Viking's unlucky trip to Dorset

4:44 PM

In 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset archaeologists from Oxford made one of the most exciting, and disturbing, archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years.

They have found a mass grave of 54 skeletons and 51 heads of men executed some time between AD 910 and 1030. Naked, beheaded, and tangled, the bodies of 51 young males  have been identified as brutally slain Vikings. For more than 1,000 years this bloody roadside act was forgotten, one of many atrocities in the long and violent struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse invaders. On November 13, A.D. 1002, Æthelred Unræd, ruler of the English kingdom of Wessex, “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England,” according to a royal charter. This drastic step was not taken on a whim, but was the product of 200 years of Anglo-Saxon frustration and fear.

The 54 skeletons were all of males, almost all aged from their late teens to around 25 years old, with a handful of older individuals. They had all been killed at the same time with a large, very sharp weapon such as a sword. They had not been cleanly killed, as many of them had suffered multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls. One man had his hands sliced through, suggesting that he had attempted to grab the sword as it was being swung towards him.

They had no obvious battle wounds and were most likely captives. Judging from the lack of any remains of clothing or other possessions, they had probably been naked when they were thrown into the pit. There are more bodies than skulls, suggesting that a couple of the heads – perhaps of high-ranking individuals – were kept as souvenirs or put on stakes.

A chemical analysis of teeth from ten of the men showed they grew up in countries where the climate is far colder than Britain - with one individual thought to have come from within the Arctic Circle. Now we know that they were Viking mercenaries. We know that for their teeth, which some of them had grooves filed into his two front teeth. Archaeologists think it may have been designed to frighten opponents or show status as a great fighter. This is a typical for Jomsvikings, a group of warriors from eastern Denmark who were feared across Europe and became so notorious they spawned their own saga. The Jomsvikings were forbidden from showing fear, and if executed would request to face the blow as proof of their bravery.

Few kilometers from the mass execution archaeologist have found helmet, axe and jawbone belonging to high rank Viking. There is a speculation that it's one of three missing heads from the Dorset execution. Maybe a leader of band whose head was taken as a trophy? Dating of the helmet gave us an answer that it's highly possible. 

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

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