Vikings’ demise on foreign soil – a case of ethnic cleansing?

Vikings’ demise on foreign soil – a case of ethnic cleansing? The discovery of two mass graves containing the remains of Scandinavians in Anglo-Saxon England

By Eva CMJ Bernhardsdotter

Bachelor’s Thesis, Gotland University, 2012

Finds from the mass grave in Dorset. Credit: Lion TV.

Abstract: The discovery of two mass graves in England in 2010 containing the remains of Scandinavian men in their prime from the Viking age against the historical backdrop of Anglo-Saxon England has elicited questions as to whether or not they were victims of ethnic cleansing. Literature studies combined with the results from the post-excavation analyses render the conclusion that the victims in the grave, most likely, were not subjected to ethnic cleansing. It is more plausible that they were Scandinavian mercenaries who were executed during an intense period where a failing England was desperately paying for its own conquest with the Danegeld. The historical documents give the impression that a nation-wide genocide against Danes took place, however the archaeological material and analyses do not fully support this scenario.


This essay focuses on a set of questions associated with the discoveries of two mass graves, presumably containing the remains of “Vikings”, in 2008 (in Oxford) and in 2009 (at Ridgeway Hill) in England. The archaeological context and various post-excavation analyses imply that the mass graves contain the remains of men of Scandinavian origin and that these men had fallen victim to brutal deaths. The historical context, such as the events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, suggests that these massacres could have been part of an “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Anglo-Saxon population around 1000 AD. The reporting of these discoveries evokes several questions regarding the use of the concept ethnic cleansing and the term Viking, questions which are discussed in the essay.

The aim of this essay is to analyse the reasons for why a group of male Scandinavians met their fate in two mass graves during the Viking age (most generally taken to run from c. AD 800 to c. 1050) in Anglo-Saxon England. The central question around which the analysis revolves is:

  • Were they victims of ethnical cleansing?

This in turn gives rise to a set of related questions such as:

  • Can the term ethnical cleansing be applied to this case, i.e. does it have a contemporary meaning or is it merely a modern invention?
  • Was the documented Anglo-Saxon antagonism against Scandinavians manifested in reality or is it merely exaggerated propaganda?
  • Were the victims Vikings and what do we mean by Vikings?
  • Are both mass graves the results of ethnic cleansing or do they differ?
  • Is the current analysis of the archaeological material sufficient to support the hypothesis of ethnic cleansing?

Click here to read this thesis from DiVA Academic Archive

See also Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: a Viking Murder Mystery


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