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Archaeology and Social Organization
Christena Hurley


The discipline of archaeology has been used to shed light on a variety of aspects of past peoples and cultures. These aspects range from reconstructing ancient diet to ancient environments and migration patterns. Despite the wealth of information archaeology has been able to provide on past peoples, it is still limited to the material culture left behind and the preservation of these materials. However, much of the human experience leaves no physical traces for archaeologists to find, leading to many facets being reconstructed using indirect evidence. One such facet that had a huge impact on how ancient peoples behaved was social organization. Social organization governs in part how people thought of themselves, how other people treated them and their place within their community. Social organization often manifests itself in the form of status or rank. Archaeologists have looked for numerous ways to discern a culture's social organization from the archaeological record. One of the most popular techniques to achieve this, is to study evidence from funerary sites. This approach has been both applauded and criticized by various archaeologists, however, when done with these criticisms in mind, information about social organization can be ascertained. This paper seeks to prove the validity of burial sites as useful information for reconstructing social organization. To illustrate this, a selection of Viking burials from the British Isles will be discussed.

Theoretical Framework

The concept of burials sites yielding information on social organization falls into the theoretical framework known as mortuary variability. The idea of mortuary variability arose with the advent of 'new archaeology' in the 1960's. The main advocates being Lewis Binford and Arthur Saxe (Chapman and Randsborg 1981, 6). Binford's main point of the theory, stated that differences in burial practices within a single society was based on the varying statuses of the individuals, allowing for social organization to be ascertained (Chapman and Randsborg 1981, 6). The other point Binford made was that high status can be detected in the amount of energy expended in the funerary rites which include burial location, construction of burial container and body treatment (Chapman and Randsborg 1981, 9). The more energy and special treatment awarded to the individual, the higher the social rank.

Binford's theory was further expanded by Saxe, whose work on mortuary variability used ideas from the anthropology, namely role theory. Role Theory added the concept that an individual had multiple roles in life, however, not all of these roles may be present at the funeral. The roles displayed in the burial would be the individual's dominant social persona or in some select cases personas (Chapman and Randsborg 1981, 7). Any grave goods present, may be reminders of the dead's deeds or character and carefully selected to reflect this and the dominant persona, particularly those of high social standing (Parker-Pearson 1999, 7). Saxe also concluded that lower status individuals would be marked by fewer grave goods than high status individuals and items would not be very exotic in origin (Parker-Pearson 1999, 29). These ideas were confirmed by an ethnographic study done by Joseph Tainter, that illustrated there was a relationship between social status and differential treatment of the dead (Parker-Pearson 1999, 31). It is on these basic tenets, that mortuary variability function.

Mortuary variability came under close scrutiny, namely by the post-processualists. This school of thought believe that a funeral represents an ideal view of the person, perpetrated by the decease's community in most cases and is not an accurate reflection of reality; the deceased may not have actually have enjoyed the status portrayed, been active in the social role represented and never used the artifacts added to the burial (Parker-Pearson 1999, 4). The post- processualists also point out that funerals and by extension the burials are more about the living and it is here their social roles can be manipulated, acquired and discarded (Parker-Pearson 1999, 32).

As the study of social organization in archaeology has progressed, archaeologists have made some correlations about various forms of status and the types of society they appear in. Achieved status, status based on the actions of the individual, corresponds with a broadly egalitarian society while ascribed status, based on heredity, corresponds with a hierarchical society with ordering of status based on birth, age and sex (Parker-Pearson 1999, 74). Consequently, if an archaeologist can determine how status is awarded, social organization follows.

Keeping the criticisms of mortuary variability in mind, there are still valid arguments in the theory. Regardless of a living person's status and motives during the burial process, a beggar will not be buried as a king and a king will not be buried as a beggar, the society will seek to maintain its societal organization. Also the status of the deceased will be known by the community taking part in the funeral rites, allowing for only so much exaggeration to take place. Thus funerary sites can give a good approximation of the social organization of a culture, by revealing data about the deceased's social status.


