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Last updated: Wed 1 Jan 2014

Viking boat burial uncovered at Green Pits Lane

Described as both ‘wickedly funny’ and ‘deeply insensitive’, our April Fools Day hoax certainly had villagers talking.

Viking boat NunneySo many people have asked to read the story that we’ve been persuaded to put it back on this website. So here it is. Now, don’t all rush to speak to the archeologists!

Sensational discovery

A team from Wessex Archaeology has discovered what appears to be a Viking boat burial in a field off Glebelands in Nunney.

The sensational discovery was made after 12 trenches were dug over the course of four days on the proposed building site. Barratt Homes has put in an application for outline planning permission to build ‘up to’ 100 new homes on the field.

A desk-based archaeological assessment had earlier rated the site as of low interest to historians. A geological survey, using sophisticated scanning equipment, found that the site was at least of ‘moderate’ interest.

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The site of the Viking boat burial is clearly visible at the top left of the Green Pits Lane site

The report concludes: “The site is considered to have a moderate archaeological potential for as yet to be discovered undated evidence which could comprise human remains. For all the general archaeological periods the site is considered to have a low archaeological potential for further as yet to be discovered below ground archaeological assets. Based on current evidence if any remains are present at the site, they would be considered of no more than local significance.”

The desk-based archaeological survey did recommend conducting a geological survey of the field. This geological survey, conducted by Wessex Archaeology, is also part of the 25 documents submitted by Barratt Homes.

Clearly visible on the images produced during the scans was a large “boat-shaped anomaly”, about 9 metres long, on the north side of the farm land.

It was originally thought that the site might contain a barrow (burial mount) or roundhouse. Archaeologists often describe anything that looks vaguely circular as a roundhouse, mainly based on circular patterns in the landscape rather than physical evidence.

Trial trenches

Archaeology Nunney

The archaeologists at work on the Glebelands / Green Pits Lane site

Steve Membery, Historic Environment Officer, was one of the experts asked by Mendip’s planning officers to comment on Barratt Homes’ outline planning application.

He pointed out that further research was needed to avoid a site of potential archaeological interest being destroyed forever by construction.

“The proposal is likely to impact on a heritage asset and most likely human remains,” he wrote. “However, without trial trenching it is not possible to assess the significance of these archaeological remains or the impacts of the development on them as required by the National Planning Policy Framework (para 128).”

He called for trial trenches to be dug on the locations spotted by the geological survey to try and establish whether there are further bodies or a possible barrow or roundhouse.

Waterlogged

It was during the digging of these trial trenches in the field opposite Glebelands that the team uncovered the remains of a small Viking boat.

Viking_boat,_Irish_National_Heritage_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1255212

Viking boat, Irish National Heritage Park. This is a copy of the Gokstad Faering, a small rowing boat with two sets of oars.

The vessel, which is still partially stuck in the ground at present, is a so-called clinker boat with overlapping planks. This dates the boat from the Viking era or later, consistent with the ‘Second Viking Age’.

Dr Knut Haemeroid of the University of Oslo has examined the scans and believes the vessel may well be a ‘two faering’, a small boat with two sets of oars which could carry two people.

“We were very surprised on only the second day of the dig to find the bow of a ship,” he told Visit Nunney. “The Green Pits Lane / Glebelands site consists predominantly of waterlogged blue clay, which preserved wood and is very similar to the conditions in which the few surviving Viking vessels were found in Norway.”

Gokstad Ship

Vikings are best-known for their longboats, such as the Gokstad Ship in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, but most vessels were much smaller.

Conquest

vikings

The traditional image of Vikings is often quite wrong, experts say

Norwegian and Danish pirates raided the British coast for almost 200 years, from the end of the eight century until the reign of Alfred the Great. Towards the end of this period they moved further inland.

Alfred and his descendants managed to unite England against the Viking invaders from 870AD, driving them out of their English strongholds and back to Scandinavia.

The Vikings did not return to our shores for over a century, but when they did it was with a vengeance.

