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Viking Burial

In 1932 (possibly 1931) workmen digging a cesspit within the sand and shingle at Tanlan on what is now the A548 between Ffynnongroyw and Talacre made the incredible and, at the time, wholly unwelcome discovery of a skeleton within what was thought to have been a stone drain.  Thinking that they had discovered a murder victim, the police were called.


This was no modern tragedy, however, but evidence of Flintshire’s extraordinary past, its amalgam of cultural hues and influences.  This it seems was after all, the grave of a viking.


For many years, the activities of the Vikings in Wales were little considered, with the written evidence in annals speaking of little more than raids and the archaeological evidence poor.  And some of the evidence that existed was in north east Wales, in Flintshire - on the margins, to be looked at askance, with suspicion, overlooked.  And this is incredible, since North Wales, from Anglesey to the River Dee would have been inherently important within an Irish Sea context of raid and trade.


There are generally considered to have been three phases of Viking raiding in Wales, stretching from the middle of the 9th century through to the years around the Norman Conquest of England at the end of the 11th century.  The Norse had established a longphort, a naval base at Dublin in around 841, thus maintaining an established presence on both sides of the Irish Sea.  However, it is likely that the settlement of Dublin was at the end of a period of time when the Norse in particular had been actively raiding settlements on the coasts of the Irish Sea.  The first recorded Viking attack on Wales was in 852, in which Cyngen of Powys was killed - the Brut y Tywysogyon is terse on the matter.  Anglesey became a target of, ‘the Black Host’ from at least 855, with Rhodri Mawr leading a successful and much feted resistance.


In understanding the context of our Talacre burial, the circumstances surrounding the expulsion of Ingimund from Dublin would seem at first to be crucial.  The Brut y Tywysogyon claims in its entry for 903 that, ‘Ingimund came to the island of Anglesey and he held Maes Rhosmeilion’, though exactly where Maes Rhosmeilion is remains open to conjecture.  Their presence in Anglesey, however, was short lived, and defeated and expelled, Ingimund and his followers continued across the Irish Sea, eventually settling on the Wirral, or more accurately, the northern half of the peninsula, where they were given permission to settle by Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.  The presence of Vikings on the Wirral had a profound effect on the peninsula, evidenced by the tremendous wealth of archaeological remains, including a number of circle headed crosses and hogback stones.  The extent of the settlement can be seen in the number of Scadanavian derived place names, such as Tranmere, Greasby and Pensby, the existence of a Scandinavian ‘parliament’ or meeting place at Thingwall, and of course the now famous trading centre at Meols.  Chester clearly had extensive Scandinavian connections from the late 9th century, probably earlier, having been seized in 893 by Danes retreating from their defeat by an allied force of Saxons and Welsh at Buttington in Powys.  Ingimund’s permissive settlement on the Wirral led, as was often the case, to the Vikings believing that the grant had been made through weakness and, looking for more land, led to a series of attacks on Chester between 903 and 911.  The attacks were defeated and led to Chester being reinforced as a royal burgh,  a fortified town utilising the remaining Roman defences.


The settlement of the Wirral clearly influenced North East Wales, the coastal area of Tegeingl in particular, an area which roughly encompassed Rhuddlan to Whitford.  There is continued debate as to whether this influence manifested itself as anything other than temporary settlement.  Place name evidence, as is so obvious on the Wirral is lacking, and those names touted as Scandinavian such as Axton, Kelston and Linacre are as likely to be Saxon in origin.  However, what is absolutely certain is that there is tremendous Scandinavian influence, with circle headed crosses discovered at Dyserth, Meliden and of course, resplendently in the form of the late tenth, early eleventh century Maen Achwyfan at Whitford.  It is also possible to trace this influence in the actions of their enemies, the Saxons and the native Welsh.  The large Saxon presence at Rhuddlan, founded originally as Cledemutha, and the likely presence of a Saxon watchtower on the heights at Gwespyr were probably as a consequence of Scadinavian activity in the Irish Sea at the time of Ingimund’s journeys, and likely built in collaboration with the Welsh.


The recent discovery of the Viking trading centre at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey has radically changed our understanding of Scandinavian activity in North Wales, and Wales in general.  While it was the Viking influence here that made the headlines, rightly given its impact on our historical understanding of the era, it is clear the site can trace its existence back to the Neolithic and remained focused on farming until sometime in the ninth century.  It was then that the enclosure underwent a radical defensive upgrade, coinciding with the increase in Viking activity in the region.  There is ongoing debate as to whether Llanbedrgoch was ever actually owned by the Vikings, or was rather, with its plethora of Scandinavian goods (such as hack silver), so heavily influenced by them as to make the question worthy of serious debate.