There are many Viking or Norse burials throughout northern Europe. For the purposes of this paper, the geographical area was reduced to that of the British Isles for a more manageable corpus. The main locations for these burials are in Dublin, Ireland, Jurby on the Isle of Man, with one burial excavated in Sanday, Orkney. The burials have been dated to a similar time period to ensure that any anomalies found are not the result of natural changes in burial traditions. The accompanying grave goods were listed, compared quantitatively and grouped into categories. The categories include: location, date, sex, boat, horse trappings, human accompaniment, swords, spearheads, shield-boss, arrowheads, axeheads, knives, strap ends, metal loops, pins, nails, lead weights and miscellaneous. For an artifact to get a category of its own, the artifact had to be present in at least two graves, roughly 15% of the burials.

It should be noted that the graves from the Dublin area were greatly disturbed by construction during the 1840's and 1860's though the finds were recorded by members of Royal Irish Academy and National Museum . Those included in the corpus were the best recorded and the provenance was more clearly established by letters from members of the Royal Irish Academy. This evidence was complied by Raghnall Ó Floinn while working with the artifacts at the National Musuem and by Elizabeth O'Brien during her work on the Viking cemeteries of Kilmainham and Islandbridge in Dublin ((Ó Floinn 1998, 136 and O'Brien 1998, 206). For the sake of convenience each burial has been assigned a number from 1 to 14 with the prefix 'Viking'. Please refer to the accompanying table for list of each grave and its associated grave goods.


The Viking or Norse were a people who originated in Scandinavia during the early Medieval Period, leading some scholars to refer to the period as the Viking Age. The Vikings left their homelands intent on raiding the nearby British Isles and Continental coast. The Vikings became well known for their seafaring expertise and using Britain, Ireland and the surrounding islands as stepping stones during their voyages (Forte, Oram and Petersen 2005, 217-19). It was during the early ninth century AD that Vikings began to settle in many of the areas they had previously raided.

It was these early settlers who founded Dublin as one of their year round longphorts (Forte, Oram and Petersen 2005, 82). Relations with the native Irish population were strained, leading to local Irish kings ousting the Viking and taking over the settlement in the 840's. This did not last however, and Vikings returned in the late 850's and remained there, eventually intermarrying with the native Irish population (Forte, Oram and Petersen 2005, 86). This intermingling extended to cemeteries as can be seen in the Kilmainham and Islandbridge cemeteries of Dublin (O'Brien 1998, 203 ). Despite settling into the Irish Christian community, many Viking continued their pagan practices , particularly in the realm of funerary rites (Forte, Oram and Petersen 2005, 223). It is this continuation of pagan burial practices that allow archaeologists to distinguish Viking burials from those of the native Christians, which by the ninth century AD no longer contained grave goods and where buried in an east-west orientation (Hall 1978, 70). Viking settlement and burial customs were mirrored on the Isle of Man and Orkney Islands as Viking leaders asserted their dominance over these areas in the mid-ninth century AD (Arnold 2006, 99).

The Burials

The burials will be discussed in relation to the associated grave goods and the evidence they present.


Location according to the work of Binford, is a strong indicator of status. Thus an individual buried in a specially selected location, possibly away from other burials would be a person of high rank. This situation appeared in six of the fourteen burials, Viking 1-4, Viking 9 and Viking 13. Viking 1 was located at the submit of a hill, near the remains of an Iron Age settlement but still isolated from it while overlooking the surrounding area (Bersu and Wilson 1966, 3). This is similar to Viking 9, where the grave was inserted on the top of an indigenous burial mound (O'Brien 1992, 173). Viking 2 and 3 are also located in isolated burial mounds that overlook the surrounding areas (Bersu and Wilson 1966, 45 and 63). Viking 4 can be found on a cliff overlooking the sea as is the case with Viking 13 (Owen and Dalland 1999, 2 and Kermode 1928, 91). The other eight burials were located in cemeteries with other identified Viking males; some were even found side by side as is the case with Viking 5 and Viking 14. Considering their location and lack of isolation from one another, these individuals were of a similarly lower status then those in isolated locations that were chosen for their dominating view of the landscape. Consequently, location has provided the first signs of a stratified society.


Sex falls under the category of ascribed status. According to data presented in the corpus, males enjoyed a higher status than women. The Viking presence in both the Kilmainham and Islandbridge cemeteries are predominately male, based on skeletal evidence as well as grave goods, of which no decisively 'female' items have been found. No female remains have been positively identified in either of the cemeteries. The only possible evidence of Viking women were several oval brooches, not commonly used by males, found in the debris at the Kilmainham cemetery (Ó Floinn 1998, 140) . If these did belong to Viking women and thus they were present in the cemeteries, their status would still be less than a man's. According to Saxe this is because only one or two objects, a brooch were buried with them, while the men each have several pieces and they confirmed a social role. Again this claim is supported by historical evidence and data from other burials in Scandinavia (Arnold 2006, 37).

