UHI academics contribute to international Viking DNA research project

DNA from a female skeleton, found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. (Picture: Västergötlands Museum)

Two academics from the University of the Highlands and Islands were part of an international team of researchers involved in a project hailed as “the world’s largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons”.

Dr Ingrid Mainland, Senior Lecturer at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and Julie Gibson, Orkney Islands Council County Archaeologist and UHI researcher, contributed to the paper, Population genomics of the Viking world, which was published in Nature on September 16.

(The paper is available to read online here)

Led by Professor Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, the research team extracted and analysed DNA from the remains of 442 men, women and children.

The remains were recovered from archaeological sites in Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and mostly date to the Viking Age (c.AD750-1050). Eight individuals in the study came from Orkney – three from Newark, Deerness; two from Buckquoy, Birsay, and three from the Brough Road, Birsay.

The team’s analyses yielded a number of findings. One of the most noteworthy is that contrary to what has often been assumed, Viking identity was not limited to people of Scandinavian ancestry — an individual, buried in a “Scandinavian fashion” in Birsay, Orkney, was found to be of Scottish ancestry.

Two other individuals from Orkney had 50 per cent Scandinavian ancestry, and five such individuals were found in Scandinavia. This suggests that Pictish populations may have been integrated into Scandinavian culture by the Viking Age.

They also found evidence that there was significant gene flow into Scandinavia from the British Isles, Southern Europe, and Asia before and during the Viking Age, which further undermines the image of the Vikings as “pure” Scandinavians.

Another discovery that runs counter to the standard image of the Vikings is that many had brown, not blonde, hair.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. (Picture: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology)

The analyses’ results also shed light on the Vikings’ activities. For example, consistent with patterns documented by historians and archaeologists, the team found that Vikings who travelled to England generally had Danish ancestry, while the majority of Vikings who travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland had Norwegian ancestry. In contrast, Vikings who headed east were mostly from Sweden.

Interestingly, explained Simon Fraser University archaeology professor Mark Collard, data revealed a number of close kin among the 442 individuals. Four members of a Viking raiding party interred in a boat burial in Estonia were found to be brothers, while two individuals buried 300 to 400 kilometres apart in Sweden were found to be cousins. Perhaps even more strikingly, the team identified a pair of second-degree male relatives (i.e. half-brothers, nephew-uncle, or grandson-grandfather) from two sites, one in Denmark and one in England.

“We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was,” said Prof Willerslev. “No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

Of all the team’s discoveries, Prof Collard is most intrigued by the identification of close kin.

“While the ‘big picture’ discoveries are great, I was blown away by the fact that the analyses revealed the presence of four brothers in the Estonian boat burial, and a possible nephew and uncle on either side of the North Sea.”

“These findings have important implications for social life in the Viking world, but we would’ve remained ignorant of them without ancient DNA. They really underscore the power of the approach for understanding history.”

Update from Newark, Orkney following Storms

Work continues to protect the fragile site at Newark Bay, Orkney. Photo: Amanda Brend

The storms that have hit the UK in the past few months have brought flooding and disruption to many communities both on the coast and on river flood plains. Orkney has not been spared and our exposed coastal areas have been subjected to massive waves and high storm surges.

As the storms are replaced by snow showers and a period of relative calm, archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) together with a small army of volunteers are inspecting the fragile site at Newark.

January and February’s storms have badly impacted Newark and disrupted many of the measures that have been so carefully put in place in the previous few months – as photographs on various social media sites have shown.

Volunteers repairing damage to the sea defences. Photo: Amanda Brend

The site is being actively watched over by Deerness residents and by volunteers from across Orkney, including students and staff from the UHI Archaeology Institute. We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term, but they provide some protection, and as soon as the weather makes it safe to replace and secure them again, we’ll put out a shout for help. In the meantime if you find bags blowing about, please gather them up, weigh them down near the carpark (in a sheltered place) and if we can re-use, we will.

