The Vikings in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe were not Christianised until the late tenth century. Their burial customs were pagan and the wealthiest were buried with their personal belongings. The distribution and content of pagan Viking burials in Ireland are valuable indicators of the nature of the earliest contacts between the Vikings and Ireland in the early Viking Age.
In 1840 a male skeleton and a number of artefacts were discovered by workmen constructing a railway line along the seashore at Larne. The grave was a simple pit dug into the sand about 1.5m above the level of the high water mark.
The man, clearly a warrior, had been buried with a double-edged Viking type sword, which was placed across his chest with the handle towards the right hand. Beneath the sword was an iron spearhead. A bronze ringed pin and a bone comb were also found.
The sword from the Larne burial can be dated to the tenth century AD. This type of sword is relatively unusual in an Irish context. In this period, Viking weapons were different from Irish ones, and were generally of better quality. One of the legacies of the Vikings in Ireland was the introduction of new weapon types - new forms of swords and spearheads - and a higher quality of ironworking, particularly in the area of blade production. They also introduced the bow and axe to Irish warfare.
The long broad-bladed double-edged sword was the prestige weapon which often had an ornate hilt and sometimes bore a maker's mark on the blade.
Battle-axes were common and, like swords and spears, were used with shields.
The spear was the most important weapon and was used for both throwing and thrusting. Bows and arrows were common and the popularity of armour- piercing forms testify to the use of leather and chain mail armour. Although many arrowhead types are known, most were armour-piercing and archery was military related rather than for hunting.
Ringed Pin and Comb
The ringed pin from the Larne burial is a type of dress fastener that was common in Ireland in this period, and is also found in Viking graves both in Scotland and Scandinavia.
The comb is similar to a type found in graves at Birka in Sweden and also in the famous Oseberg ship burial in Norway. Combs were an important personal possession for Scandinavians in the Viking period. Written accounts from the tenth century describe how men and women combed their hair every day.
Fact: These artefacts can today be found in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle.
It has been suggested that this burial in a simple pit may represent a fallen warrior who was given a hurried burial. However, Larne harbour has been identified with Ulfreksfjord which is written about in later historical sources and it is possible that this burial is associated with a Viking base in the area.
By: Maeve Sikora, National Museum of Ireland
Fanning, T. 1970. 'The Viking Grave Goods discovered near Larne, Co. Antrim in 1840'. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 100, 71-78.