A team of British archaeologists were digging in an abandoned Roman quarry in June 2009 when they made a strange and chilling discovery: an ancient mass grave filled with dozens of decapitated skeletons. It was, they told the BBC, one of the “most exciting and disturbing” historical finds in Britain in recent times…
The quarry was located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the top of Ridgeway Hill in the county of Dorset. In the past, the site would have marked a crossroads on a prominent Roman road. Today, it overlooks the new Weymouth Relief Road, which was built to service sailing events at the 2012 Olympic Games.
In fact, the entire area is dotted with burial mounds called “barrows,” but this particular burial site was not quite like the others. The people buried here had not died peacefully, or from natural causes. Indeed, according to the archaeologists who found them, they had been brutally executed.
Skanska Civil Engineering, the company responsible for constructing the Weymouth Relief Road, commissioned Oxford Archaeology to start excavating the site in September 2008. Using cutting edge technology to pinpoint the position of the bones, the archaeologists retrieved some 54 skeletons… and 51 skulls.
All of the victims were men, most of them no more than 25 years old. And their decapitated bodies had been buried in a heap, with their severed heads in a pile at the side. What’s more, three of the victims’ skulls were missing, suggesting they may have been kept as mementos, or perhaps placed on spikes to warn passing travelers.
Meanwhile, a series of unexpected revelations came to light when the remains were subjected to forensic examination. Firstly, radiocarbon tests showed that the bones, despite being found in a Roman quarry, were not much more than a thousand years old. To be precise, they dated from between 910 AD and 1030 AD.
This placed the remains firmly in the Dark Ages and in a geographical area long subjected to Viking raids. Could they possibly have belonged to a group of local Anglo-Saxons who fell prey to marauding Scandinavians? Apparently not, according to an analysis of the victims’ teeth carried by the UK’s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory.
According to their analysis, the chemical markers embedded in the victims’ teeth indicated that they had originated from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of northern Europe. Furthermore, these people consumed a high-protein, meat-rich diet, matching remains found from the same period in Sweden. So the victims, it transpired, were not Anglo-Saxons, but Vikings.
“What’s fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging and ransacking,” Dr Jane Evans, who led the studies, told National Geographic in 2010. “But here we’ve got real evidence that it was the other way round. Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them.”
Moreover, the manner of their execution appears to have been extremely savage. Some of the victims, for example, received scores of sword blows to their skulls, jaws and necks, as well as to their hands and arms. This suggests that the Vikings didn’t go down without a fight.
In fact, the Vikings were decapitated from front to back, meaning that they had been facing their executioners. Meanwhile, since no clothing, possessions or other artefacts were found in the grave, it is likely that the victims were stripped naked, too. All in all, they appear to have suffered a horribly degrading and grisly fate.
So, then, who exactly were these unfortunate travelers and what had they done to provoke such wrath from the locals? One of the most intriguing theories, posited by Dr Britt Baillie of Cambridge University, connected them to an elite fraternity of Viking warriors known as the Jomsvikings.
The Jomsvikings, thought to have been founded by Harald Bluetooth, were notorious for their ferocity and bravery. “Stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups,” Baillie told the Cambridge University website.
Indeed, that the victims faced their executioners at the moment of death suggests that were attempting to emulate the Jomsvikings. “I am content to die as are all our comrades,” goes the old Jomsviking saga. “But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.”
Baillie’s theory was also supported by the discovery that one of the victim’s teeth was cosmetically filed. Dental modification has a long history around the world and its purpose tends to be culturally specific. In this case, the victim may have been trying to copy Harald Bluetooth, who was known to have filed his teeth and painted them with blue paste.
However, closer analysis of the victims’ remains found no previous war wounds, perhaps indicating limited experience of battle. Furthermore, some members of the group appeared to have been suffering from painful and debilitating diseases such as bone infections and kidney stones. So these were surely not the Jomsvikings of ancient lore.
Furthermore, the reason why the victims were killed is as much of a mystery as who they were. Having suffered the first ever recorded Viking raid on England in 789 AD, Dorset has a long history of conflict with the Vikings. But a century of struggle eventually culminated in a peace treaty, formally establishing the Danish kingdom of Danelaw alongside Anglo-Saxon England.
Tensions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, however, were never far from the surface. On 13 November, 1002, in retaliation for a series of raids, the Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready, ordered the execution of every Danish man in England. And Dr. Baillie believes that this event – the so-called St. Brice’s Day massacre – may have something to do with the grave found in Dorset.
Meanwhile, the remains themselves have found public audiences at the British Museum in London and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin, Germany. And they are now on permanent exhibition at the Dorset County Museum, where they have been placed in a reconstruction of the burial pit.
Perhaps their greatest value has been in challenging historical stereotypes. As Gareth Williams of the British Museum told the Museum Crush website in 2016, “Not only is it one of the most dramatic Viking finds of recent years, it is particularly important in providing a very different perspective to the usual view of Viking military success in England in that period.”