Derrick was amazed at the quality of the bones. They felt sturdy. The thick sod had kept them perfectly preserved even after the roof of the grave caved in. They looked smaller laid out on the metal slabs under the examining lights. As he assisted Dr. Fraser in lining each set with its appropriate bones, Derrick began to wonder at the ease of assembly. It wasn’t just the human remains either. Besides the cloth, everything from the grave, categorized as DS22-1, was in great shape. Kally was having a grand time laying out the individual animal skeletons on a separate platform.
“Dad’s a taxidermist,” she explained while sorting bone bits. “This is like being back at Mum’s dining table for me.”
Derrick and Taylor had both voiced their disgust at the analogy. Not having time for their nonsense, Dr. Fraser shooed them to their respective posts. Since Kally had gleefully claimed the animals, Taylor would assist the professor in cataloging the bones, while Derrick was left to document the remaining grave goods.
The items were all interesting. A piece of metal here that belonged to a sword, a set of carving tools, coins from different places, and chunks of carved bone. Derrick was excited to get a closer look at them. At Dr. Fraser’s go-ahead, he donned a set of gloves and turned to the tables filled with grave goods.
They were grouped by use. The first table had household items, the second weapons, and so on. The first was easy enough to categorize and label. The weapons were fascinating. A sword, a set of arrowheads, an ax, and several smaller blades. He couldn’t handle them; the metal was too delicate to be handled too much. Instead, he admired the designs and measured their dimensions before moving on to the next treasure.
The next table had smaller goods that didn’t seem to have a purpose. The box containing the seashells was an oddity. Most were broken and cracked beyond repair, and some had crumbled entirely. The few that remained were small conch shells and a few scallops. Amazingly enough, three delicate sea urchin exoskeletons were in the mix. The metal sides had been painted at one time, but only the barest flecks remained. It was definitely something he hadn’t seen before.
A large board made of stone and some chunks of bone were the next items to be examined. This wasn’t human bone; to be honest, he wasn’t sure what kind it was. The chunks were irregular in shape but similar in size. They’d unearthed about seventeen. Four dyed a faded black, and the rest left as their natural white. The board was maybe two square feet or 61cm on all sides with squares etched across the surface. Out of curiosity, Derrick placed one of the bone lumps on the board.
“Is that a Hnefatafl game?” Kally asked. Her sudden appearance had Derrick leaping away, nearly upsetting the table he’d been working at. He glared at her as his pen and clipboard clattered to the floor.
“I could have dropped something,” he hissed. The thought of the precious artifacts coming to harm because of such a stupid reason gave him anxiety like nothing else.
Kally shrugged, unapologetic. “Then we’d write up the report saying it happened during excavation.” Derrick gaped at the blasphemy, and Kally chuckled. “Look, ‘item broken during removal,’ sounds a hell of a lot better than ‘item broken by a dumbass grad student.'”
Derrick had to agree with that. “What did you call it?”
“Hnefatafl game,” Kally repeated. “It’s a strategy game that goes back to Viking raids. It was how raid leaders and other warriors practiced strategy.” She nudged one of the lumps. “There’s, like, a million ways to play it, but it always has the same basic rules. One player defends their ‘King’ from the center of the board while the other player attacks from the edges.” She frowned. “I don’t think we have a ‘King’ piece here, though.”
“So it’s like chess?”
“Close enough.” Kally nodded. “There are Irish and Welsh variations on the same game.” Derrick looked back at the board, and the pieces sitting innocently alongside and tried to imagine the women, if they were women, in the grave playing it hundreds of years ago. He thought of his uncles getting into arguments over checkerboards or how he’d go to war with his siblings over an Uno game and wondered if it was the same for them.
“They’ve finished the initial exam.” The announcement broke him out of his reverie.
“Dr. Fraser and Taylor. They finished the initial exam and got some test results back. C’mon and take a look.”
They hustled over to the examination table and watched as the professor and her assistant finished arranging the samples. Dr. Fraser looked up, her thick glasses making her dark eyes buglike. She only wore them for examinations, and Derrick felt a little relieved at that.
“Oh, you’re here,” she said. “Gather around. I want you to look at something.” They huddled closer as she gestured for Taylor to roll over the right femur on the skeleton that had been sitting against the wall. The two sets of remains, browned by their time in the earth, held an odd draw. Maybe it was the chilly room or the fact that dusk had already started to settle outside, but Derrick felt unsettled by them.
“This gash right here,” she said, pointing to a nick in the bone that looked about half-healed. “Tell me what you see. Derrick, you start.”
He startled. “Oh, uh, I think…” He got a bit closer. “I think it looks like a stab wound.”
“Um,” he licked his lips. “It goes straight into the bone, and the edges are neat, so it’s not a break. But the impression is deeper on the lower side, so they probably stabbed down.” He mimed stabbing a knife down into the front of Kally’s leg, for example.
