Valhalla: Examining Viking Burials in the British Isles

– Posted on Thursday 19th July 2012

 A first-of-its-kind exhibition displaying evidence for Viking burials across the British Isles opens to the public this week, showcasing some of the country’s most advanced archaeological expertise.

York Archaeological Trust’s Valhalla exhibition is the result of collaborations with York Minster and Manx National Heritage, bringing together key Viking burial findings and exploring the latest archaeological research techniques.

The exhibition will display significant artefacts from excavations in York and the Isle of Man, including two Viking-age skeletons from the Hungate excavation in York and a replica of Thorwald’s Cross in cooperation with Manx National Heritage.  It examines how excavations can reveal the way Vikings commemorated and celebrated their dead using pagan boat burials, grave goods and ornately carved headstones, such as those found in excavations at York Minster.

The York Minster stones, found in the excavations carried out by York Archaeological Trust, are amongst the finest examples of Viking Age stone sculpture in Britain.  They were found in their original locations, above the actual burials which they had commemorated.  This is extremely rare as Viking gravestones in Britain have usually been found in places away from their original positions, after they have been cleared from the cemeteries they originally marked.

New pathological research conducted by York Osteoarchaeology on the two Viking-age remains found at Hungate tells visitors more about the person and when they were alive.  Studies of wear and tear, scarring, breaks and other marks on bones, as well as dental remains, reveal information about the life they led, what sort of activities they were involved in and whether they were rich or poor.

 Sarah Maltby, Director of Attractions at York Archaeological Trust said:

“This latest pathological research gives us clues about the lives that those people led.  Combine this with osteological analysis, and we can tell the sex, age and height of a person, depending on how much of the skeleton was preserved in the ground.  The research can also give us clues as to how that person may have died – whether from disease, injury or from natural causes.

 Looking at this evidence, alongside artefacts found throughout the British Isles, helps tell a more accurate story of Viking Britain and our Viking ancestry”.

Important exhibits include a replica of the Thorwald’s Cross, which is thought to depict the transition of the Viking world of pagan beliefs to the introduction of Christianity.  This exhibit is a result of the Trust’s partnership with Manx National Heritage. 

In addition, the story of a Viking man buried in the Balladoole ship burial will be told.  Using forensic science, researchers can tell he was a 45-year-old man who died in around 950 AD; and visitors can come face to face with this Balladoole Viking thanks to a state-of-the-art facial reconstruction

Allison Fox, Curator of Archaeology at Manx National Heritage said:

“In archaeology, it’s through the dead that we can recreate the living, and talking about the rites and rituals of the Vikings can go some way to understanding the people themselves.  We can even, quite literally, put a face to the dead in the case of the Viking burial at Balladoole, here on the Isle of Man. 

 “We’re really pleased to be part of this exciting exhibition, and we’re sure that visitors will be fascinated by the beliefs held by our Viking ancestors”.

 The Valhalla exhibition opens at 10 Coppergate, York, YO1 9NR, and will run between 21 July and 5 November 2012.  For more information, visit

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