YORK, England – A thousand year old Viking necklace, discovered at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man in 1984 and belonging to ‘a pagan sorceress’ has gone on display at the Jorvik Visitor Centre in York. The necklace – made up of 52 amber, jet and glass beads, including a couple of mosaic ones – is on loan from the Manx National Heritage organisation the first time that the piece has been displayed off the island. The grave dates from around 950, but some of the beads are older – as much as 400 years older – and came from all over Europe. It’s more typical to find rich grave goods in male burial sites.
Marketing manager Beth Dawes said the centre was “really thrilled” to have the piece on loan. “It is absolutely beautiful. I’ve been saying that I would wear it myself,” she said.
“The grave that the necklace was found in indicated that the woman might have been a pagan sorceress… which was a shaman sort of person who would have told fortunes and been very involved in rituals and religion.”
Edmund Southworth, Director of Manx National Heritage and Chairman of the Destination Viking Association said:
“Working with other organisations is a vital part of our work in promoting the Isle of Man’s Viking cultural heritage. We are proud to be part of the wider community of heritage sites and museums who promote understanding of the Vikings in Europe and worldwide. The Isle of Man and York are part of the Council of Europe’s Viking Route of Cultural Heritage and our collaboration has grown over several years.”
It isn’t certain that the woman was a sorceress; but according to authorities, it is a possibility. What is known is that the Vikings had a religious role for women, since there are accounts of women called volva, who travelled from town to town performing magic for hire (the name possibly derives from earlier Germanic practitioners called ‘veleda,’ a ‘seeress’ or ‘prophetess’, or from the word for ‘staff/magic wand carrier’). The volva apparently didn’t have quite the same role as a priestess, although they did sometimes lead ceremonies.
Although it isn’t known for certain whether the woman found on Man occupied one of these roles or not, Allison Fox, the director of archaeology for MNH, says that the grave of the so-called ‘Pagan Lady,’ which was in a Christian cemetery, is “by far the wealthiest female burial” discovered on Man. “The very least we can say is that she was a very important woman in the local community, and that importance might have a spiritual connotation as well as a practical domestic side,” Ms Fox said (as far as we know, people who played a religious role in Viking society usually had other jobs as well).
“The number and variety of beads is really the striking thing about the necklace, that makes it stand out.”
An ammonite fossil charm and a little pestle and mortar were also found in the grave and will also be on display.
According to texts from the time – the Irish Annals – the Vikings arrived on Man in 798 and by 820 had established their presence on the island in a thriving colony which traded between Ireland and the neighbouring islands. The legacy of the Vikings lives on in the unique political structure of the island, for the Norsemen founded the Tynewald (“open assembly” in old Norse) in 800 AD: this is oldest working parliament in the world and is still in operation.
Possibly a local parliament to start with, later becoming centralised, the Tynwalds were already in operation before the establishment of a Parliamentary Government in England. Here, old laws were codified, new laws were put into operation, and law breakers were punished.
Peel Castle itself, the site of the ‘sorceress’ burial, has been a site of religious and secular importance on the island. Excavation started in 1982. The castle walls contain a Round Tower from the 11th century, a cathedral from the 13th and small apartments for the later Lords of Mann, the island’s rulers.
During the excavations seven pagan burials were found within the Christian cemetery, but this was not the only burial site on the island. Others include a boat grave at Balladoole, dated around 850 – 950 AD and containing a Viking ship, and the burial mound at Cronk Moar.
The boat grave also held a woman’s remains, dressed in fine clothing, and equipment for horse riding, tools and a shield. Cronk Moar contains a fully dressed man in a coffin with a cloak, cloak pin, knife, and a sword. A mound at Ballateare also contains a warrior, with a sword broken into three pieces, and the remains of a young woman – probably a slave – who had been killed by a blow to the head, perhaps in order to accompany her master into the afterlife.
The Islamic traveller, Ibn Fadlan, gave a contemporary account in the 10th century of a young slave girl being killed among the Volga Vikings, after the death of her master. Or maybe this grim fate did not befall the woman at Ballateare – maybe she was simply part of an earlier burial and the graves became mixed up. Animal remains were also found in the grave.
The Vikings ruled Man until 1265 when it was handed over to Alexander III of Scotland. This ancient island, home to several different peoples, is still yielding up its secrets.
If you’re visiting York this year, you can see the loaned necklace at the Jorvik Centre, from now until August 2019.
To coincide with the loan of the necklace and objects from the Isle of Man, representatives from Manx National Heritage will also be speaking at a number of events in York including the ‘2019 Viking Festival’, ‘Follow the Vikings Roadshow’ and the final ‘best practice’ seminar of the Creative Europe project.