Viking longship was engineering marvel + Plague victims did receive individual burial

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The Viking longship: an engineering marvel of the ancient world

EXCERPTS: The ships were likely built with a psychological component in mind. The shields were likely put on the side partly due to the relatively small space for crew, but they also create a menacing appearance. Ravn says the sails and hulls were often colorful, and powerful and frightening symbols like dragons were carved on the stems of the prows. “Having these ships symbolizing power and splendor was very important for the Vikings,” he says. “Seeing a fleet of these ships arrive, you would also be fairly intimidated.”

Sails would have allowed these ships great speed when the wind was favorable. But the vessels were also equipped with rows of benches and oars so that the crew could still beat a fast approach or retreat on calm days.

Ravn says that the two strategies for moving these boats would have helped Vikings conduct quick, precision landings on beaches. He speaks from personal experience as a Viking in training — the Viking Ship Museum where he works has reconstructed several Viking longships using traditional methods in an effort to understand more about the building technique. They have taken them to the seas, and experiments the museum conducted showed that by the time the ships were first spotted on the sea to the time the first wave of warriors landed on the beach would only take an hour. 

The hulls of the ships also sat very high on the water — the boats only dipped less than a meter below the water line. This would have allowed longships to get into very shallow water without slowing down, allowing for quick troop deposits and effective amphibious assaults. Ravn says that ships could even be brought together side by side, or using planks, to act as bridges to give warriors faster access to the shore.

Small raids would pick up over the next century until the time in which Viking armies were conquering European kingdoms. Ravn says that Vikings also made use of less-adaptable cargo ships during this period that could carry equipment and supplies for armies.

Ravn’s experience as a crew member on reconstructed longships taught him that life onboard could be very cramped. Warriors would have had to work well together just to operate the vessels, he says — but the experiences also produce strong personal bonds. “All of this creates a very tight and well-organized community,” Ravn says. “It’s a very special experience.” This well-knit connection between warriors would have served them later on during their raids.

Organization, seamanship and technology all would have combined to give the Vikings an upper hand starting in the late 8th century. [...] By the mid-11th century, mixed populations of Vikings and Europeans were savvy to their maritime tactics... (MORE - details)

First evidence that medieval plague victims were buried individually with 'considerable care'

RELEASE: In the mid-14th century Europe was devastated by a major pandemic - the Black Death - which killed between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. Later waves of plague then continued to strike regularly over several centuries.

Plague kills so rapidly it leaves no visible traces on the skeleton, so archaeologists have previously been unable to identify individuals who died of plague unless they were buried in mass graves. Whilst it has long been suspected that most plague victims received individual burial, this has been impossible to confirm until now.

By studying DNA from the teeth of individuals who died at this time, researchers from the After the Plague project, based at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, have identified the presence of Yersinia Pestis, the pathogen that causes plague. These include people who received normal individual burials at a parish cemetery and friary in Cambridge and in the nearby village of Clopton.

Lead author Craig Cessford of the University of Cambridge said, "These individual burials show that even during plague outbreaks individual people were being buried with considerable care and attention. This is shown particularly at the friary where at least three such individuals were buried within the chapter house. Cambridge Archaeological Unit conducted excavations on this site on behalf of the University in 2017."

"The individual at the parish of All Saints by the Castle in Cambridge was also carefully buried; this contrasts with the apocalyptic language used to describe the abandonment of this church in 1365 when it was reported that the church was partly ruinous and 'the bones of dead bodies are exposed to beasts'."

The study also shows that some plague victims in Cambridge did, indeed, receive mass burials.

Yersinia Pestis was identified in several parishioners from St Bene't's, who were buried together in a large trench in the churchyard excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of Corpus Christi College.

This part of the churchyard was soon afterwards transferred to Corpus Christi College, which was founded by the St Bene't's parish guild to commemorate the dead including the victims of the Black Death. For centuries, the members of the College would walk over the mass burial every day on the way to the parish church.

Cessford concluded, "Our work demonstrates that it is now possible to identify individuals who died from plague and received individual burials. This greatly improves our understanding of the plague and shows that even in incredibly traumatic times during past pandemics people tried very hard to bury the deceased with as much care as possible."

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