Vikings reached Somerset in the 10th century and established a mini-state near Somerton. The Nunney Brook was famous for eels at the time, staple food in the Viking diet.

The Anglo-Saxons were ruled by the hapless Aethelred the Unready, and huge amounts of money and goods were extorted from the native population in the form of Danegeld – a tax raised by the Vikings.

By 1016, the conquest was completed when Canute became the first Danish king of all England.

Domesticated

Viking settlement

Reconstruction of a Viking settlement in Ireland

Matthew Harding, an expert on the Viking settlements of the West Country, explained that despite their reputation as fierce warriors, Vikings were often quite nice once you got to know them.

“The traditional image of Viking boats is based on longboats, used to cross rough seas. What we have uncovered so far is a much smaller vessel for inland waters.”

“It is thought the boat was used for fishing rather than during raids. Ancient Viking manuscripts contain descriptions of how the Viking men would often go off in their boats with a fishing rod,” Mr Harding said.

“The Vikings were much more domesticated and settled in their ways that is often believed. They would bathe once a week, for example, much more often than the Anglo-Saxons did. The word for Saturday in the Scandinavian languages is translated as ‘washing day’.”

“Viking women were highly respected. They were free to choose their spouse, and free to divorce,” Harding added. “Many Viking place names remain in the region, including Nunney Catch – from the Viking term Nonah Kesh or ‘little chef’, the nickname of a local tribal elder.”

Skeletons

Viking boat burial

Viking boat burials are extremely rare in this country

The Wessex Archaeology team believes that the boat may have been used in a traditional Viking burial. If confirmed, it would make the Green Pits Lane site only the second location of a Viking boat burial on the UK mainland.

“The Glebelands / Green Pits Lane site is about one kilometer from the river,” Matthew Harding noted. “We know that other burials have been found in this area earlier. If the vessel was indeed used for a Viking burial this would explain why this boat was stuck in the middle of a field surrounded by other human remains.”

Trial trenches at Green Pits Lane

A total of 12 trial trenches were dug at Green Pits Lane

It is not unusual that no human remains have been found so far during the excavation. Whoever was buried in the boat would have had his shield placed on top of him. The grave was then filled to the top with stones.

A number of undated burials were discovered during the construction of the Fromefield and Glebelands housing estates, immediately to the north of the site. The discovery was made during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The skeletons are recorded as being ‘immediately replaced’ and no report was made. In other words, the bodies are still under the patio as far as Fromefield and Glebelands are concerned.

There could be more human remains on the proposed building site, the archaeologists have warned. It was said at the time that ‘older persons’ in the village knew this area as the site of a battle.

Green Pits Lane

Barratt Homes plans to build up to 100 houses on the Viking burial site near Glebelands and Green Pits Lane

Matthew Harding pointed out that this may be the result of a later confusion. “Vikings did not want to die in bed, as this would mean they would end up in a foggy underworld called Niflheim. But if they died in battle, they would go to glorious Valhalla.”

“So the concepts of battle and honourable death were virtually synomymous for the Vikings, which could be an indicated that this was an important Viking burial site.”

“Ships were Vikings’ most prized possessions. If a high-born Viking did not die at sea, he would be buried in a ship on land – as in the burial site that has just been discovered.”

Delay

Viking boat Nunney

The Viking boat is still partially stuck in the clay soil

Mr Harding said he hoped to persuade Mendip District Council to conduct a more detailed investigation on the site. “Unfortunately, that could delay construction on the site by months; we often don’t get more than three days to record as much as possible.”

“If the Nunney site does contain what would only be the second recorded Viking boat burial on UK mainland, however, it would be a real showstopper as far we we’re concerned. And we are cautiously optimistic – quite excited in fact,” he concluded.

Nunney residents are invited to come and see the Viking boat burial between 2pm and 4pm on Tuesday 1 April. Experts from Wessex Archaeology will be at hand to give background information on the significance of the finds.

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