A Viking burial at Balnakeil, Sutherland

 Early Medieval Art and Archaeology in the Northern WorldA Viking burial at Balnakeil, Sutherland

By Colleen E. Batey and Caroline Paterson

Early Medieval Art and Archaeology in the Northern World: Studies in Honour of James Graham-Campbell, eds. Andrew Reynolds and Leslie Webster (Brill, 2012)

Introduction: Heavy storms in May 1991 caused extensive sand blows in the dunes of Balnakeil Bay, Sutherland. These partially uncovered the remains of a human skeleton, which were discovered by Mr and Mrs Powell, who were holidaying locally. They promptly informed the local police of their discovery, handing over a copper-alloy pin which had been lying on top of the skeleton. Following confirmation by the local doctor that the remains were indeed human, and of some antiquity, archaeological investigation commenced.

Excavation was undertaken by Dorothy Maxwell (née Low) and Robert Gourlay of the Highland Regional Council. the remains were situated in the most northerly dune of the northernmost of the two bays at Balnakeil. the bones protruded from the edge of the dune, approximately 4m above the high water mark, and some 5–6m below the dune top. The visible remains initially consisted of most of the vertebrae, rib cage, pelvic bones and the left elbow joint. Some of the leg bones had been dislodged, and it is presumed that they had fallen from their original position as the sand had blown away. There was no visible evidence of the skull or bones of the right arm, due to the position and angle of the skeleton, which seemed to have been laid on its right side, so that the rib cage and remaining sand overburden were obscuring the rest of the skeleton.

The angle of the body in relation to the sand dune further indicated that the skull probably survived within the main dune, close to a piece of exposed corroded metal. The wind erosion of the dunes had led to a highly unstable situation, with the strong possibility of an imminent collapse of the dune face. This would have led to the burial— and indeed the excavators — being covered with a large weight of sand that would have destroyed more of the fragile remains.

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