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Beyond Stone & Bone

Slaughter of the Vikings
by Mark Rose
March 13, 2010

Archaeology can sometimes balance views of past events based on documentary evidence, a recent case in point being the study of remains of more than 50 young Vikings who were apparently captured while raiding in southern England and brutally executed. A thousand years later, we know of the terror Vikings inspired. And we know of retaliation on the occasions when the “home team,” here the Anglo Saxons, was able to turn the tables on the raiders. For example, in late September 1066, King Harold Godwinsson offered to Harald Sigurdsson, the invading Norwegian king, “seven feet of ground, or as much more than he is taller than other men.” At the end of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, seven feet was as much of England as Sigurdsson occupied.

The Norse poets made the best of it: It was an evil moment/When Norway’s king lay fallen;/Gold-inlaid weapons/Brought death to Norway’s leader./All King Harald’s warriors/Preferred to die beside him,/Sharing their brave king’s fate/Rather than beg for mercy.

It’s all rather heroic, but another picture of these times is coming to light from excavation of the Weymouth Relief Road burial pit, work there linked to the 2012 Olympics in London. “Burial pit” is a bit of a bland description for the deposit of the bones of 54 young men piled helter skelter, except for their skulls, which were tidily piled up together to one side. (Photos of the site can be seen at Oxford Archaeology, the company investigating the site.)

Initially, it was thought the dead were Britons who fought against Vespasian’s Roman troops at the immense Iron Age hill fort dead vikingsMaiden Castle. The gripping story of the Britons’ ill-fated defense, re-created by Mortimer Wheeler who dug at Maiden Castle in the 1930s, has since been questioned. But any Iron Age-Roman link to the remains was scotched by radiocarbon dating, which showed the bones are from between A.D. 910 and 1030, a millennium too late for a Roman assault on Maiden Castle. Oxford Archaeology’s David Score says: “The time period we’re now looking at is one of considerable conflict between the resident Saxon population and invading Danes. Viking raids were common and there were a series of major battles in the south of England as successive Saxon kings and Viking leaders fought for control.” Sigurdsson’s invasion and defeat are at the tail end of this period, the Saxon king Harold Godwinsson falling at Hastings shortly afterward, having marched south at an impressive pace to confront, and nearly defeat, William of Normandy.

This basic chronological fix puts the remains into a historical setting, but what about the bones? Osteologist Angela Boyle, one of the researchers, is no stranger to this type of archaeology, having studied remains from a mass burial at Towton. One of the most brutal fights in the Wars of the Roses, the 1461 battle was called in accounts of the time “a day of much slaying…so furious was the battle and so great the killing: father did not spare son, nor son his father.

Boyle says, “All the remains uncovered are male and the overwhelming majority are aged from their late teens to about 25 years old, with just a small number of older individuals. As a general group they are tall, robust in stature with good teeth and appear to have had healthy lifestyles…. Most of the skulls exhibit evidence of multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls with a large, very sharp weapon such as a sword. The lack of any other finds, such as those associated with clothing, indicates that they may have been naked when thrown into the pit.”

Who were these unfortunates? In addition to the radiocarbon dating and anthropological assessment of the bones, we now have the results of studies by Jane Evans at the Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, part of the British Geological Survey Natural Environmental Research Council. The radiocarbon dates ruled out Britons or Romans, pointing instead to Anglo-Saxons (invaders themselves centuries before, but now defenders) or Viking pillagers. Analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes in teeth from the Weymouth Relief Road burial pit show that the young warriors came from Scandinavia.

Lured by the thought of plunder, or perhaps of land to settle, they found neither. An end as embodied in the poet’s words–Sharing their brave king’s fate–was undoubtedly not in the minds of these would-be conquerors, but the story revealed by archaeology is one much simpler and much grimmer, akin to the Biblical “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” as much as to any battlefield heroics.

Osteologist Ceri Boston, told the Times: “It was not a straight one slice and head off. They were all hacked at around the head and jaw. It doesn’t look like they were very willing or the executioners very skilled. …One man had his hands sliced through. It looks like he was trying to grab hold of the sword as he was being executed.”

Archaeology can bring past events alive, seeing beyond the “spin” put on events centuries ago. But the stories told by bones and radiocarbon and isotopes are not always pleasant ones.

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Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.

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