IT was the first intact Viking ship burial to be unearthed on the UK mainland, with two teeth the only remains of the person who was laid to rest there more than 1,000 years ago.
Now the first report on the rare archaeological find, discovered on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, has raised the intriguing possibility it may have held the body of a female warrior, rather than a male Viking chieftain as previously assumed.
Researchers believe the person was a warrior of high status, with weapons such as a spear, shield, sword and axe also found buried in the small rowing boat – but there were an assortment of other artefacts including a large iron ladle, a sickle and part of a drinking horn.
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An analysis of chemical elements known as isotopes found in the two teeth suggest the Viking may have grown up in a coastal village in Norway.
While there are few clues as to why their elaborate burial site is on the remote Scottish peninsula, one theory is it could have taken place to mark the first settlement of the area by Vikings.
The Viking boat burial was discovered in 2011 by archaeologists working on a wider project to explore human life in Swordle Bay, from Stone Age burial chambers through to the 19th Century.
The report, published in the journal Antiquity, notes the sword and other grave goods might "traditionally suggest" it was the burial of a man, but adds: "any reading remains highly interpretive."
Dr Oliver Harris, from the University of Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History and co-director of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project (ATP), said: "The teeth themselves don't gender the person at all. So at the moment, we are left looking at the artefacts.
"One's initial attention is drawn to the sword and axe and spear and those sort of things which suggest a warrior and potentially male.
"There are more Viking burials with swords that are men than women – if you want to play a statistical game, you would say it is probably a man. But you might choose to look at other grave goods, like the ladle or pan or sickle that don't necessarily send the same kind of message.
"We just don't know: quite probably it is a man, but archaeologists have been very quick in the past to sex burials on the basis of grave goods."
Harris said Viking woman were known to be warriors but cautioned perhaps "not to the extent sometimes made out in modern TV series. He also pointed out there may have been more than one person buried in the boat, but whose remains had decayed completely in the highly acidic soil.
The analysis of the isotopes in the surviving teeth – a type of chemical 'signature' which is formed from the diet as a child – revealed the most likely place the person grew up in was coastal Norway.
It also shows at the age of around five years old the person's diet switched from meat to fish for around a year – which was an unusual food supply at that time.
Harris said: "It suggests there is a kind of shortage of food or a famine and that people are looking for other kinds of resources.
"It is difficult to say more than that – but it is a really intriguing moment in this person's life when you can see a window onto their childhood and what was going on for them in the village where they were growing up on the shores of Norway more than 1000 years ago."
The report notes the unusual isotopes in the warrior's teeth are also similar to a female found buried at Cnip on the Isle of Lewis, who is believed to have been alive around the same time during the 10th Century.
"It might mean that this woman in Cnip grew up in the same place as our Viking did – perhaps somewhere on coastal Norway, maybe even in the same village," Harris said. "You can see the Outer Hebrides from Swordle Bay on a clear day, so there is a kind of visual connection there – potentially between people who have come from the same part of Norway and are settling different places on the west coast of Scotland at this time."
The warrior's final resting place could indicate the first settlement of the area by the Vikings – indicated by Swordle Bay originating as a Norse name meaning 'grassy valley'.
"I don't think they are just sailing up and down the coast, someone has died, and they have just rowed into the nearest harbour and buried someone there," Harris said. "There is a kind of connection to this landscape that is more substantial than that.
"It is perfectly possible [the burial] is linked with the process of settling in this bay."