A Viking tooth fairy?

Dr David Griffiths - Visiting Reader at Institute for Northern Studies

In 2010 a team of archaeologists from Oxford University, UHI, and University College Dublin were excavating a Viking longhouse at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick. The longhouse was slowly emerging from a blanketing depth of windblown sand which had concealed and protected it for many centuries.

The Bay of Skaill is famous as the location of Skara Brae. A  Neolithic village, it was also once covered with sand, and was partially exposed by a great storm in 1850. Sand is found in great quantities across the Links of Skaill, surrounding the bay. On its northern side, near St Peter’s Kirk, are a group of large sandy mounds. These were investigated using geophysics and trial excavation by the team, and in one of them the longhouse was found.

It wasn’t all found straightaway. The first part of it to come to light, as the tops of stone walls in the sand, turned out to be an outbuilding of the main structure. As usual in archaeology, it was the latest part of the  site which appeared first, so we had to work backwards in time, going down layer by layer. The outbuilding had a door, from which a flight of steps descended deeper into the sand. As we cleared more away, it became clear that there were six steps and they ended at a flagstone-paved yard, beyond which was a much larger and more impressive stone entrance, with a passageway leading on from it. It was at this point we had to leave it from one excavation season to the next. It was however already clear from the finds that these structures dated to the Viking period, and radiocarbon dating  confirmed they were from around 980-1050 AD.

The following season, after spending all winter wondering and speculating, we returned and opened up a much bigger trench. There was a huge amount of sand to shift, and everyone worked very hard, even though we had the assistance of a very skilful digger driver. Starting from the big entrance, the outline of a very long, very substantial building appeared, aligned east-west, 26.3 metres in length and between 4 and 5 metres in width. Slightly bow-shaped in classic Scandinavian fashion, it is divided into a living area to the west and a byre area to the east, with the big entrance between these. The walls are remarkably well-preserved, standing well over 1 metre in height for the most part. Only one of the walls of the byre end had been damaged by stone-robbing for a field dyke in later times, otherwise it had lain intact under the sand since the 12th century AD. Its roof was of course long gone, it would have been made out of wood, skins and turf, and had collapsed inwards at the end of the life of the longhouse. The original thick turf layers surrounding the outside of the walls had slowly merged with the sand and succumbed to time. 

Not only had the walls survived, but the side-benches inside were still there. Made of sandstone slabs and filled with sand, these would have formed beds, activity areas and seats overlooking the hearths in the middle of the floors. Carefully, we sat on these! The first people to do so for nearly a millennium.

As our digging team carefully explored the interior layers, we came across many finds and other cast-off remains of people’s daily lives. Pins, beads, tools, and pottery were all retrieved, along with steatite, the soapstone which the Vikings used for cooking vessels as an alternative to pottery. Barley, oats and flax were cultivated. Bones of cattle, pigs, fish, seabirds, cats and even a mouse were discovered. Many of these were found by sieving and sorting small items from soil samples, which are taken away from site in white plastic boxes and studied carefully.

The central part of the building was a hall, where up to 30 people could sit facing each other, possibly talking business or politics, or hearing fireside stories redolent of the Norse world. A faint tally mark of 10 strokes had been scratched on one of the walls next to the side bench, perhaps a relic of a long-ago purchase, or a hunting trip. To the western end of the longhouse was an area which was probably the kitchen, as a vividly red cooking hearth showed up in the rich, greasy floor material. Women and children probably inhabited this part of the building. From one of the side benches in this western end came a small, white tooth-like object which was initially harvested in a soil sample. Taken off-site and looked at more closely afterwards, it became clear it probably wasn’t an animal tooth, but it was also too small to be an adult human tooth.

Human teeth are not normally found by archaeologists as separate items, but as part of burials, attached to skulls, and clearly from a person who was dead when they were buried. No such burials were found in this longhouse, probably because by 1000 AD the Vikings were Christian, and they would have buried their dead away at the local kirk, in all probability an earlier one on the site of St Peter’s.  This tooth is a one-off, a single find from a domestic occupation layer. What could it be?

An osteologist in Oxford confirmed our suspicions. This is a human tooth, but from the start of life, not the end of it. It was a child’s milk tooth (‘deciduous’ in osteo-speak) and it had fallen into a crack in the southern side-bench in the western end of the longhouse, possibly having found its way down there through bedding material. The child that lost it, then probably around 5 years old, may have lived a long life and sailed across the Viking world, or they may have stayed close to home – we cannot know. But they never saw their tooth again, and it lay there for nearly another thousand years.  

The legend of the tooth fairy is commonplace today, and adds a bit of fun and enjoyment to an otherwise rather awkward time of early life as bits begin to fall off and physical changes start to happen. The Vikings were certainly aware that teeth had value. In the Norse Edda, the god Freyr was given the palace of Álfheim by the gods as a 'tannfé' (tooth-payment) (Grímnismál v.5). We don’t know if the children of Viking Orkney were accustomed to putting their milk-teeth under their pillow, expecting a reward in the morning, but this intriguing discovery strongly suggests that they were!

The longhouse site has been carefully backfilled with sand and is now asleep again, deep in its mound. The excavations at the Bay of Skaill are shortly to be published as ‘Beside the Ocean: Coastal Landscapes at the Bay of Skaill, Marwick and Birsay Bay, Orkney’ (Oxbow Books, 2019). The book launch will be accompanied by a public lecture in Orkney on 29th May 2019 – for updates check with INS on 569300.

With thanks to Freddie and Pauline Brass, Sandwick, and Prof Carolyne Larrington.


David Griffiths teaches Archaeology at Oxford University.