Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: a Viking Murder Mystery
Paper by Angela Boyle, Associate Consultant for Oxford Archaeology
Given at the 2012 Haskins Society Conference, held at Boston College, on November 3, 2012
Angela Boyle recounts the extraordinary archaeological discovery made in the summer of 2009 in Dorset in southwest England. In 2008, archaeologists began surveying an area in Weymouth where a new road was being built, and over the next couple of years made various discoveries dating back to Iron Age and Roman times. However, the archaeologists were not expecting to find anything when construction equipment began to dig up soil near a section of an old Roman road in the area. In June 2009, the construction workers uncovered a human bone and the archaeologists moved in to see if more remains could be found.
They soon discovered the remains of a mass burial, with dozens of bodies inside a Roman quarry pit. Even more startling was that the every skeleton had been beheaded – the skulls were in one of section of the burial pit and the bodies a few feet away. At first the archaeological team believed that bodies were from the Iron Age, but when one of the skulls was analyzed it revealed that it had a 98% chance of the man having come from Denmark. Boyle notes that “to discover it in a Christian context was beyond our wildest dreams.”
The burial pit was completely excavated, with 51 skulls found. They also found 17 complete skeletons, 25 partial skeletons and 25 isolated limbs or extremities along with many small pieces of bone. Boyle adds that it is likely the construction equipment had unknowingly removed some of the bodies from the site before the first bone was discovered.
Scientific research into the remains have revealed that they date to between 972 and 1025 AD. Isotopes from the teeth of ten individuals have been analyzed, which show they were a “group of young men who originated from various parts of Scandinavia,” including one individual who came from the far north of that region. They are now examining a further 31 teeth and are awaiting results of this analysis.
In an interesting side-note, Boyle explains that they found some individuals had their front teeth deliberately filed to show grooves. This type of dental modification has been seen elsewhere in Viking-era Scandinavia, and it is likely that these filed teeth would have been painted so the grooves could have been showed off when one smiled. Boyle adds that the process of filing teeth in this fashion would have been very painful.
All of the skeletons found in the burial pit were male and that they were usually younger men. Between 17-20% were young adults, 27-30% were aged 18 to 25, 16-17% were aged 26 to 35, 15-18% were aged 36 to 45, and 6-7% were 46 years or older.
In determining the nature and extent of the injuries that caused their death, Boyle notes that 76% of the skulls showed sharp-blade trauma, a kind of wound similar to that made by a machete. Most also had some dental trauma that was likely linked to the execution. The archaeologists also found that many had blade injuries to their hands and forearms, which would be consistent with someone who trying to stop blows by using their hands.
The lack of any remains of clothing indicates that the men were likely stripped prior to their execution. There men were not bound before their execution. Once the men were killed it seems that the pit was covered up. Some twenty empty graves were also found near the pit – perhaps they were originally dug up for the prisoners but for some reason it was decided to use the open pit instead.
Boyle paints the scene of this mass execution, where this group of Scandinavians would have been taken to this location by a large crowd, after which they were each decapitated by a sword. This seems to have been a messy execution scene, which may indicate that there was more than one executioner or that the Vikings may have been moving targets.
One important question is why were these young Scandinavian men killed? One possibility is that they were victims of the St.Brice’s Day Massacre, which took place on November 13, 1002. King Æthelred the Unready, fearing that the Danish men in England were going to overthrow him, ordered that all Danes in his Kingdom were to be killed. Could these be some of the Viking men who were killed in this massacre?
Boyle believes that it might be more likely that these individuals were pirates or mercenaries who had arrived in England to plunder the area, but were somehow captured and led to the execution site as prisoners of war.
In closing, Boyle notes that the archaeologists are almost finished their analysis and that the results will likely be published in a book.
– Report by Peter Konieczny
Videos about the Viking Massacre site
This next video is a Multiple View Reconstruction animation; many photographs have been taken of the feature from as many different angles as possible and combined in software to produce a 3D model. The model was then animated to produce this fly-through view.
The following is a BBC News report on the discovery.