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Mass grave discovered in Dorset contains remains of beheaded Viking warriors

The captives, all well built young men in their late teens and early 20s, were herded to the place of execution. Fifty-four in total, their heads were hacked off and stacked neatly in a pile. The bodies were tossed into a pit where they remained a tangle of limbs and headless torsos until archaeologists following the route of a new road stumbled across the remains last year.


Excavation at the Viking mass grave in Dorset; Source: Times Online

Not the killing fields of Iraq or the Balkans but the Ridgeway, near Weymouth, an ancient track across the now tranquil Dorset countryside, where one thousand years ago a long forgotten massacre took place.

The victims, a mystery when the discovery of the mass grave was first revealed in The Times, have been identified. They were Viking raiders who had come to Britain in search of slaves and plunder.

The discovery, during construction of a relief road for sailing events in the 2012 Olympics, led to a host of theories. At first it was thought they were Iron Age warriors killed by the invading Roman Legions during fighting for Maiden Castle, Britain’s largest hill fort. That theory was ruled out when radio carbon tests dated the bones to between AD910 and AD1030, a thousand years later.

Now tests on isotopes in the enamel of their teeth has found the men came from further afield. They had sailed across the North Sea from what is now Scandinavia. At least one of the Norse men had lived much of his life inside the Arctic Circle.

Study of the bones has revealed the brutality of their deaths. Their heads were not cleanly parted from their shoulders with the swing of an executioners’ axe, but hacked off with swords as the naked warriors tried to defend themselves with their bare hands.

Ceri Boston, an expert in ancient bones who examined the remains, said: “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.

“We think the decapitation was messy because the person was moving around. One man had his hands sliced through. It looks like he was trying to grab hold of the sword as he was being executed.”

Archaeologist believe the men were from a captured raiding party and were taken to the site by Anglo-Saxons defending their land for the specific purpose of putting them to death. Ms Boston added: “The location is a typical place for a Saxon execution site, on a main road and a parish boundary and close to prehistoric burrows.”

Teeth from ten individuals were examined by Dr Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery at NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham. Dr Evans said: “Isotopes from drinking water and food are fixed in the enamel and dentine of teeth as the teeth are formed in early life. The isotope data we obtained from the burial pit teeth strongly indicate that the men executed on the Ridgeway originated from a variety of places within the Scandinavian countries.

“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.”

The scientists hope to uncover more details of the lifestyles, activities, general health and diets of the warriors as the analysis continues.

Vikings raiding parties struck all around Britain and Europe between the eighth and eleventh centuries. They colonised part of northern France now known as Normandy.

David Score, from Oxford Archaeology, which excavated the grave, said: “Any mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual and presents an incredible opportunity to learn more about what was happening in Dorset at this time.”

Source: Times Online


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