The Scar boat burial: A Viking grave in Sanday, Orkney

The excavation of the Viking boat burial at Scar, towards the north end of Burness in Sanday, was a race against time and deteriorating weather conditions.  In 1991 exposed human remains and corroded boat rivets were clearly visible in an eroding section of the sandy coastline and a rescue excavation was organised with funding from Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council.  Historic Scotland’s excavation unit, Archaeological Operations and Conservation, made ready for fieldwork and once the first autumn storms had abated, they began a two-week mission to record and excavate the boat and its contents.  They were blessed with a period of calm, bright weather: a few days after the excavation had finished, a violent storm destroyed the site and removed all trace of the boat burial.

A hand holding a rusted rivet from the Scar Viking Age boat burial
Iron fastenings, Scar, Sanday. Date: CE 895 to 1035
One of the 310 nails and rivets recovered from a Viking boat burial. They are hand forged and of various lengths.
Orkney Museum 1992.22

Revealing the outline of the boat

When found, the iron fastenings provided a “ghost” of the original boat. It wasn’t possible to say which of them were in situ, but enough survived to show that the vessel had been clinker built with over-lapping planks, in the Nordic tradition. The boat had been used for burial and contained the remains of three people and their possessions. It is one of only three Viking period boats to have been excavated in Orkney in modern times.

A Viking Age whale bone plaque with two opposing animal heads at the top, from Scar, Sanday
Whale bone plaque, Scar, Sanday. Date: 8th – 9th centuries
This plaque was placed in the Scar boat grave at the time of the burial. It is associated with the woman who was buried here. Find out more about the people and objects that were buried with her here. See the plaque on display at The Orkney Museum and a 3D printed replica in the Sanday Heritage Centre.
Orkney Museum 1992.22.139

A possible noust?

A stone spread comprising several layers and with a straight, well-defined eastern edge covered the width of the trench at the time of excavation. The pit which had been dug to contain the boat burial had cut into the western side of this feature. The lower parts of two parallel walls running north to south were visible 18 months after the excavation. It has been suggested that this structure may have been a boat noust. On a visit to the site in 2018, it proved difficult to identify this feature, probably the result of another 25 years of erosion. It is not an obvious site for a noust as access to the structure with a boat would have been difficult with there being no passage through the rocky approach, which has a rock formation of tilted strata.

Scar, Sanday

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

Find out more about the boat burial site by clicking here.

Find out about the connections between the woman buried in the Scar boat grave and a fisher woman at Stromness by clicking here.

Visit The Orkney Museum website by clicking here.

Visit the Sanday Heritage Centre’s website by clicking here.

Further Reading:
“Scar: A Viking Boat Burial on Sanday, Orkney”, Olwyn Owen and Magdar Dalland 1999, Historic Scotland

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