TV Historian Dan Snow visits Dorset County Museum for his latest TV Series

Dan Snow with Dr. Louise Loe -  Andy Worth/Dorset County Museum © 2015

Dan Snow with Dr. Louise Loe – Andy Worth/Dorset County Museum © 2015

On Wednesday the 19th August 2015, TV Historian, Dan Snow came to the Dorset County Museum to film his latest BBC TV series exploring the age of the Vikings.
This programme will feature the discovery of a mass grave of skeletons in 2009 on Ridgeway Hill during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset. Around 50 skeletons, predominantly of young Scandinavian 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.

Dr. Louise Loe, Head of Heritage Burial Services at Oxford Archaeology discussed with Dan the evidence in identifying these individuals, their origins and even their state of health.
The remains of these Ridgeway Vikings and other important archaeology treasures will be on permanent display in the museum’s newly refurbished Ancient Dorset Gallery. The refurbishment of this gallery has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership Scheme, Dorset County Council, West Dorset District Council and Alice Ellen Cooper-Dean Charitable Foundation.

The Ancient Dorset gallery at Dorset County Museum will become the visitor centre for the South Dorset Ridgeway. Ultimately it will link in with information panels to be displayed along the ridgeway itself helping visitors explore this area which is rich in heritage. This landscape is considered by many to be as important as Stonehenge and Avebury for revealing the lives of our ancestors. The ridge of high land, running parallel with the coast between Weymouth and Dorchester has been an important place for people for over five thousand years. It has over 1,000 monuments that record the history of the Ridgeway since that time.

Jon Murden, director of Dorset County Museum said “The archaeology of Dorset is the history of over 400,000 years of human habitation in the county – our collections are nationally significant and cover the entire period from Palaeolithic times to Saxon and Viking Dorset, so it will be especially exciting for the Museum to be featured in this programme which will be screened later this year.”

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Archaeology Gallery at Dorset County Museum being redeveloped in spring 2015

Dorset County Museum Archaeology GalleryThe Archaeology Gallery at Dorset County Museum is currently being redeveloped as part of a £250,000 project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) with the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership (AONB).

Upon its completion in autumn 2015 the new gallery will become the visitor centre for the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership. Ultimately it will link in with information panels to be displayed along the ridgeway itself helping visitors explore the AONB and understand the sites that can be seen there today.

“This is a very special project for us,” said Jon Murden, director of Dorset County Museum. “The archaeology of Dorset is the history of over 10,000 years of human habitation in the county – our collections are nationally significant and cover the entire period from paleolithic times to Saxon and Viking Dorset.”

When the new Ancient Dorset Gallery (the new name for the former Archaeology Gallery) opens at the Museum, the centrepiece will be a special display of the Viking skeletons found during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in 2009.

Jadeite Axe

Jadeite Axe © DCM

During the initial work (December to March 2014) the existing gallery will be open but artefacts from some display cases will be removed for conservation. Other key objects will be redisplayed in the museum during this time.

The design of the new gallery will ensure that when work starts on the Museum’s planned Collection Discovery Centre, the improved displays will be moved into the new extension at minimum cost.

While the work is being undertaken, visitors will be able to enjoy a special spotlight loan from the British Museum of three jadeite axes and some mace heads from their own collection. Dorset County Museum’s own jadeite axe will be displayed alongside these loans.

For further information visit www.dorsetcountymuseum.org. Dorset County Museum is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.00pm.

New Book of a remarkable Viking age mass burial near Weymouth featured in British Museum Viking Exhibition

Archaeologists excavate mass grave of executed Vikings

Archaeologists excavate mass grave of executed Vikings

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.”

One individual had deliberately-filed teeth (Photo 2), which may have been a symbol of status or occupation

One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation

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

‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score.

‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score.

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.

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