There is only one positively identified female in all the burials, who was also buried with associated grave goods and this was Viking 4 in Orkney. This woman, believed to be in her late seventies, was included in a boat burial with a male in his thirties at Scar on Sanday, possibly a relative (Owen and Dalland, 1999,55-56). Her grave goods are extensive, containing: a brooch, a carved whalebone plaque, a comb, a sickle, a weaving batten, shears, a needle tidy, a box and spindle whorls (Owen and Dalland 1999, 30-1). Looking at the assemblage this was a woman of high rank considering the carved whalebone plaque and the fact she was buried in a boat. Her main role was domestic, running a household perhaps by the amount of goods related to weaving. According to scholars this was a common role for women as was an increase in a woman's status as she got older (Arnold 2006, 36-38). The evidence presented suggests a male dominated society with a few women achieving high status beyond that of their relations.


The boat was an essential aspect of Viking life as their main source of transportation and means of economic success (Arnold 2006, 68). The act of taking one out of use and burying it, implies that the individual being buried with it was of some sort of social importance. The inclusion of a boat in the burial is found at only in three sites, Viking 1, Viking 4 and Viking 13, all of which are in isolated locations. In all cases the occupant was determined to be male and had many other grave goods placed with him. In accordance to Binford's theory, these individuals were of high status because of the amount of energy it would take to bury a boat and the special location. Saxe's idea of an exotic item indicating high status would also be exemplified by these boat burials.

Horse Trappings

Horses were a not commodity in Viking society though they often tried to steal them during raids (Arnold 2006, 60). Thus anyone owning or associated with horses would be considered of higher rank. There are two burials in this corpus, Viking1 and Viking 13 that have horse trappings, bridle, spurs, stirrups and other bits of iron used as horse equipment. In the case of Viking 13, a horse was included near the burial. The addition of horse and horse related equipment adds another role to the individuals beyond that of a warrior. This according to Saxe means that these males had more than one dominant social persona; with two personas depicted, the social status of the individuals would be higher than those with only one.

However, this is only true for Viking 13. Viking 1 was the burial that had no weapons and no apparent causes for this lack. There is a possibility that this individual alternate social role was far more important than his skills as a warrior, thus its emphasis. Looking at the horse trappings and other items in the grave, it is possible this person was a wealthy landowner who had left the Viking raiding warrior lifestyle and was rich enough to own horses. Looking at the corpus, only 15% of the burials had horse related equipment, implying that these individuals belonged to the a select group of Viking society.

Human Accompaniment

There are many sources which speak of the Viking practice of interring slaves with their masters for accompaniment in the afterlife. This is believed to have occurred in three, possibly four of the burials. It was found that 21%-29% of the burials had an accompanying human 'sacrifice'. Viking 1, Viking 2 and Viking 9 have positively identified 'sacrifices' included with the deceased, while is it still unclear whether this was the case in Viking 4. The body of a 'youth' was found in the boat burial, however, do to erosion of the burial it was unclear whether the youth was another occupant of the burial with now lost grave goods or was placed in the burial as 'accompaniment' to serve their master in the afterlife (Owen and Dalland 1999, 150). Again the inclusion of a human 'sacrifice' marks the burials as high status, since owning a slave would require wealth for upkeep of the slave. Corresponding textual evidence shows that slaves were not owned by everyone, usually a small group of high status warriors or other elites not men who were occasional warriors (Arnold 2006, 29-30).

