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Viking - 28: At Cumwhitton Near Carlisle, Metal Detectorists Discovered Norse Graves Near the River Eden

Updated on December 14, 2017

"Become not a beggar to the wealth you make. What is saved for a friend may be taken by a foe. Foresight is often led astray".


Be careful how you tread, there's history beneath your feet!

Cumwhitton banner
Cumwhitton banner | Source
Cumwhitton 2004 Oval Brooch
Cumwhitton 2004 Oval Brooch | Source

A metal detector find near Cumwhitton, Cumbria, led to the unearthing of a Viking cemetery, the first such find in England.

School history lessons in many parts of England seem to begin with the Angles and Saxons. 'White Anglo-Saxon Protestant' was a label bandied about for one type of emigrant from Britain in the early ages of British colonisation. True, the Angles and Saxons settled England from across the North Sea over a quarter of a millennium before the Norman invasion in AD1066.

However, the British Isles had been over-run by the Scandinavians over a wider area than their erstwhile southern neighbours. Nevertheless the Anglian and Saxon scribes in their monasteries were the ones who wrote down their histories - all too often at the Norsemen's expense. Over the decades archaeology has given the Angles and Saxons the edge in the manner of their building - great timber halls or smaller buildings erected over sunken floors - and their sizeable cemeteries.

Yet more recently archaologists have built a picture 'mosaic' distinct from the heathen image projected by earlier Christian writers. In January, 2004 the journal 'British Archaeology' reported a Norse grave-find in Yorkshire. Looking at the teeth of an interred woman pointed to her having been Norwegian-born. She had been buried in her clothes together with two ornate copper alloy oval brooches, the first pair found in England since AD1867. Another grave was found near Dublin with the first oval brooches found for over a century in Ireland.

The rarity of Viking grave finds was highlighted by another Viking brooch found in late March, 2004. Then the finder reported another brooch to Faye Simpson, the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer (FLO) for Lancashire and Cumbria.

The finder, Peter Adams had been active with his metal detector for a decade, then taking it up fortnightly in recent times, following a strong interest in local history. He was drawn by the landscape around Cumwhitton (around eight miles south-east of Carlisle). Here were the remains of a mediaeval field system and a long, straight path he took to be an old Roman road. With a friend, George Robinson Adams was packing his kit away after a day's detecting by the path when he had a strong signal. At first he thought he had a piece of old farm machinery or tool, but then saw a brooch. They took it to the Kendal Metal Detecting Club (KMDC), thinking it to be Victorian. On looking it up in a book they knew it had to be Viking. They contacted Ms Simpson. They also contacted Viking expert, Ben Edwards. He told them these brooches came in pairs. They returned to the field and soon Ms Simpson was called again.

She took the brooches to be stabilised by York Archaeological Trust (YAT) and textile traces were found preserved within the corrosion, along with worm casts (nanotodes) that pointed to the brooches having been close to human remains. Ms Simpson told Mr Adams and the farmer, on whose land the artefacts were found, of the likelihood of a grave being nearby. She wanted to excavate. With their approval, the next hurdle was securing funding for a dig. English Heritage wanted to see more before releasing funds. Lancashire and Cumbria County Councils offered sufficient for a small dig and Oxford Archaeology North (OAN) gave the nod to begin.

In April 2004 they opened an area four metres square and hit on the relevant grave straight away. Alan Lupton of OAN told that their evaluation allowed them to demonstrate to Messrs Adams and Robinson and other metal detectorists that in digging holes they were removing artefacts from their proper context [although many years of working the land, previous farmers had already caused damage] and valuable finds could be lost in that manner.

They removed the turf and Mr Adams scanned for metal objects. They dug down another 4 inches (10cms) and he scanned again. Working deeper in this way alloweed him to see the process at first hand. The outcome was the recording of the base of Mr Adams' original pit. Mr Lupton suggested that over the years ploughing had removed the brooches from the original burial. They found other artefacts that had almost certainly come from the grave. The red, sandy soil had preserved little of the woman's bones. Besides the oval brooches and a scrap of trefoil brooch found by Messrs Adams and Robinson in the topsoil, the grave finds revealed an iron knife, a bead and what must have been the woman's feet. There was also a wooden chest with what looked to be a bent weaving 'sword' that was raised by conservators from York and Durham, who stabilised the block of earth with dry ice.

