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
Well spotted ProfC!
Dismemberment of corpses, gruesome though it may seem to the modern eye, is an established tradiiton in Britain going back to Neolithic times.
It may seem like wanton butchery at first glance, but may have had reasons that have yet to be fully grasped by modern day historians and archaeologists.
I'm currently re-visiting some earlier thoughts re Silbury Hill, possibly even Stonehenge, in which 'decarnation' (Silbury) or 'excarnation' (Stonehenge) may provide a rationale for why they appeared and fairly quickly disappeared in late-Neolithic history. More thought needs to be given to the problems associated witn the transition from hunter/gatherer to settled crop growing/animal husbandry lifestyle, considering factors like safe but respectful disposal of the dead while not forgetting the strategies for winter survival and much else besides.
It was an entirely different world, one that requires on this site a degree of thinking out of the box - with particular attention to life's (and death's) practicalities.
One thing's for certain - there was no place for today's finer sensibilities re 'civilized conduct' .The imperative was year-round survival - like knowing where the next meal was coming from, with a 'waste not, want not' philosophy. Nope I'm not suggesting cannabilsim, nor necrophagy, at least not primary necrophagy.
Am presently consulting an expert in the field (hoping he will respond to my email!). Maybe more to come, if I get an answer...
Good questions. Keep in mind that a lot of our supposed knowledge of the past is conjecture or an educated guess. My personal Weymouth bloodline traces back over 1,600 years. At least that I can find anyway. My father taught me 11th century battlefield sword fighting as family pass down. As well as the rules and traditions of the Knight. Also family and personal heraldry. If such archaic traditions are still being taught in my family now. It just begs the question. What has been lost in our history. Common knowledge that everyone knew in the 4th century. but since it wasn't wrote down. No one knows today. Forget modern niceties. Such things don't exist when foreign invaders stomp onto your land and steal your stuff. kill your family in front of you. I personally would feel a bit vengeful about that. And I suspect my family ancestors probably felt the same. Times change. But I don't believe people are all that different now than they were a thousand years ago.
Has anyone noticed that detail "...the skulls, leg bones, and rib bones were arranged into separate piles"? That would mean the bodies weren't merely beheaded and dumped, but that they were instead actually partially butchered post-mortem. That is beyond mere execution: it indicates ritualistic behavior (or some combatant victors with conflict closure issues).
Perhaps someone can correct me, but among the peoples of the British Isles (indigenous and immigrant) of the early Middle Ages, I don't recall reading about the Saxons being all that much into such refined, time-consuming savagery in their treatment of the dead. Perhaps further research can inform us of the types of weapons used in the execution and, more tellingly, if the instruments used to kill the men were of the same type as those used to dismember them.
You dont see a Saxon or Norse crew, look closly-deformed skulls.You see a Hun or Avar,Evarite formation, which was defeated.
I suppose that this was the occupational hazard for the piracy and pillage policy the early Norse raiders engaged in. Summary execution seems horrific to modern eyes but for the group on the receiving end of attacks, the opportunity to totally eliminate one of these parties would seem common sense. If I had been a Saxon, I wouldn't have wanted any of that group coming back with his friends to teach me a lesson!