Swords, Spearheads and Shield-Bosses

The inclusion of a sword, spearhead and shield-boss appear to make up the typical 'warrior' assemblage in Viking graves. Every grave but one, possessed at lease two of the three items in the assemblage and the missing item was believed to be the result of poor preservation or poor recording {O'Floinn 1998, 138). The sole exception to this trend was Viking 1 excavated at Balladoole on the Isle of Man. Excavators were at a lose to explain this as since there are no signs indicating any weapons were removed, it must be concluded that the burial never contained them (Bersu and Wilson 1966, 8). Two of the burials, Viking 7 and Viking 10 each contained two swords which is unusual and may be attributed to contamination and poor recording as both come from burials uncovered in Kilmainham cemetery during the 1860's {O'Floinn 1998, 138). However, burial assemblages of Viking graves from Norway, indicate that on average a Viking burial will contain 1.5 swords in a rural location and 1.8 swords in a more urban setting {O'Floinn 1998, 140). Hence it is plausible that these two graves, being in an 'urban' centre may have contained two swords each and thus these two individuals enjoyed a slightly higher status than those buried around them but were not of high enough status to warrant an isolated burial.

Spearheads and shield-bosses complete the assemblage, with spearheads appearing in 86% of the burials and shield-bosses appearing in 57%. Both of these pieces along with the sword were essential for Viking warfare (Arnold 2006, 59-60). It can be concluded that the warrior assemblage being the dominant feature of 57% of the burials is a marker of the average Viking male which make up the majority of the Viking society in the British Isles.

Arrowheads, Axeheads and Knives

These objects also occurred in the graves regularly as additions to the warrior assemblage. Arrowheads appeared in 28% of all the burials, axeheads appeared in 21% and knives appeared in 36% . There are only three burials that had only the warrior assemblage and nothing else. These individuals may be members of a lower rank then those with additions, adding further stratification to the society. Oddly enough three knives were found in Viking 1, where no other offensive weapons had been found. Perhaps they served a more utilitarian purpose as opposed to personal defence. These items seem to add little additional social prestige, certainly not enough to call any of the individual high status. They rather seem to reinforce the role of a typical Viking warrior.

Strap Ends, Metal Loops, Pins, Nails and Lead Weights

These objects were found occasionally in the burials and could not be called items of high status, they are everyday utilitarian pieces. Strap-ends are believed to belong to leather straps that held an individuals clothing on, helped secure a weapon or in the case of Viking 1and Viking 13 belonged to equestrian equipment (Kermode 1928, 92 and Bersu and Wilson 1966, 37-38). Metal loops were present in two burials and for the most part used as a fastener for a horse or a scabbard in the case of Viking 2 (Bersu and Wilson 1966, 54). The nails found in burials have no immediate purpose but it seems likely that they belong with the shield bosses as the non-organic portion of the shield; the nails were to fasten the various pieces to the wooden frame. This can be confirmed by the fact that in three of the four burials where nails were present, a shield boss was also found. The burial that is the exception belongs to the Islandbridge cemetery and the shield boss may have been disturbed and no longer associated with the burial. Pins are believed to be nothing more than devices for holding clothing together, most of them are bronze, quite simple and common in Viking burials in the British Isles (Bersu and Wilson 1966, 43).

The lead weights present an interesting situation. Lead weights in a Scandinavian context were used as a way to measure gold and silver used in economic exchanges. Their presence in two of the burials, Viking 4 and possibly Viking 7, attests that the individuals in these burials had another social role beyond that of a warrior. These men may have also been involved in trade and ensuring fair transactions, giving them a place of prominence in the community (Owen and Dalland 1999, 125). With the exception of the lead weights that may have been used for economic purposes, these other items lend no real indication of status or social role unless they are part of a set of horse trappings.


It is the miscellaneous grave goods that give the greatest indication of status or of any other social roles the individuals may have held in their community. Viking 1, Viking 4 and Viking 13 had significantly more items that were not present in other burials. These extra grave goods, according to Saxe, are a clear mark of higher status and given that these extra grave goods are found with the three boat burials in the corpus confirms Saxe's assumption. Indeed Viking 13's extra goods, in particular the smith hammer and tongs, indicates that this individual may have worked as a smith creating weapons, which was a highly respected position in Viking society (Arnold 2006, 59). The inclusion of this role along with that of a warrior, confirms the high status of this individual. Other burials with miscellaneous items were few. The individual in Viking 11 had a set of scales as well as the regular warrior assemblage, so like Viking 4 and possibly Viking 7 may have been involved in trade and exchanges. Another individual, Viking 10, was buried with twelve beads and Viking 7 appears to have the remains of a 'spoon'. However, these items give no real information on social role and in all likelihood not a show of status. The beads may have been part of some piece of personal adornment, giving this male slightly more status among his peers but it is not enough to put him in the ranks of the men in the boat burials.


