The remains of two Vikings from the same family – one in England and the other in Denmark – are to be reunited more than 1,000 years after their deaths, with help from Oxfordshire County Council’s Museum Service.
One of these men was believed to have been a victim of St Brice’s Day Massacre of AD 1002, in which dozens of Danish raiders, settlers and their offspring were thought to have been executed on the orders of the King Aethelred II of England. The skeleton is held at the Oxfordshire County Council’s Museum Resource Centre.
Now DNA evidence has shown that a male skeleton, discovered during an excavation in Denmark, is closely related to one of the Oxfordshire victims – known as SK1756.
Next year, SK1756 will be taken ‘home’ to Denmark to be included in a Viking exhibition alongside the latest Danish discovery – believed to be a close relative such as an uncle, nephew, grandfather, grandson or half-brother. In the meantime, SK1756 is set to be featured in a Danish TV documentary about the Vikings. The Director of the National Museum of Denmark, Dr Rane Willerslev, visited the museum with a television crew last month, where he interviewed Oxfordshire’s Curator of Archaeology, Angie Bolton, for the documentary.
“It was very interesting and very revealing,” explains Dr Willerslev. “It was strange to see this skeleton – one of your ancestors – which had been hit eight to 10 times in the head and stabbed several times in the spine, just lying there in front of you.”
Some of the work in establishing the link between the two skeletons was carried out by Dr Willerslev’s twin brother Eske, an expert in DNA. “We thought it was exciting when we made the link,” said Rane. “We thought that Vikings had left Denmark to live in Britain, but we were not certain. Now we had the evidence that they were kin.”
The skeleton from England was discovered in 2008 when a mass grave unearthed during archaeological excavations on the grounds of Oxford University. Research shows that they had all been massacred at the same time, probably in AD 1002.
The remains of 35 males were found – 33 adults and two adolescents. Thye had met a violent death but did not necessarily lead a violent life. Isotopic analysis suggests that some of the victims originated from within the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany.
The massacre was prompted by King Aethelred’s frustration at his inability to stop Viking invaders from raiding England. Towards the end of the 10th century there was a resurgence in raids, despite Aethelred paying the Vikings large sums of money as a ransom to stop. This was becoming costly and ineffective so, in AD 1002, he issued a decree ordering the killing of all Danes on St Brice’s Day. This included the Danes who carried out the raiding, plus those who had settled, and their offspring. The timing, historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the remains found in Oxford were probably killed as part of this decree.
The St Brice’s Day Massacre is not well-known among the general Danish population, but Dr Willerslev is not expecting a backlash when his documentary reveals the gory details of Oxford’s very own horrible history. “I don’t think there will be any hard feelings towards the Brits,” he joked. “People always think the Vikings went overseas and killed and plundered, but here the situation is turned around. It’s payback!”
I had such a brilliant time filming this. It was odd talking to Rane about the #Viking (who we know was from #Denmark) laying in front of us with 9 sword injuries on the back of his skull. The Danes filming didn’t hold a grudge for the AD 1002 Massacre thankfully! https://t.co/HE9sHB8YhO
— Angie Bolton (@AngieMBolton) September 30, 2020
Angie Bolton, who talked the Danish visitors through how the skeletons were found, how they are looked after, and how they are believed to have met their brutal end, said: “The fact that the director of a National Museum came to take an interest in our resource centre is just brilliant. The DNA link to the Danish skeleton is amazing and it’s quite a privilege for our collection to be recognised in this way.”
The documentary and the exhibition, due to open at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen in 2021 and run in various forms until 2024, show that the Danes still embrace their Viking heritage.
“Vikings are very popular at the moment, added Dr Willerslev. “Denmark is regularly reinventing its relationship with the Vikings – the depictions are very different throughout the years – but they remain one of the most popular themes you can exhibit. Why is this?
“Well, there are adventures and a glorious time in Scandinavian history, when Christian beliefs met Pagan Europe. Scandinavia is very peaceful now so it’s intriguing and challenging to look at the past and see what motivated them.”
SK1756 will be making the journey to Copenhagen next Spring, and there are plans to carry out more tests on the 1,000-year-old bones – either in Durham or Denmark – to try to unearth more secrets from beyond the grave. And if Angie Bolton has her way, SK1756’s Danish relative will travel in the opposite direction at some point in the future.
“I would love to borrow the Danish skeleton and put on an exhibition in Oxfordshire, showing this example of ethnic cleansing, and shatter a few myths about us and the Vikings,” she said.
Oxfordshire County Council’s Museums Resource Centre is the principal store for all archaeological sites excavated or studied in Oxfordshire. Collections include sites and objects from every period of human history – prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, medieval and post-medieval.
Top Image: Rane Willerslev with Angie Bolton, the camera crew and skeleton SK1756 – photo courtesy Oxfordshire County Council