As a separate issue from the protection of the site, Historic Environment Scotland are funding a major 3 year study of the site and the human remains there. Check out our previous blog for details of the project. Currently a major report is being compiled of all that’s been done at Newark in the past, what we know about the site and what needs to be done for the future to best understand it and all that’s found there. The work is being undertaken by ORCA, at the UHI Archaeology Institute here at Orkney College in Kirkwall and is led by a Steering Group made up of landowner, volunteers, ORCA archaeologists and Gail Drinkall of Orkney Museum.

Landowner about to do some claying up on-site, to protect remains. Photo: Amanda Brend

Years 2 and 3 of the project will be examining in depth the human remains, completing DNA analysis and other work to determine as much as we can about the many folk buried there. Many remains were excavated from the site 50 years ago (http://www.hopkinsweb.org.uk/orkney/) and are safely preserved for this work to be undertaken. We know that people were buried there between the 6th and 15th centuries A.D. (https://canmore.org.uk/site/3033/newark) and that their remains may hold information about the little-understood Pictish/Viking transition in Orkney at a time of major change in the North.

A major exhibition about Newark and all our findings will take place in the Orkney Museum over the summer of 2022, and other grants are being applied for in order to extend the project, to complete further research, but we fear indeed that the sea will ultimately win the battle.

In the meantime, please respect this site of human burial and be aware that it’s not safe around the site at present due to undermined banks and boulders making walking dangerous. We will continue to do what we can and if you want to help, watch out for the next call for volunteers.

ORCA Archaeology Secure Funding for an Important New Project

Newark Bay

ORCA Archaeology is pleased to announce that they have been awarded a grant of £202,000 by Historic Environment Scotland to complete an important archaeology research project centred on Newark Bay, Deerness, Orkney.

Newark is the site of an early medieval chapel and extensive cemetery and was the focus of rescue excavations by the late Professor Brothwell between 1968 and 1972. Due to various circumstances, the work never came to publication and part of this new ORCA Archaeology project will be to address this. 

Like so many sites in Orkney, coastal erosion is a significant problem and has caused structural and human remains to have been lost over the years since Professor Brothwell’s original excavation.

Some 250 burials were recovered, making it one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Scotland. It was also the location of a post-medieval mansion house, partly revealed during excavation. Subsequent work at Newark includes recovery of a Class II Pictish Carved Stone, the second almost complete example of its type from Orkney. 

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Pictish Carved Stone discovered at Newark Bay

ORCA staff examining the newly excavated Pictish Carved Stone. Note how close the beach is to the find site.Professor Brothwell’s archive is not publicly available, and with his excavation findings remaining unpublished, the potential for further analysis of the skeletal assemblage has yet to be fully exploited. This project therefore aims  to address these issues and aims to:

  • Bring the site to publication;
  • Disseminate the archive
  • Complete comprehensive skeletal analysis of the human remains
  • Create an ancient DNA project
  • Include the wider community through the use of outreach workshops, social media and other digital platforms
  • Train volunteers in basic archaeological recording techniques

The project will be rolled out over three years starting in April 2019……..

Year One
Publication: bringing together all work at the site from Professor Brothwell onwards, providing a current statement of knowledge and understanding, and setting out recommendations for future research.

Archive: bringing the Newark archive within the public domain via a digital repository. Includes cataloguing all skeletal material and digitising the archive.

Year Two 
Analysis of the skeletal remains, including full recording, C14 dating and isotopic analysis of a percentage of the assemblage. A full report will be published of findings.

Year Three
Creation of a collaborative ancient DNA project. Creation of mobile exhibition about the site to be held at Orkney Museum and local community hall(s).

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, ORCA Archaeology said, “We are very excited to have secured this funding for work at such an important site that is continually under attack from coastal erosion. We are looking forward to involving the community in the process through outreach training and workshops and, over the next three years, this project will provide vital information for the record which in turn will help us understand more fully the society that these people created in Orkney during the medieval period. The site includes finds from the Pictish through to the Viking period.”

The community are integral to the project. They have a long-term investment in the site at Newark and want to see previous work brought to publication and the archive disseminated. This project provides opportunities for their involvement throughout.

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