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The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel

The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel

By Catrine L. Jarman, Martin Biddle, Tom Higham, & Christopher Bronk Ramsey

Antiquity, published online, 2018

Bones from the Repton charnel during excavations – photo by Mark Horton

Introduction: Between 1980 and 1986, investigations in the vicinity of St Wystan’s church at Repton in Derbyshire uncovered a charnel deposit containing the disarticulated remains of at least 264 people under a low pebble mound. The bones were hypothesised to be those of the Viking Great Army that overwintered in Repton in AD 873–874, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The excavators also discovered extensive evidence of a large defensive ditch and a number of furnished burials with distinctly Scandinavian-style grave goods. Numismatic evidence assigned both the charnel and the Viking graves to AD 872–75. Radiocarbon date determinations of bone collagen from the charnel deposit, however, seemed to disagree with the archaeological findings. Although several samples were consistent with a ninth-century date, a number dated to the seventh and eighth centuries AD, and thus seemed to belong to an earlier phase of activity. As a result, the identification of those buried in the charnel as members of the Great Army has been brought into question.

The date and identification of the Repton charnel is important for a number of reasons. Despite significant evidence for a Scandinavian presence in England in the ninth century AD, securely identified Scandinavian inhumations, and thereby direct osteological evidence for a migrant population, are rare. The nature and magnitude of Scandinavian migrations to England in the early medieval period is still disputed. The size and nature of Great Army winter camps has been used as a proxy to estimate the size of the invading forces, but with divergent results. An accurate understanding of the chronology at Repton is therefore essential for improving our knowledge in these areas.


Here we present new radiocarbon dates of bone material from Repton to elucidate the dating of the charnel deposit. We take into account marine reservoir effects (MREs) on human bone, and use contextual information with Bayesian modelling to constrain the dates further. The results show that all dated remains from the charnel deposit are consistent with a single late ninth-century event. Beyond the context of Viking Age England, the material presented here demonstrates the need to account fully for MREs, in particular when working with secondary burials or material where 14C dates seem inconsistent with other forms of evidence.

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