Last week we walked around Balladoole, near Castletown on the Isle of Man, the site of a viking ship burial first excavated in 1945 by a team led the famous archaeologist Gerhard Bersu, a German who was held in one of the internment camps on the Island during the war. The archaeologists were originally looking for an Iron Age fort but stumbled upon the ship burial, which must have caused great excitement all round. The Viking burial was again excavated in 1974 by J.R. Bruce.
The site is at the top of a small hill, but one commanding magnificent views south towards Port St Mary and the Calf of Man, and north towards Snaefell, the Island’s mountain.
The open views in all directions were probably an important factor in the choice of the site as an Iron Age hill fort in the first few centuries AD. The rampart is at least six feet higher than the area outside, and was probably much higher still, but much of the stone work has been used by farmers to build walls through the succeeding centuries.
The hill top is covered in long grasses and wild flowers, with swathes cut through forming paths between the areas of significance.
An oval of heavy white quartz stones marks the site of the Viking boat burial, which was at the time of its discovery covered by a low cairn. The Viking tomb lies on top of earlier Christian lintel graves. These graves contained several people, the DNA of one of whom, a woman, was sent for analysis and it was found that she was from North Africa. I wonder what brought her to the Isle of Man, and what she made of the green and lush surroundings, and the significant rainfall that create that verdant growth.
The site contained a Viking ship which was about 36 feet long. This was similar in construction to one built in the 1040s which could hold 4 tons of cargo and needed 5 men to sail it. No small feat to get this large vessel up a steep and relatively inaccessible hillside to its final resting place.
Inside the ship were the bodies of two people, an adult male and an adult woman. He must have been a man of importance to merit a burial of this kind, and he was buried with many items which were to accompany him on his last journey. These grave goods included clothes, tools, food, drink and the remains of a horse and riding equipment, as well as a shield, though no sword or other weapon was found. The woman may have been a sacrifical victim, buried with him, but her story is lost in the mists of time.
Also on this hilltop is the remains of a small chapel (Keeill Vael) dating from around 900 – 1000 AD. This site was excavated in 1918. The archaeologists involved in that excavation must have been surprised to hear what else the site held, when the news of the Viking find spread less about 30 years later. Further along is the site of a Bronze Age grave/cist, dating to about 1000 BC.