The evidence presented by the burials suggests that the Vikings of the British Isles were part of a ranked society where achieved status was possible and combined with ascribed status. The burials illustrate that there was a typical warrior assemblage of grave goods, including: a sword, a spear and a shield with perhaps a knife or arrows or an axe added. A variation of this assemblage was found in all the graves but one, indicating most males in Viking society had the main role of warrior. For many this was the only role represented. Those with other goods beyond the warrior assemblage that point to other roles or activities would be individuals of higher status because the community took time to acknowledge these roles in the funerary process. The limited number of women represents a society that is organized to be male dominant. The society is therefore organized with a few rich members at the top represented by Viking 1, Viking 4 and Viking 13. Followed by an group of warriors composing the majority of the society, exemplified by the rest of the corpus, within which are minor sub-levels of rank. And finally a collection of slaves being the lowest members of Viking society.

The findings from this corpus are further confirmed by written texts, namely the Norse sagas which indicate there were three ranks in Viking society, the thrall or slaves, the karl or common people and the jarl or the aristocracy (Arnold 2006, 27). Textual evidence also confirms a male dominated society, thus ascribed status comes into play and implying a hierarchal order to the society (Arnold 2006, 29).

In the case of the Vikings, scholars are fortunate to have documentary evidence to compare with the archaeological record and interpretations. Regardless of the many criticisms put forth, the main points of mortuary variability have held true and allowed for an accurate reconstruction of the Viking social organization in the British Isles.

Burial Location Date Remains Sex Boat Horse Trappings Human Accompaniment Swords Spearheads Shield-Boss Arrowheads Axeheads Knives Strap Ends Metal Loops Pins Nails Lead Weights Miscellaneous Special Notes
Viking 1 Balladoole, Isle of Man 9th-10th century AD partial male 1 present 1 female 0 0 1 + grip 0 0 3 3 6 1 2 0 textile fragments,1 flint flake, 1 iron cauldron? the many fragments of iron horse trappings will be discussed in the body of the paper
Viking 2 Ballateare, Isle of Man 9th-10th century AD partial male 0 none 1 female 1 + scabbard 3 1 0 0 1 + sheath 2 1 1 0 0 none none
Viking 3 Cronk Moar, Isle of Man 9th-10th century AD partial male 0 none none 1 + scabbard 1 1 0 0 1 + sheath 2 0 1 3 0 fragments of wool cloak none
Viking 4 Scar, Sanday, Orkney 9th-10th century AD partial male 1 none 1 youth? 1 + scabbard 0 1 8 + quiver 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 1 comb, 22 gaming pieces the associated female burial and grave goods will discussed in the body of the paper
Viking 5 Islandbridge, Dublin 9th century AD sparse male 0 none none 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 unknown number 0 fragment of firesteel? none
Viking 6 Islandbridge, Dublin 9th century AD mostly complete male 0 none none 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 none none
Viking 7 Kilmainham, Dublin 9th century AD partial male 0 none none 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2? 1 spoon? none
Viking 8 Bride Street, Dublin 9th century AD partial male 0 none none 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 none none
Viking 9 Donnybrook, Dublin 9th century AD partial male 0 none 2 females 1 + scabbard 1 0 3 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 spindle whorl, 1 flint flake, 1 comb? 4 rings? none
Viking 10 Kilmainham, Dublin 9th century AD partial male? 0 none none 2 1 0 unknown number 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 beads ( included amber and glass) swords had traces of silver of pommel 
Viking 11 Kilmainham, Dublin 9th century AD partial male 0 none none 1 1 0 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 set of balance scales none
Viking 12 Kilmainham, Dublin 9th century AD sparse male 0 none none 1 1 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 none none
Viking 13 Knock y Doonee, Isle of Man 9th-10th century AD none found male? 1 present none 1 1 1 0 0 1 unknown number 0 1 unknown number 1 1 battleaxe,1 iron bowl, 1 horse, 1 smith hammer, 1 tongs the many fragments of iron horse trappings will be discussed in the body of the paper
Viking 14 Islandbridge, Dublin 9th century AD partial male? 0 none none 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 fragments of handles? found in conjuction with Viking 5

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      Updated: 16 Feb, 2009
Text © Christena Hurley, 2009
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