasions.
“The nature of the burial – in a four-oared rowing boat inside a stone lined pit – shows that this was a woman of standing, and she was buried with the body of a child, aged around ten. A third skeleton – that of a man lay crouched on his side – at the end of the boat, was buried with an iron sword, arrows, an antler comb and some gaming pieces,” adds Sarah. “We can only guess as to why they were buried together, or their relationship to each other; did they die of disease or drowning, or some kind of accident?”
All of the finds highlight the potential roles that women could play in Viking society, which was far more progressive than later medieval cultures. Viking women ran farms and households when their husbands were away, and were able to inherit and own land – a right not secured again by married women in England until the late 19 th century. “These are the stories that we will tell during this year’s JORVIK Viking Festival – the strong Viking women who explored, fought and led their people, but whose stories often go untold,” says Sarah. “So much of JORVIK is about the everyday items that we found here at Coppergate, we are incredibly grateful to Manx National Heritage and Orkney Museum for loaning us these items, which provide extraordinary archaeological links to these remarkable women of the Viking age.”
Edmund Southworth, Director of Manx National Heritage and Chairman of the Destination Viking Association comments, “Working with other organisations is a vital part of our work in promoting the Isle of Man’s Viking cultural heritage. We are proud to be part of the wider community of heritage sites and museums who promote understanding of the Vikings in Europe and worldwide. The Isle of Man and York are part of the Council of Europe’s Viking Route of Cultural Heritage and our collaboration has grown over several years.
The Isle of Man items are on display until the end of the summer, and the Orkney whale bone plaque until May within the gallery at JORVIK Viking Centre, which is open daily. JORVIK Viking Festival runs from 20 – 27 February at venues across the city. For more details, please visit www.jorvikvikingfestival.co.uk