And so, into this context must the burial in the sand and shingle at Tanlan be placed.  The history of the discovery is of some interest.  It coincided with a visit to the area of a visiting bus tour, and it is fortunate that they were there, since it is due to this that the few details we have of the find have come down to us.  While the workmen who were digging the cesspit initially thought the body was a recent victim of murder, this was ruled out by the police investigation.  It also became apparent that what was believed to have been a stone drain was, in actual fact a rather more impressive rectilinear stone cist, cut from roughly hewn stone slabs, around 2.3m in length and just less than a metre in width.  Along with the skeleton, laid within the cist in a NW - SE alignment, were found a socketed iron spearhead of around 50cm in length and part of what has been described as an iron knife.  It is the spearhead which points to the grave being that of a Viking.  The skeleton was removed and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons in London where, for many years it was thought lost, while nothing at all is known of the whereabouts of the grave goods and indeed the stone cist.

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The original drawings from The Proceedings of the Llandudno and Colwyn Bay District Field Club 17 (1932)  by F.G.Smith

Happily, however, the skeleton has been rediscovered in the Natural History Museum.  The Royal College of Surgeons was bombed in May 1941, but much of its collection had been removed to safer venues at the outbreak of war, including to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.  A sample of bone was removed and submitted for radiocarbon dating, with a returned date range at 2 sigma of 660-880AD, the latter end of which would place the body firmly in the context of the first phase of Viking activity in the Irish Sea area.  Interestingly, however, it is before the first known established colony of Viking settlement on the Wirral after Ingimund’s expulsion from Dublin and Anglesey at the beginning of the 10th century.  Our Viking was not part of Ingimund’s party, or any subsequent relation to it.  And so a neat explanation as to the circumstances of the burial on the coast of Tegeingl, within a short distance of the Wirral home of an established Hiberno-Norse colony is not possible.  Further strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the tooth enamel will, it is hoped, determine whether the man was native to the area or not.


We have little to go on in establishing the circumstances of the burial, but perhaps we can discount several theories rather than prove others.  The suggestion that this burial was a hurried affair, the man dying at sea perhaps with wounds received in raiding, perhaps at Chester, and brought ashore to be quickly interred seems unlikely - why not simply take the body home? There is nothing hurried about the burial, after all.  The obvious trouble his people went to in sourcing the stone for the cist, fashioning it with some care and placing the body within this impressive ‘coffin’ with weapons as grave goods suggests that this was considered, thoughtful, respectful and most certainly unhurried.  And consider the weapons, what can they tell us even though they are now lost?  With two weapons amongst the grave goods, we can be sure that this was the grave of a warrior, not an artisan or a trader, which would suggest, perhaps hesitatingly, that our Viking was involved in raiding, perhaps along the coast of north west England, or even the north coast of Wales. The inclusion of two weapons, a spearhead and knife, could suggest that this was a Viking of some rank, a ‘group two’ burial (after Solberg/Harrison).  Even if we were to consider the knife as a practical tool, and not a weapon, thus reducing the burial to  ‘group one’ status, it would still suggest that this Viking was a man of some standing amongst his people - a leader perhaps (though it must be said, the term ‘leader’ within a Viking context of this era is an extremely flexible designation).  The spearhead remains of interest, since its loss has denied us the possibility of identifying where the Viking was from.  Dublin, which was settled by the Vikings in the middle of the ninth century, was known for producing bespoke spearheads, uncharacteristic of Viking types elsewhere.


Investigations in the area at the time and after did not discover any further graves, although the possibility of further bodies lying in the sand and shingle cannot be entirely dismissed - it is thought that the position of the coast line has changed significantly in the intervening 1300 years.  But with what we know, this burial would seem to be isolated.  There is also no evidence of any established Viking settlement in the area.  Plenty of evidence of cultural and artistic influence, but nothing definitive of real settlement, so questions remain as to why the Viking was buried at Tanlan, in a ceremony that one imagines took some time.  Was there a temporary camp in the area, perhaps one that has failed to leave behind an archaeological presence, or at least a presence yet to be found?  Was this death, perhaps of a leader, the result of raiding along the coast?  At the latter end of the radiocarbon dates collected, we know that Rhodri Mawr was expelled from Gwynedd by the Vikings out of Dublin, which would have necessitated a land based army, rather than being the result of raiding, and thus there are suggestions that, at least on a temporary basis, the Norse were in control of North West Wales at that time.  This would certainly bring Tegeingl closer to an established sphere of Norse influence and perhaps control.


And so we end as we began, contemplating a mystery.  On a windswept coast some 1300 years ago, a group of Vikings gathered as they laid the body of their comrade at arms within the stone cist they had fashioned and placed in the sand and shingle of a Tegeingl beach.  A spear and a knife are laid in the ground beside the body, a ceremony perhaps takes place.  Is a marker placed at the grave?  Do the Vikings then return to their ship, beached up perhaps at the Point of Ayr as countless ships since have lain at anchor, and return to Dublin, to Anglesey?  Or did they in fact, return to their homes in Tegeingl, an area now known for the Hiberno-Norse infused splendor of the Maen Achwyfan Cross?  We simply do not know, but time perhaps will tell eventually.

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