The ‘Bird Woman’ on Hillesøy

In June 2017, human bones were found on Hillesøy, near the beach, in connection with building work. Hillesøy is a small island off the south-western part of Kvaløya ‘Whale Island’ (Norwegian) or Sállir (Northern Sámi) in Northern Norway. Subsequently, two graves – those of a man and a woman – were excavated, and a detailed report has just been released for the woman’s grave (April 29, 2020). I originally came across the grave on Facebook, where the team of archaeologists posted photos and information from the dig in real time, but now we finally have the results of their analysis. In the following, I’ll summarise the report by Anja Roth Niemi (published in Norwegian), and offer a few thoughts. Even if you don’t read Norwegian, I’d still highly recommend perusing the report, since it contains a huge amount of fascinating images of the burial that give a great idea of its layout, grave goods and the skeleton.

Hillesøy. Image: Harald Groven. Wikimedia Commons.

Kvaløya is located near Tromsø, far north of the Arctic circle, in a climate most people now would consider challenging – this is a place where there is no daylight for parts of the winter. The part of the island where the grave was found is relatively rich in Iron Age finds, whether burials or domestic living spaces, probably as a result of its strategic location in connection with traffic going up and down the coast.

Location of Hillesøy.

Although this area might seem remote and barren to many of us now, it had valuable resources which were traded further south in the Viking Age. In particular, animals including whale, walrus, bears and reindeer were hunted for their liver oil and blubber, antlers, hides/pelts and teeth. The Norse people who lived in this region were farmers and fishermen who made their lives in traditional longhouses, but along with the Sámi, they were also involved in the lucrative hunting and trade generated from these resources. The wealth accrued by this activity explains why their burials are so splendid. For example, in 1938, a richly furnished woman’s grave was excavated in the same area, only 50 metres away from the new finds. Along with beads, the traditional oval brooches, a weaving sword and a large pendant (originally an English fitting), the woman had a beautifully carved whalebone plaque. It is one of only a few such items from the Viking Age – another stellar example is that from the Scar burial in Orkney– and it was probably used as a board on which to smooth fine garments. These burials suggest that the people of Kvaløya were well-connected and had access to the Vikings’ expansive trading networks, and perhaps also that they participated in Viking raids.

The pendant found in 1938. Image: Adnan Icagic. Source: Unimus.no.

The first boat grave, dated to the early Viking Age or slightly earlier, was excavated in the summer of 2017. It belonged to a man who was 35 to 45 years old when he died, and he was buried with a sword, axe, a hunting spear, knife, three vessels (perhaps containing food or drink), a comb, three beads and several bear’s claws. A dark area underneath the skeleton was interpreted as the remnants of a bear pelt. The location of the grave and its goods suggest that the man belonged to the upper class; in particular, the bear claws and pelt suggest that he was a central figure in the region’s hunting economy (which I think is a much more sensible interpretation than anything to do with strange rituals!). I won’t go into more detail but the report (in Norwegian) can be found here.

A second boat grave, dated to the early Viking Age, c. 800 or 840 at the latest, was discovered only 2,3 metres away from the first one. It was excavated in July 2018. The boat was much larger than the man’s – 8,5 m long as opposed to his 4,8 m – and it contained the skeleton of a woman who had been buried lying on her side with her knees bent. She was wearing a traditional Norse outfit, with two oval brooches on her shoulders, one oval brooch with a different design between her collarbones, and three beads around her neck, including one made of amber. When it comes to Viking clothes, the only evidence for textiles that often remains  in burials are small tufts of fabric attached to brooches or other metal, and thus there is relatively scant secure knowledge about Viking Age outfits. However, judging by what evidence there is, this woman was probably wearing three layers of wool clothing, including a cape or overgarment. She was in her 40s and around 163 cm tall, give or take, and there is some suggestion that she was quite stout, but the cause of death is uncertain. She had arthritis and bad teeth, but that was common enough in the Viking Age.

The grave goods included a knife, a comb, a spindle whorl and a strike-a-light, all fairly common finds in women’s graves in the Viking Age. There were remnants of three vessels or containers in the grave, including a wooden box with small animal bones, and there were more bones scattered around in the grave from birds (including grouse, not native to the island), a seal, several types of fish, a cow, a goat or sheep and a dog or fox. Many of these bones were from the animals’ limbs or wings, which indicates – according to the report –that they were placed there for symbolic reasons (since there were negligible amounts of meat on these parts and they wouldn’t have been intended as food for the dead in their afterlife). The body had been wrapped in birch bark, which was a common practice in Sámi culture, suggesting that Norse burial practices in this area were influenced by those of the Sámi.

