So, the new term’s seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research starts on Wednesday, and I still have four seminars or lectures from last term I was hoping to give some notice of. Whether I manage this, only time will tell, but here is one that deserves a quick write-up and which fits into what is sadly becoming a real theme round here at the moment, to wit, untimely death. More on this soon, alas, but this one is probably not news to you as such, because these images travelled the web quite quickly.
This is a burial pit that was found in the course of construction work along the Ridgeway in Dorset to build the Weymouth Relief Road in 2009. The big news when the find was let out onto the web was twofold, firstly that the bodies had all been men, none probably older than 25, and all apparently executed, and secondly that initial radio-carbon dates placed them smack between the two Viking ages, c. 890X1030 and 910X1030, with potential to be from either one. It could have been neither, of course, but then the isotope analysis came back as being, for the most part, non-local and most likely from much further north than Dorset, one even north of the Arctic Circle, at which point it became hard to doubt that what we had here was some Scandinavians who’d lost the big game quite badly. And so, on 29th November, David Score from Oxford Archaeology, the contractors who’d dug the site, came to the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar to tell us more.
This proved valuable for both macro- and micro-scale detail. I did not know, for example, that the landscape in which these people were buried is absolutely busy with prehistoric barrows; several of the site photos had barrows lurking at their edges. There had also been Roman burial here and a Roman road runs through the area; in short, this landscape had a history of use written all over it, but was also easy to get to. Secondly, only the team who’d done the dig and the analysis could have told us how the victims died: all of a single or multiple blows to the head, possibly all delivered from the same direction at least at first. It looked as if the blows had been intended to decapitate; subsequent blows might have been to finish that job and may have been delivered once the victim had fallen. These were almost their only wounds; that is, they were not battle victims, and had apparently been brought to where they died, perhaps even here, in good health, and presumably knowing what was going to happen. The exception was one man with what must have been a horribly infected leg wound—as you can see above the bone looks all wrong—whose presumably hindered mobility was an unsolved question; he would have been a problem for any warband, which raises questions about whether this was one. The first body appeared to have fallen into the pit, which was just an old quarry pit, not dug out or deepened, face-first, arms extended, as if he’d been trying to break his fall; the rest were felled on top of him, one after the other, with their severed heads placed separately on a slight natural ridge in the pit.
There were fifty-one skulls, but fifty-four bodies (probably; unjumbling them from where they’d collapsed into each other over the centuries was tricky). It was suggested that the missing heads may have been displayed on stakes, as warnings, but if so, not here. Executing fifty-four people by sword must have taken a long time, which makes the absence of wounds the more surprising. One had apparently put his hand up to protect himself, as he had lost his fingertips to a sharp edge, but otherwise they took what was coming in fairly good order, or were perhaps bound and held in such a way that they had little choice perhaps, though there was no sign of rope in the grave (or indeed clothing). The last few must have had to be exceptionally brave, all the same.
The inevitable parallel is with another set of Scandinavian-isotoped bodies of this sort of date-range that were found even more locally to me, in St John’s College Oxford in 2008. That hasn’t been properly published yet, but it was discussed here in questions by people who knew about it, and the contrasts were huge; those bodies were hacked about, some even partly burned as if they’d been caught in a fire or tortured. There was no order to their deaths, and if, as seems possible, the burial has been correctly associated with the infamous St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, then the Danes of Oxford must have been chased through the street and killed wherever they couldn’t escape. Horrible in its way, and terrifying to experience no doubt, but this one, this looks much more nastily like organised death. There are obvious parallels from our times, of course, which show that perhaps even fighting men wouldn’t struggle when they knew that all was lost except the chance of dying with honour. One wonders whether they really were raiders, or whether they were a mercenary group or even a garrison whom the order of 1002 found dispensable. We will never know, most probably, but it is strange that with these finds we now have overwhelmingly more evidence of Vikings being killed by the English, and not in battle either, than we do for the reverse.