The next three blogs are going to focus on the site of Ballateare in Jurby. This is a complicated and fascinating site excavated by the legendary Gerhard Bersu between October and November 1946. The site is particularly fascinating as it has both Viking and prehistoric aspects!
When Gerhard Bersu visited the site of Ballateare it was an upstanding mound, near the coast in Jurby with commanding views out to sea. The mound was located about half a mile from the cliffs in the 1940s and the Killane river is just to the south of the mound. The farmer there had reported that he often found fragments of bones during ploughing in the field. Many Manx farmers have burial mounds on their land and in some cases for generations it has been viewed as bad-luck to plough the mounds. As a result the mounds remain upstanding and the plough continues to decrease the height of the ground in the surrounding field. The old ground surface from the Viking period was preserved beneath the mound itself but had been ploughed away in the rest of the field.
Now, I am no Viking expert, but I understand the excitement associated with a Viking burial mound and Ballateare is an excellent example so I am willing to step outside my comfort zone and tell you a little about it! The burial dates to the late 9th or 10th Century AD. A large grave pit was dug to receive the burial of a Viking man within an oak coffin made of thin planks. The coffin itself was covered with a coarsely woven fabric. The man was buried with an iron sword with a silver inlay, three iron spears, a shield and an iron knife with a wooden handle. The sword was found still within a preserved scabbard made of leather and wood. The sword itself is broken and this may not have been accidental it may be that the sword was broken during the funeral rituals. The shield consisted of an iron boss mounted on a wooden shield body that showed traces of white, red, and black paint. Bersu also records two large blow marks on the surface of the shield that he interprets as coming from an axe! Also found within the mound was the skull of a young woman. The skull shows signs of a heavy trauma which we can interpret as the wound left by a sword blow. The young woman is often interpreted as a slave sacrificed to be buried with her owner. As well as the bones of the woman, cremated cattle, horse, sheep and dog bones were also found with the mound – animals killed to accompany the Viking into the afterlife.
The Ballateare burial is part of the excellent Viking gallery at the Manx Museum. You can see the coffin and contents laid out and look at an excellent model that shows the structure of the mound. Next week – we will delve beneath to mound and look at the (even more) exciting Neolithic finds that were hidden below!