Several things interested me particularly about this woman and her burial. First, there were remains of insects in her body which show that she was not buried immediately or soon after her death. The report suggests that she might have died during the winter or spring, when it was impossible to dig a grave, and that her survivors had to wait weeks until she could be buried. It seems like a disturbing, not to mention unhygienic, situation to have a corpse sitting around somewhere on your farm until the ground thawed enough for the grave to be taken, but presumably this was part of living in the Arctic and simply a fact of life for this community. Sagas written in Iceland often depict people from Northern Norway as quite unusual: they are often able to perform magic or exhibit anti-social as well as superhuman traits (e.g. amazing strength). There are also plenty of stories about revenants, who are sometimes malevolent and highly dangerous. If we contextualise these literary motifs with these living conditions, it is easy to see how and why they emerged.

Second, the array of animal bones is bewildering and the report states that some of them, such as seal and grouse, are quite rare for burials. There are many bird bones, including a wing, whose location suggests that it was placed on the woman’s cheek during her funeral (though the report doesn’t exclude that the bone had been used as e.g., a hairpin, and that it had simply moved towards the cheek). Bird imagery is common in Norse mythology, often in connection with the feminine. The female-looking figures holding spears on the Oseberg tapestry, and other iconographic representations from across the Norse iconographic tradition, have pointy faces that many consider reminiscent of birds. The valkyries fly through the air and some can shape-shift into birds, as does Freyja, who has a falcon shape. The so-called ‘Pagan Lady of Peel’, who was buried on the Isle of Man, also had a bird’s wing in her grave, though we don’t know if there is any similar cultural idea at work here. It seems possible that all these bird bones might have represented some kind of connection to these ideas.

Image: Mary Storm. Source: Unimus.no.

On the other hand, the report points out that Sámi graves often have many small bird bones and suggests that this was a syncretic burial, where the bones might have been an offering from Sámi friends, family or business associates. The woman might even have been a Sámi who married into the Norse community. I find this interpretation very exciting – after all, there are other indications of Norse-Sámi intermarriages in both written texts and the archaeological record, probably contracted to forge and strengthen political and economic links between the communities. I look forward to seeing more work on this strand of the woman’s identity and social context.

Last, someone dug a hole in the grave at the dead woman’s feet sometime after the burial. Archaeological studies show that reopening and sometimes plundering graves seems to have been a fairly common thing to do in the Viking Age. Norse literature also features a recurring motif where characters enter burial mounds and even converse with its inhabitant. A good example is Hervarar saga, where the shield-maiden Hervör successfully retrieves a famous sword from her father’s grave. The reasons for doing this are not easily recovered from the archaeological evidence, but they are usually considered to be motivated by more complex reasons than simply to steal valuables. Such actions, which might have been carried out as rituals or public ceremonies of some kind, were likely motivated by people’s desire to establish themselves and their reputation in the eyes of others, whether to associate it with that of one’s famous dead ancestors, or – if one was trying to claim supremacy over an older family, perhaps with a more prestigious lineage – to assert superiority. In the case of this burial, the report’s author argues that the grave was disturbed in a respectful way, and speculates that a small shell found by the feet might have been left there by whoever dug the hole as a token, perhaps to atone for opening the grave. This is a fascinating and touching little detail, and one could picture a female descendant, perhaps, trying to (re)connect with her foremother and ask for her blessing and protection. Norse literature doesn’t preserve any stories about women’s graves being opened or entered in the tradition mentioned previously, but on the other hand, the Norse probably believed that some families had more or less luck than others. Although there could be many explanations, perhaps the person who made this hole was hoping for this woman’s personal or family qualities to be transferred to them?

At some point, I might make it to the museum exhibition at Tromsø museum ‘Møt Hillesøy-folket – liv og død i år 800‘, but until then, I’m going to amuse myself with this report! If you enjoyed this post and want to read more, I discuss many of these issues – Norse women, burials, mythology and beliefs in the afterlife, interactions with the Sámi, ordinary life – in my book Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World.