Unraveling the Mystery of 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 within a disused Roman quarry containing the remains of 54 dismembered skeletons which have come to be known as the headless Viking’s of Dorset. Within the shallow grave, they also discovered 51 skulls left together in a pile left to one side of the pit. This curious find led many to wonder who these individuals were, and why they were killed in such a gruesome manner.
The mass grave of headless Vikings found in Dorset. (Oxford Archaeology)
Analyzing the Remains of the Headless Vikings of Dorset
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 when discussing the headless Vikings of Dorset.
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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 5th and 10th 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 of the so-called headless Vikings of Dorset are believed to belong to Viking warriors, executed by Anglo Saxons. (Public domain)
Archaeologists Seek Answers Regarding the Headless Vikings of Dorset
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 burial 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 discovered 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.
A pile of heads was found separate to the rest of the bodies in a mass grave. Their skeletal remains are now known as the headless Vikings of Dorset, since not only were their bodies found separated from their skulls, but some of the heads were missing. (Oxford Archaeology)
Are the Headless Vikings of Dorset Linked to St. Brice’s Day Massacre?
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. Some have argued that those executed were actually defectors or traitors killed by their own men. Another theory put forward by Dr. Britt Baillie in the National Geographic documentary “Viking Apocalypse” suggested a link between these executions and the St. Brice's Day massacre.
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The massacre was part of the legacy of Aethelred the Unready, who ruled England in the late 10th and early 11th centuries and had to deal with issues caused by Viking invasions and internal strife. On November 13th, 1002, St Brice’s day, Aethelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England.
Although the intention was to eliminate Danish settlers in England to prevent further Viking raids, it actually led to widespread retaliation by the Danes, escalated the conflict and ultimately exacerbated Viking incursions. Aethelred was ultimately succeeded by the Danish king Cnut the Great.
The gruesome discovery of the headless Vikings of Dorset, invite deeper research into the circumstances surrounding their death. It is hoped that further archaeological discoveries in the area, coupled with advancements in forensic science and historical analysis, may help provide answers to what occurred on that fateful day, offering a poignant glimpse into the lives and untimely ends of these ancient warriors.
Top image: A mass grave of over 50 headless Vikings, known as the headless Vikings of Dorset. Source: Simon Fraser University / CC BY 2.0
By M R Reese
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