In 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology made one of the most exciting, and disturbing, archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years. Around 50 skeletons, predominantly of young adult males, were found in an old quarry pit. All had been decapitated. Their heads had been placed in a pile located at one edge of the grave, and their bodies thrown into the pit. Archaeologists knew they had found something special as they uncovered the tangle of human bones, but it was only as the scientific analysis of the skeletons progressed that the full international significance of the discovery became clear. What the archaeologists had found was a mass grave of executed Vikings.
Oxford Archaeology Project Manager David Score said: “To find out that the young men executed were Vikings is a thrilling development. Any mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual.”
Angus Campbell, the former leader of Dorset County Council and now Lord Lieutenant for Dorset, said: “We have a tremendous historic environment here in Dorset but we never would have dreamed of finding a Viking war grave.”
The excavation, commissioned by Skanska Civil Engineering on behalf of Dorset County Council, combined traditional archaeological methods with revolutionary digital and three-dimensional recording to identify the exact position of each individual. After the skeletons were carefully lifted and removed to the laboratory, experts undertook forensic studies of the bones and applied a raft of scientific techniques to gain as much information as possible about who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their dramatic and gruesome demise.
The results suggested that the burial took place at the time of, or shortly after, the men’s execution which had probably been performed at the graveside. Using methods normally employed to investigate modern day mass graves, it was estimated that between 47 and 52 individuals were present. The individuals may have been stripped of their clothes prior to burial, but were unbound. Defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls imply that not all men died without a struggle. Wounds to necks and shoulders indicate that the process of decapitation was no less chaotic, and in some cases several blows of the sword were required to remove the heads.
Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain, but originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia.
Dr. Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, who carried out the work on the teeth, said: “These results are fantastic. This is the best example we have ever seen of a group of individuals that clearly have their origins outside Britain.”
Examination of the bones indicated that most of the men were 18-25 years old. The youngest was in his early or mid teens, while the oldest was over 50. One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation. The phenomenon has previously been recorded in Scandinavia, but until now was unknown in the UK.
Curiously, many of the individuals suffered from infections and physical impairment, and none of showed convincing evidence for previous war wounds; hardly the picture of an elite group of Viking warriors. The burial was radiocarbon dated to AD 970-1025, which places it in the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. This was a time in England of Viking raids, war, hostages and retribution, but ultimately questions of how the men came to be in Dorset remain open.
There has been a huge response to the discovery, both in the UK and internationally. Over 7000 people attended an exhibition dedicated to it in Dorchester in 2010, and stories have appeared in newspapers and media outlets around the world. The mass grave has also featured on TV. An item about it was shown on the Swedish science programme, ‘Vetenskapens Varld’, and the burial was the subject of an hour-long special, ‘Viking Apocalypse’, on the National Geographic Channel
In recognition of its global importance, the burial will feature in ‘Vikings: life and legend’, a major exhibition exploring the world of the Vikings from 6th March to 22th June 2014 at the British Museum. Visitors will be able to see a display of some of the skeletons and learn more about the individuals buried and the ground-breaking investigation. Elements of the exhibition, including the skeletons, will move to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin from September 2014 to January 2015, where visitors will be able to walk around a specially reconstructed burial pit and see the skeletons in their original positions.
This extraordinary story of conflict and punishment in early medieval Britain has now been published by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society in a new book , ‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score. The book will be available to buy at the British Museum and can also be purchased from Oxbow Books.
- Oxford University: Skeletons found at mass burial site in Oxford could be ’10th-century Viking raiders’