Here be Dragons

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The image is adapted from The Scar boat burial plaque discovered on the island of Sanday, Orkney.

The plaque was found in a Viking burial, which was partly uncovered by coastal erosion on the coast near the farm of Scar, and was excavated by archaeologists in 1991. This was a boat burial: a small rowing boat sunk into a pit. At the centre lay the remains of a woman in her seventies with the whalebone plaque and other grave goods including brooches, spindle whorls, an iron sickle and shears. Similar plaques have been found in other rich women’s graves, mostly in northern Norway. Occasional examples are known from Denmark, Sweden and parts of Ireland where Vikings settled.

Lying next to the woman were the remains of a child of about ten years of age. At the western end of the boat lay the skeleton of a man in his thirties, legs bent and arms folded, with a sword, arrows, a bone and antler comb and whalebone gaming pieces.

What was the plaque for?

The function of these whalebone plaques is uncertain. One theory is that they were used like ironing-boards for smoothing folds and seams in linen clothing, with the aid of a smoother, rounded on top with a flat base. A glass object, thought to be such a smoother, has been found in the Orkney Islands. Plaques and smoothing stones are not always found together; but both were found amongst many goods in a woman’s grave in Birka, Sweden.

Another view is that, rather than being used to make clothes look neatly pressed, plaques and smoothers were used in the manufacture of textiles. The shears and spindle whorls found in the burial at Scar were certainly used for textile production, so it is possible that the plaque was placed in the grave with them because the woman used it for the same purpose.

Recently, some archaeologists have suggested that whalebone plaques were serving-platters for food at high status feasts, since cutting and chopping marks have been found on some examples. No such marks are visible on the plaque found at Scar, but its fine decoration would have looked impressive on the table at a feast.

Whalebone plaques may have also had a symbolic function. Whalebone was a prized material, obtained through risky hunting operations or if whales became stranded or washed ashore. The plaques appear to be linked with women, as women have been buried with them and so perhaps used them in life. Because of this it has been suggested that whalebone plaques symbolised the central role Viking women played in Viking society.

The phrase β€œHere be Dragons” which refers to unexplored areas of danger on medieval maps is something of an anachronism and although mythological creatures are often referred to on medieval maps and globes only two surviving globes bear this actual phrase.

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