“So this is evidence of an attack?”
“I would say so,” he agreed. Dr. Fraser nodded and turned to Kally.
“What do you think, Miss Hill? Is this our cause of death?”
“Based on the healing of the bone, it’s a possibility.” Kally adjusted her glasses. “The bone shows that it began to mend itself but didn’t finish the job.”
“Very good,” Dr. Fraser nodded. “It’s true that the bone began to mend. This is also the most recent injury on the body. All other injuries are from various times. When we combine the weapons found in the grave with the number of defensive wounds, it’s obvious this person did a lot of fighting. There’s also significant wear to the bones around the shoulder.”
“At first, I thought it might be from pulling a bow, but it’s the same on both shoulders. I see wear like this when the person did a lot of pushing and pulling, so it’s more likely from rowing than archery,” Taylor piped up. “The other body doesn’t show the same wear. They have the most stress on their wrists and hands. It looks like it developed into arthritis in later years.”
“So the first skeleton spent a lot of time on a boat and has defensive wounds,” Dr. Fraser pointed out. “Let’s assume they were a proper Viking, one that went on raids in Scotland and Ireland. What about this second one?” They all looked at the second body.
It laid against the steel table. The empty eyes turned towards the other body as if trying to keep it in sight. Derrick shivered at the thought. He thought about the items he’d been cataloging earlier and remembered the tools.
“Could they have been a craftsman?” He asked. “I found carving tools in the grave goods. They could belong to them.”
“That’s very true,” the professor agreed. “A carver would explain the state of their wrists. Even when carving softer material like bone, if one does it long enough, the results are usually felt. So a Viking and a Craftsperson. Any theories?”
Once again, Taylor spoke up.
“The samples we took earlier showed that both of them are women,” he said, excitedly gesturing at the pelvic bones. “The first one is maybe forty-five, and based on the skeleton, was very tall and muscular. The second one is much smaller and around the same age.” He pointed at the slices of bone they’d pulled earlier. “Based on each bone structure, I’d say that the first body was very well taken care of most of their life, while the second one dealt with malnutrition in their early years.”
“Any idea of where they’re from?” Kally asked, a hand on her hip.
“The first body is from Scandinavia. We can’t pinpoint where, though. The second is Irish.” Taylor looked so pleased to finally get to reveal everything he’d learned. Derrick wasn’t specializing in bone. They gave him the heebies and the jeebies. Taylor, on the other hand, loved bones. He got excited over the tiniest shard. The way his face was beaming, you’d think he’d won the lottery.
“So it is a Thrall?”
“A what?” Derrick looked at their professor, who was still watching Taylor gush about the bones.
“Another word for ‘slave,'” Kally supplied. Taylor ignored them and barreled on.
“I don’t think it is a Thrall,” he said excitedly. “Look at these.” He picked up a tray sitting on the edge of the table. “All of this was found on the Irish skeleton.”
The tray contained jewelry, beads, and metal links that had long since fallen apart. Two rings had been set to the side.
“This was a richly adorned woman,” Taylor explained. “She was wearing jewelry we’d typically see on a trader or wealthy person. It doesn’t match up with the malnutrition.”
“What about those?” Kally pointed at the rings pushed to the side. “She was wearing both of them?”
Taylor shook his head. “No, they’re pair rings. The other skeleton was wearing one of them. Which means-“
“I was right?” Kally interrupted. Her hands were clasped in front of her chest, and she beamed at the bones. “We have Viking Lesbians in the lab?”
“Maybe!” Taylor joined her in bouncing in place. “This could be one of the oldest representations of a gay couple buried together! Explicitly queer, not siblings or cousins!”
“Oh my God!” The two bounced around while Derrick looked on in awe. This could be groundbreaking if it were true. It was so rare for couples to be buried together.
“‘God’ is right.” The professor interrupted their happy dance. “I understand your excitement. It’s a fascinating theory. We have to ask ourselves a few things, though.”
“The crucifix,” Derrick whispered. He’d found a second one in the grave goods, this one far more intricate than the necklace. It had to have come from a church of some kind.
“Right. If one of them was carrying the cross, we have to assume they adhered to Christianity. So, ‘no homo,’ as my students say.” She pulled out a chart. “We estimate these bones to be at least a thousand years old. Christianity was being practiced in Ireland and Scandinavia at that time with varying levels of success.”
“Could they just have liked the look?” He asked.
“What do you think?”
“I think we need to research the area,” Kally decided, her face still flushed from the impromptu exercise. “We need to find out who lived there and trace the record.”
“Alright,” Dr. Fraser agreed. “We can start tomorrow then when the light is back, and you’ve had a few hours to enjoy your discovery. Remember,” she said as they all raced for their bags. “Keep what you’ve found quiet. We aren’t ready to have reporters poking around yet. Save the reveal until you can tell the world in your own words what you’ve discovered.”