‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Weymouth
By Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score
Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph Series, No. 22 (2014)
This volume describes one of the most exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries to have been made in Britain in recent years, that of a rare mass grave of executed Vikings on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset. The skeletons, around 50 in total, were predominantly of young adult males all of whom had been decapitated: heads had been deposited in a pile at the southern edge of the grave, while the beheaded bodies had been apparently thrown in with little care. Since their recovery experts have undertaken forensic studies of the bones and have applied cutting edge techniques to elicit the most information possible, in order to understand who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their demise. It reveals an extraordinary story of the discovery of what is arguably the most dramatic physical evidence for violence in early medieval Britain ever encountered by archaeologists.
Excerpt: Who were the People Buried in the Grave?
Isotope studies provide compelling evidence for Scandinavian origins for at least many of the grave’s occupants, with childhood residence outside Britain in colder and very cold areas such as the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of Scandinavia, northern Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. The evidence also suggests that the individuals had varied diets and migratory histories, with most, if not all of them having been living outside the British Isles about three years prior to their deaths, probably in Northern Europe. As discussed by Abrams, the wide geographic origins suggested by this evidence is consistent with current knowledge of Viking armies, the number of individuals being compatible with a ship’s crew. The burial is perhaps linked to events during the reign of Æthelred, such as the ravaging of Portland in 982, of Viking attacks on Dorset in 998, 1015 or 1016. However, if the skeletons represented a raiding party, they must have been relatively inexperienced warriors considering the lack of healed combat wounds combined with the predominantly young age of this all male group.
Although it seems very likely that these were Vikings executed by the English, the possibility that they were a group of mercenaries fighting for the English and executed by Vikings cannot entirely be ruled out. Other scenarios are also worth considering: judicial execution by the English authorities is also a possibility. Alternatively, the individuals could have been merchants or recent settlers in England, who were victims of the St Brice’s Day massacre that took place in 1002, when Æthelred ordered all Danes (here thought to refer to all Scandinavians) in England to be killed. Finally, it is also possible that the grave relates to an event during the reign of Cnut (1016-35), with the individuals either hostages or combatants engaging in reprisals against previous enemies.