Peter Adams (left) the metal detectorist who, while out with friend George Robinson (right) made the discovery that led archaeologists to a highly significant Viking burial. Courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.
A chance find by a metal detectorist has led to the discovery of an extremely rare Viking burial site, containing the graves of four men and two women.
The site, near Cumwhitton in Cumbria, is believed to date from the early 10th century and was unearthed in March this year after local metal detectorist Peter Adams found two copper brooches.
Peter reported his discovery to the local Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer, Faye Simpson, and, as he put it: "Finding the brooches was just the beginning."
Experts from Oxford Archaeology North were brought in and with the help of English Heritage began further excavations. Below the brooches they found the grave of a Viking woman.
The two copper alloy brooches that started the whole thing. Courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Then, 10 metres away, they found more burials, full of grave goods. Altogether, Peter’s "find of a lifetime" led to the discovery of two female and four male burials.
"This was a haunting find," explained Faye Simpson. "When I first saw the excavated graves, complete with artefacts but the bodies of those buried long decomposed, it seemed as though the people buried there had indeed followed in the footsteps of their ancestors and gone to Valhalla – the Viking afterlife."
The sandy soil of the area means that while the bodies have decomposed, the goods they were buried with remained exactly where it was interred over a thousand years ago.
Archaeologists were therefore given the unique opportunity to excavate a Viking Age cemetery under 21st century conditions.
A cluster of five of the Viking graves. Courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.
In the male burials they found weaponry and fire-making materials in two of them, while one was buried with spurs, a possible bridle and what is thought to be the remains of a drinking horn.
One of the females was buried wearing a magnificent jet bracelet on her left wrist and with a copper alloy belt fitting. The other had been buried with a wooden chest at her feet, which x-rays may determine holds weaving equipment.
"We could not have expected more from the excavation of the site," said Rachel Newman of Oxford Archaeology North.
"We knew the brooches found by Mr Adams came from a burial of a Viking Age woman, which was exciting and of great importance in itself, but we did not expect to find five other graves complete with such a splendid array of artefacts. It truly has been an amazing few months excavating this extremely important Viking Age site."
A sword and beads are clearly visible in this photograph of one of the graves. Courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The site is made even more remarkable by its rarity. Only one other Viking cemetery has been found and excavated in England to date - a cremation cemetery at Ingleby in Derbyshire, which was excavated in the 1940s.
Ashes were found buried in earthenware pots and very few artefacts survive. The only other group of bodies to be found buried together was a battlefield cemetery at Repton, Derbyshire.
According to Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage, it is the fact that the burials are of a domestic type that makes them so important: "This incredible find provides rare archaeological evidence of the Vikings as settlers who integrated themselves into English life," he said.
It reveals, he added, "the presence of the Vikings as a community group including women and challenges the war-lords stereotype as depicted by Hollywood."
A reconstruction of what one of the graves might have looked like. © Dom Andrews/ Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Work on the conservation of the finds, some of which are set to be unveiled at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle on September 7, is now underway to ensure that information about the objects recovered is preserved for further study.
For Mark Wood, Chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council, this is yet another victory for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
"This is tremendous news: a unique discovery which will improve people’s understanding of the area and its history," said Mark.
"The museum community relies on members of the public to report archaeological treasures to our network of Finds Liaison Officers, and you can imagine how pleased we are when important finds of this nature are unearthed."
Any members of the press wanting to find out more about this extraordinary find should contact Fiona Cameron at MLA either by phone on 020 7273 1459 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.