In 2005 archaeologists working in eastern Scotland came across the skeleton of a warrior buried in a saint’s cemetery. A historian now believes these might be the remains of Olaf Guthfrithsson, King of Dublin and Northumbria from 934 to 941.
The remains were uncovered in the village of Auldhame, East Lothian, which is home to an Anglo-Saxon church and cemetery. The cemetery was in use from about 700 to 900, but the final burial was of a young man that included weapons and a distinctive belt from the Viking-Age Ireland.
This artefact signals that the body was that of a man who may have spent time in the household of the kings of the Uí Ímar dynasty which dominated both sides of the Irish Sea from about 917 until at least the middle of the 10th century.
Dr Alex Woolf of the the University of St. Andrews has linked this individual to Olaf Guthfrithsson, who was a member of the Uí Ímar dynasty. In 937 he defeated his Norse rivals in Limerick, and pursued his family claim to the throne of York. He married the daughter of King Constantine II of Scotland and allied himself with Owen I of Strathclyde.
Olaf Guthfrithsson 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. The proximity of the burial to the site of the conflict, the age of the skeleton and the high-status items found with the body, leads him to believe that the remains may be that of the young Viking king or one of his followers.
Dr Woolf explains, “Whilst there is no way to prove the identity of the young man buried at Auldhame, 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.”
He added, “I pointed out that the abandonment of the cemetery in the early tenth century was probably linked to the destruction of the churches of Saint Balthere, nowadays called Baldred, which included Auldhame and Tyninghame in 941, by the Norse king Olaf who died almost immediately afterwards. None of the other burials had grave goods of any sort (they were probably monks and nuns for the most part), so linking the final burial of the warrior with the raid of 941 seemed an obvious connection.”
Dr Woolf’s research will be published next year in a book from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. It will also be presented at seminar in Edinburgh Castle that will take place this October.
Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, commented, “This is a fascinating discovery and it’s tantalising that there has been the suggestion that this might be the body of a 10th century Irish Viking king. Scotland and Ireland’s archaeological communities enjoy a close working partnership, and this find and subsequent research is of particular interest to both, further emphasising the myriad ways in which the two countries’ histories are entwined.”
Sources: University of St. Andrews, Historic Scotland