Although the archaeologists thought there would be only one burial, Messrs Adams and Robinson were encouraged to further investigate the ground close to the original grave. More fragments were found, Ms Simpson revealed, such as a key thought to be from the woman's grave (wives were entrusted with sets of keys for chests and other secured containers from which they could take funds necessary for the running of the household), Viking marriage tokens.

When Mr adams found a sword hilt about ten metres further east it was felt there had to be more than the one grave. English Heritage handed over their funding and an offer to conserve whatever was found. In June the site was 'active' again. An OAN team dug a 30 metre square, working systematically as before, worked on by a metal detector. After a fortnight cleaning the site they saw a troup of five more graves in one corner, lying east-west. They saw the first complete cemetery of single Viking burials to be found in England. It seemed that all six graves held artefacts from the mid-10th Century. One contained the remains of an enclosing ditch but otherwise there were no markers. A detailed surface survey showed nothing. If there had been barrow mounds before, farming down the centuries had removed them. Ploughing had caused a lot of damage. What became clear was four men and two women had been interred, the former identified by sword, spear, horse-riding and fire-starting implements. The women's graves were identified by jewellery, although the largest collection of decorative beads lay in a male's grave.

James Graham-Campbell, emeritus professor at University College London (UCL) who specialises in Viking Age art and archaeology said the field was plainly visible from the village, suggesting this was the likely site of a Viking settlement. The orientation of Scandinavian graves was not based on religious practices. This confirmed the picture we have of Viking colonisation of NW England that began in the 10th Century [although this area was hotly contested by the Scots and they occupied the region on and off until well into the high mediaeval period. Carlisle is a 'peculier' in which, amongst other legalities, the licensing laws are different to the rest of England] . Previous archaeological evidence was 'thin on the ground', being individual graves and chance finds. These individuals found at Cumwhitton were wealthy, according to Mr Graham Campbell, Vikings converted to Christianity and therefore latecomers amongst Scandinavian emigrants.

The farmer and Peter Adams gave everything they found in the vicinity of the dig to the Tullie House Museum and Art Galley in Carlisle.

"English Heritage said they would finance the dig if we'd donate the artefacts", Mr Adams said. "We (he and Mr Robinson) felt it belongs locally. It's Cumbria's heritage".

Cumbria in the north-west of England was part of the Pictish kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons until the Scots took power. Carlisle has changed hands several times between Scotland and England
Cumbria in the north-west of England was part of the Pictish kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons until the Scots took power. Carlisle has changed hands several times between Scotland and England
Cumwhitton locality in Cumbria, near the eastern bank of the River Eden. Large scale Norse settlement took place from the tenth century after expulsion from Ireland
Cumwhitton locality in Cumbria, near the eastern bank of the River Eden. Large scale Norse settlement took place from the tenth century after expulsion from Ireland | Source
Viking grave at Cumwhitton
Viking grave at Cumwhitton | Source
Grouping of excavated Norse graves at Cumwhitton
Grouping of excavated Norse graves at Cumwhitton | Source


Many use metal detectors illegally and destroy sites of archaeological importance, extracting artefacts without making notes of where they were found.

Firstly, on farmland particularly, farmers take exception to anyone trampling their crops or harrassing their livestock. If you think there might be finds, contact the farmer or landowner;

Secondly, the landowner or farmer is legally entitled to a percentage value of the find(s);

Thirdly, if you suspect there could be more than mere finds, as at a burial site or ancient building contact an archaeological group, usually through a local authority or university.

Fourthly, individual finds are yours to sell, providing the landowner is given a percentage. You will be asked where you found your artefacts, and being cagey may cost you a sale.

Fifthly, a hoard or treasure trove should be reported. Find out who to report to, museums, councils, universities. You will receive a percentage. Don't go destroying sites by being greedy.


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    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Alan. Thank you again, we learn a little more every week.


    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again, Graham. Might be something to do with wear on the molars and diet. Bread made with rougher bran grown on higher acres, such as in Norway, as well as oats or bran might wear the teeth more than by eating bread made of softer cereals. These would have been available in Britain (climate, low-lying fields etc). You might find it on the 'net' on an archaeological site. Denmark was Scandinavia's granary, and on their lower-lying acres cereal would have been softer, too - which is why the Danes settled mostly in lower-lying areas of eastern England, near rivers and with access to the sea.

      Isle of Man next...

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hello Alan. Another highly interesting hub. What a lucky find by Mr. Adams at the end of his day. I did not know licensing laws were different in Carlisle, I presume they are Scottish. How on earth do they determine that a womans teeth confirm she is of Scandinavian descent.

      Voted up / interesting.