Understanding Torksey, Lincolnshire: A geoarchaeological and landscape approach to a Viking overwintering camp
By Samantha Stein
PhD Dissertation, University of Sheffield (2014)
Abstract: Viking overwintering camps of late 9th century England have been excluded from most recent dialogues regarding Viking Age England. Although overwintering camps are directly mentioned in historical records such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, these sites have remained archaeologically elusive. The recent identification of the Viking overwintering camp at Torksey, now under investigation by the Torksey Project, has provided a key opportunity to fill the gap in the current literature about the relation between environment, landscape, and Viking winter camps. This thesis uses geoarchaeological techniques, including palynology, sediment analysis, and optically stimulated luminescence to determine that the location was defined by a waterlogged landscape with aeolian sediments. The landscape evaluation has identified sites within the surrounding area that would have been integral in shaping the physical and political form and long-term effects of the winter camp, including a royal estate, a burhdyke associated with Torksey, an intermittently active canal at the Foss Dyke, and historical documents linking the site with the Mercian royal family. The methods employed during this have produced results that definitively demonstrate that the character of the environment was largely responsible for the Viking’s choice of site for their overwintering at Torksey, and how the early medieval population would have interacted with the environment in the Lower Trent Valley.
Introduction: This thesis focuses on the site of a Viking overwintering camp at Torksey, Lincolnshire. Located in the Lower Trent Valley, Torksey is one of the recorded Viking winter camps in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Overwintering camps are recorded between 855 and the early 10th century as the locations where the Viking Great Army would camp throughout the winter months during their raiding campaigns throughout Britain. With very little available archaeological evidence, Viking overwintering camps have been a subject of historical and archaeological debate over the past 120 years. The recent identification of the winter camp site at Torksey has provided a rare opportunity to examine a Viking overwintering camp from a landscape and geoarchaeological perspective.
The Viking Age is known as a period of instability and change in Anglo-Saxon England, from Viking armies sweeping through the countryside, to the settlement and integration of the Vikings into the Anglo-Saxon landscape and society. Little is known about the first years of Viking incursions. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the first Viking ships arrived in 787, followed by a raid at Lindisfarne in 793. The Vikings began staying throughout the winters at different camps around the country from 855, but aside from these records, and a few references in other annals, little is historically known about these first years of the Viking invasions. In addition to this dearth of historical records, there is even less archaeological evidence for the first decades of Viking invasions in England. Only one site at Repton has produced Viking Age archaeology in the location of a recorded winter camp. Discussions of the Repton excavations have focussed primarily on burials and an apparent Viking-Age enclosure ditch, with little to no analysis completed on the environmental history of the site, or of the surrounding landscape. Despite having yielded little certain information about the morphology or landscape of the site, the published interpretations of the appearance of the Viking phases at Repton have become regarded as offering a reliable example of what a typical Viking winter camp looks like, and Repton is used repeatedly in comparative studies of other potential Viking winter camp sites in England and abroad.