Seminar LXXV: more skeletons, and this time Vikings

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.

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

The Ridgeway burial pit, containing 51 Viking-age bodies

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.

Leg bone showing signs of serious infection from the Ridgeway burial

Leg bone showing signs of serious infection from the Ridgeway burial

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.

The skulls from the Ridgeway burial

The skulls from the Ridgeway burial

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.

A skull from the St John's College, Oxford, burial pit

A skull from the St John's College, Oxford, burial pit

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.

14 responses to “Seminar LXXV: more skeletons, and this time Vikings

  1. this was a very interesting post – had read about this discovery before but you gave more info to think about in your post and you did make it so very real – can’t help but feel pity for these men and the way they died – as well as wanting to know so much more about the circumstance of their deaths.

    • Thankyou! The skill there is only partly mine, though, David gave a very flesh-and-bone presentation and a number of us left faintly upset by the events we’d just seen the evidence of; I’m really just communicating the flavour of the talk, or at least the implications it drew out.

  2. Great post. I finally watched the excellent Polish film Katyn a few days ago, and although the scale and context of the (very likely) tenth-century Ridgeway Hill massacre is entirely different, the images from the excavation and the 1940s exhumations are all too similar. I think though that our sensitisation to images that recall brutalities in recent history makes it harder for us to look at sites like this with a cool eye: this is a horrid scene, but I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate on the bravery or final concerns of the victims. Previous generations of historians and enthusiasts would certainly have been quick to turn to the once iconic saga account of the methodical decapitation of captured Jomsvikings after their defeat by the Jarl of Lade at Hjörungavágr (see p. 378 of the Somerville and McDonald Viking Reader.). In the saga the historical battle of ca. 985 has already been subsumed into medieval legend, and the execution episode in ch. 35 is finally all about the bravery and honour of the viking warriors: its precisely because of this medieval preoccupation that bravery and honour are such a potent part of the viking myth, even in recent scholarship. We may know something about the habitual diet of those who died on Ridgeway Hill, but we know nothing of the circumstances of their deaths except that the site was a significant one–to modern eyes dramatic (affording views southwards, quite coincidentally, to Portland, and the scene of what may have been one of the first acts of violence by vikings in England, as recollected in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). But it is interesting to reflect that the forcible restraint and methodical execution of so many evidently strong (and mostly fit) young men must have required very considerable manpower, organisation and effort, undertaken as it was without the coercive advantages of modern weaponry.

    • we know nothing of the circumstances of their deaths…

      You go on, of course, with your last sentence to reflect that we do know something about it. You’re right, though, that the way I (and others) react to this scene and the living scene it implies is not contemporary, and the Jomsvikings were mentioned in questions, precisely to show that such executions were not beyond compare at this time. I suppose I would agree that it’s not helpful “to speculate on the bravery or final concerns of the victims”, but I think it is at least respectful, and I for one find it very hard not to when faced with this kind of evidence.

  3. Yes indeed. I really don’t want to labour this because your piece is excellent. The physical traces of mass execution and suffering are quite extraordinary, as you’ve made clear (including in one case wounds to the hands, if I remember rightly). But I think it’s important to accept that the natural response of a well-meaning tea-drinker like myself — and the hope for an ennobling element in what looks inescapably sordid – makes one less open to the possibilities, whether recoverable or not. Personally I think bravery would be beyond me in such circumstances, even with a nice view of Portland and the downs, and the sun on my beautiful hair (see Jómsvíkinga saga ch. 35). Those who suffered here may have been courageous, but they may also have been paralysed, stupefied, or panicked by terror, calm in the face of the inevitable, pathetically acquiescent, ineffectually resistant, dazed by trauma or starvation, dissociated by drug-induced psychosis (à la Niel Price), or abstracted by the contemptus mortis of flaxen-haired Germanic heroes of the old school. The temptation (which you adroitly evade) is of course to imagine a mass 20th-century-style execution of viking raiders at the graveside; but if they weren’t killed at the site, the possibilities multiply. It may be that the murderous appearance of the mass-grave horrifies us more than it would if we knew all the facts. If we knew that what we are seeing here was the end of some kind of carefully deliberated due process—a late Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the hanging of mutineers at the Nore in 1797, say—we might feel differently.

    • The question of whether they’d been killed on site was one that David discussed, indeed. As I say the first one looks as if he was alive enough to put his hands up as he fell into the pit; but even if that were the case, he may only have been the first in, and the others could already have been lifeless bodies on a cart. David was hoping to be able to get micromorphological analysis of the soil from the pit floor done to test for the presence of blood, which ought to resolve this question.

      As to your actual point (sorry), well, yes, I have to take it, there are probably more mindsets in which to take being killed than are dreamt of in my philosophy, because I don’t have to contemplate it a great deal (and when I do it’s usually briefly and on a road and so far unsuccessful). I think the location of the burial does suggest at least some kind of process; this was a place where old burials were physically obvious, and that raises parallels with other execution cemeteries in such places and suggests at least a kind of pattern that was being conformed to. But how ‘due’ that process was we will obviously never know…

  4. Oops. Pardon for the last inexpert link: it was supposed to be to Thomas Bartholin’s 1689 work ‘Of the Causes of the contempt of Death felt by the Ancient Danes while yet Gentiles’ (the very first scholarly treatment of heroic laughter in the face of impending death in Old Norse literature).

  5. As a bit of self-advertisement, I’d like to point out that there are articles on the background to the St Brice’s Day massacre in Beretning fra seksogtyvende tvaerfaglige vikingesymposium, ed. Niels Lund (Hojbjerg [Forlaget Hikuin and Aarhus University], 2007), ISBN 978-87-90814-50-2. The articles are in English.

  6. Pingback: Seminars CI & CII: the modern Oxford Viking diaspora « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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