In 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology made one of the most exciting, and disturbing, archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years. Around 50 skeletons, predominantly of young adult males, were found in an old quarry pit. All had been decapitated. Their heads had been placed in a pile located at one edge of the grave, and their bodies thrown into the pit Archaeologists knew they had found something special as they uncovered the tangle of human bones, but it was only as the scientific analysis of the skeletons progressed that the full international significance of the discovery became clear. What the archaeologists had found was a mass grave of executed Vikings.
The excavation, commissioned by Skanska Civil Engineering on behalf of Dorset County Council, combined traditional archaeological methods with revolutionary digital and three-dimensional recording to identify the exact position of each individual. After the skeletons were carefully lifted and removed to the laboratory, experts undertook forensic studies of the bones and applied a raft of scientific techniques to gain as much information as possible about who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their dramatic and gruesome demise.
The results suggested that the burial took place at the time of, or shortly after, the men's execution which had probably been performed at the graveside. Using methods normally employed to investigate modern day mass graves, it was estimated that between 47 and 52 individuals were present. The individuals may have been stripped of their clothes prior to burial, but were unbound. Defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls imply that not all men died without a struggle. Wounds to necks and shoulders indicate that the process of decapitation was no less chaotic, and in some cases several blows of the sword were required to remove the heads.
Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain, but originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia.
Examination of the bones indicated that most of the men were 18-25 years old. The youngest was in his early or mid teens, while the oldest was over 50. One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation. The phenomenon has previously been recorded in Scandinavia, but until now was unknown in the UK.
Curiously, many of the individuals suffered from infections and physical impairment, and none of showed convincing evidence for previous war wounds; hardly the picture of an elite group of Viking warriors. The burial was radiocarbon dated to AD 970-1025, which places it in the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. This was a time in England of Viking raids, war, hostages and retribution, but ultimately questions of how the men came to be in Dorset remain open.
There was a huge response to the discovery, both in the UK and internationally. Over 7000 people attended an exhibition dedicated to it in Dorchester in 2010, and stories have appeared in newspapers and media outlets around the world. The mass grave also featured on TV. An item about it was shown on the Swedish science programme, ‘Vetenskapens Varld’, and the burial was the subject of an hour-long special, ‘Viking Apocalypse’, on the National Geographic Channel.
In recognition of its global importance, the burial featured in ‘Vikings: life and legend’, a major exhibition exploring the world of the Vikings in 2014 at the British Museum. Visitors were able to see a display of some of the skeletons and learn more about the individuals buried and the ground-breaking investigation. Elements of the exhibition, including the skeletons, then moved to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin, where visitors were able to walk around a specially reconstructed burial pit and see the skeletons in their original positions.
This extraordinary story of violence in early medieval Britain has now been published by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society in a new book, ‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score. The book can also be purchased from Oxbow Books, and is also available to download from the OA Library here.