Have archaeologists found the remains of Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson?

By Richard Moss | 02 June 2014

Archaeologists have come up with a tantalising theory linking remains discovered  in East Lothian to the Viking king Olaf Guthfrithsson

a photon of a jawbone and skull fragment
Could this be the jawbone of King Olaf Guthfrithsson?© Photo Donald MacLeod Courtesy Historic Scotland
Archaeologists in Scotland pondering the remains of a young adult male excavated at Auldhame in East Lothian in 2005 believe they may be those of Olaf Guthfrithsson - an Irish Viking who was the King of Dublin and Northumbria from 934 to 941.

The claim, which will be published in full in 2015 by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in a book funded by Historic Scotland, hinges on the discovery of a number of items indicating high rank.

Excavations undertaken by AOC Archaeology Group revealed a belt buckle of the type popular in Viking Age Ireland which may point to the body being Guthfrithsson, a member of his entourage or a man who may have spent time in the household of the kings of the Uí Ímar dynasty.

The Viking dynasty dominated both sides of the Irish Sea from about 917 until at least the middle of the 10th century.

Olaf was a typically aggressive Viking king who sacked Auldhame and nearby Tyninghame - both part of a complex of East Lothian churches dedicated to the eighth-century Saint Balthere - shortly before his death in 941.

He was also part of combined army that tried unsuccessfully to unseat King Æthelstan of England at the Battle of Brunaburh. Olaf had briefly been King of York in 927 before being unseated by Æthelstan.

As well as evidence of the high status burial, the age of the skeleton discovery in Scotland together with its precise location has led to the interesting theories. 

Dr Alex Woolf, senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, and a historical consultant on the project admitted that in the absence of known living descendants and therefore DNA provenance, there was “no way to prove the identity of the young man buried at Auldhame”.

However the date of the burial and the equipment “make it very likely that this death was connected with Olaf’s attack on the locale”.

“Since we have a single furnished burial in what was probably perceived as St Balthere’s original foundation there is a strong likelihood that the king’s followers hoped that by burying him in the saint’s cemetery he might have benefitted from some sort of post-mortem penance.”

The findings and theories were revealed by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, during a visit last Friday to Newgrange, a Neolithic monument in County Meath, to highlight archaeological links between Scotland and Ireland.

A seminar will take place at Edinburgh Castle on October 30 2014 to look at archaeological collaborations between Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

a woman holding an archaeological remnant beneath a magnifier
Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, views the tenth-century belt buckle which was discovered on the archaeological dig at Auldhame, East Lothian.© Photo Donald MacLeod courtesy Historic Scotland
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