The Headless Vikings of Dorset
In June 2009, archaeologists made a shocking discovery in the seaside town of Weymouth in Dorset, England. While excavating in preparation for the anticipated Weymouth Relief Road, archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing the remains of 54 dismembered skeletons, and 51 skulls in a pile within a disused Roman quarry. This curious find led many to wonder who these individuals were, and why they were killed in such a gruesome manner. Through scientific testing and analysis, archaeologists concluded that the remains belonged to Scandinavian Vikings. The sheer size of this burial is particularly surprising, as “[a]ny mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual,” said David Score of Oxford Archaeology
A pile of heads was found separate to the rest of the bodies in a mass grave. Credit: Oxford Archaeology
Although exact dating has not been confirmed, it is believed that the remains are those of individuals who lived sometime during the early Middle Ages, between the 5 th and 10 th centuries. The deaths likely occurred during, and as a result of, conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and Viking invaders. All of the remains are from males mostly aged from their late teens to 25 years old, with a few being somewhat older. None of the remains show any sign of battle wounds, beyond wounds inflicted during the execution, so it is likely that these men were captives rather than members of the military. No clothing or other remnants were found within the pit, leading to speculation that the men were naked when they were executed.
The bodies are believed to belong to Viking warriors, executed by Anglo Saxons ( Wikimedia Commons )
The men appear to have been killed all at the same time, and the executions appear to have been carried out hastily and rather chaotically. Some of the individuals showed multiple blows and deep cuts to the vertebrae, jawbones, and skulls. Damage to the hand and wrist bones indicates that some of them may have braced against the execution with their hands. When the remains were discovered, the skulls, leg bones, and rib bones were arranged into separate piles. It appeared that the pit had not been dug specifically for this purpose, and that it just happened to be a convenient spot to dump the bodies. One interesting detail is that there were three fewer skulls than the number of skeletons within the pit. It is believed that three of the heads may have been kept as souvenirs or placed on stakes. They may have been high-ranking individuals.
The mass grave of headless Vikings found in Dorset. Credit: Oxford Archaeology
There have been multiple theories as to who these men were and why they were executed. As a group, they appear to have been healthy and robust individuals. They were all of fighting age, and they were far from home when executed. Scientific isotope testing conducted on the mens’ teeth indicates that they were of very diverse origins, and likely from Scandinavia. Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, has speculated "[t]hey had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender." This is corroborated by the fact that location of their deaths was a central location in conflicts between native Saxons and invading Vikings.
It is also speculated that the executions may have taken place in front of an audience, as some sort of display of power, authority, and triumph. In a documentary by National Geographic, called Viking Apocalypse, Dr. Britt Baillie suggested a link between these executions and the St. Brice's Day massacre, or that those executed were actually defectors or traitors killed by their own men. A gruesome find such as this brings forth many questions. It is hoped that further archaeological discoveries in the area may help provide answers to what occurred on that fateful day.
Featured image: The Viking remains found in a mass grave with their heads separated from their bodies. Credit: Oxford Archaeology
Ridgeway Hill Viking Burial Pit – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridgeway_Hill_Viking_burial_pit
51 Headless Vikings in English Execution Pit Confirmed – National Geographic. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100315-headless-vikings-england-execution-pit/
Weymouth ridgeway skeletons 'Scandinavian Vikings' – BBC. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/dorset/8563377.stm
By M R Reese