In 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology South made one of the most exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years, that of a rare mass grave of executed vikings on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset. The skeletons, around 50 in total, were predominantly of young adult males all of whom had been decapitated. Heads had been deposited in a pile located at the southern edge of the grave, while the beheaded bodies had been apparently thrown in with little care throughout the feature. Since their recovery experts undertook forensic studies of the bones and applied cutting-edge techniques to elicit the most information possible in order to understand who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their demise. The results were published in 2014 in a monograph, which revealed an extraordinary story of arguably the most dramatic physical evidence for violence in early medieval Britain ever encountered by archaeologists to date.
The discovery of the mass grave was made as staff of Oxford Archaeology, employed by Skanska Civil Engineering acting on behalf of Dorset County Council, who funded the work, were investigating sites on Ridgeway Hill and nearby on Southdown Ridge. Unlike these sites, the area in which the mass grave lay could not be explored archaeologically for health and safety reasons, so initially the area was exposed during machine excavation under the supervision of archaeologists. The pile of skulls were the first items to be spotted, but at that stage they were presumed to represent a 'non-suspicious' Roman or prehistoric funerary context. However, as more and more bones were uncovered it quickly became apparent that this was the context of something much more gruesome.
The grave was excavated by archaeologists over a period of six months. It was a highly complex deposit requiring as many bones to be exposed as possible before they could be recorded and lifted. This, in addition to two and three dimensional recording by hand, photography and computer survey, meant that it was possible to identify discrete individuals and reveal exactly how each was lying despite their jumbled positions. It was the first step in reconstructing events and is presented in the volume as a detailed archaeological description of the grave.
This information suggests that the burial had been a one-off occurrence and had taken place at the time of, or shortly after, the men's execution which had probably been performed at the graveside. The individuals seem to have been buried in no particular order, possibly more than one at a time from different sides of the grave. They may have been stripped of their clothes prior to burial and, unlike some contemporary parallels, do not appear to have had their hands bound. The grave was, in fact, a re-used quarry pit, originally dug in Roman times and probably still visible as a pit or depression when it was re-used for the mass burial. In addition, the location of the grave – on the crest of Ridgeway Hill next to a parish boundary and Roman road near prehistoric monuments and within view of Maiden Castle – had undoubtedly been selected to make an example of the executed individuals contained within it. This implies that the executions had been a formal event, perhaps attended by spectators. We will never know precisely how these strands of information combine to form the narrative of the individuals' fate, but the idea that potentially some 50 men had queued, perhaps naked, waiting and watching as their comrades were executed, is certainly a very evocative and moving one.
As for the total number of individuals, analysis has highlighted the difficulties in determining exactly how many men were executed. The final total could not be determined during the excavation, but off site in the laboratory using methods that are employed to investigate modern day mass graves. Generally, these involved counting the most frequently occurring bone or bones and matching pairs of bones. Results indicate that between 47 and 52 individuals were present. Interestingly, there were more beheaded skeletons than skulls and this could mean that some heads had been taken as trophies following the executions.
All the men had suffered horrific ends, their executions being an ugly affair involving excessive violence. Although it was clear during the excavation that the men had suffered significant injuries the true extent and magnitude of these did not become fully apparent until the bones had been cleaned and examined in the laboratory. Wounds were concentrated in the region of the neck indicating that, in most cases, it had taken several attempts, from a variety of angles, to remove the heads. Blows intended to decapitate had been delivered from as high up as the back of the head to as low down as the shoulder blades, indicating that they had not been very well performed or well organised. Approximately 188 wounds were observed on all of the skeletons, an average of almost four wounds per individual.
Forensic analysis of the wounds allowed us to conclude that the decapitations had probably been performed with a sword. This is the weapon used in the Jómsvíkinga saga, a probable Icelandic story of a mass execution composed around AD 1200. The saga describes the beheading of 70 captured warriors who were roped together and had their hair secured back to keep it out of the way of the sword blade. Perhaps this had also been the case at Ridgeway Hill.
Not all the injuries on the Ridgeway skeletons were directly associated with decapitation, however. Some individuals had received cuts to their arms and hands and the sides/tops of their heads, including perhaps one of the most vivid lesions observed: a large egg shaped wound where the bone had been completely removed causing considerable trauma to the brain. This injury had been delivered prior to this man's decapitation, but he may have still been alive when his head was removed.
The cuts to the hands, arms and tops/sides of heads may have been defence injuries and decapitating injuries implying that not all men had succumbed to their fate without a struggle. That the injuries could suggest some other context of violence, for example, a battle, had taken place prior to their execution is difficult to reconcile with the evidence. The pattern and extent of the injuries are not consistent with those observed on other skeletons from battle or massacre related contexts, although it is important to consider that not all injuries will penetrate the soft tissues and affect the skeleton. These factors considered, it would seem that, on balance, evidence for combat prior to the executions is not very compelling, although it cannot be ruled out.
Besides the injuries a great deal of other information about the individuals was revealed during the analysis of the bones, which is given in a skeleton by skeleton description in the volume. Extensive chemical analysis suggests that they were a disparate group of people in terms of their origins, migratory histories and dietary habits, although a general emphasis on Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of Scandinavia, northern Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia, and on terrestrial food sources, are suggested. It would appear that the majority were not living in the British Isles in the years leading to their deaths.
Although most of the men were 18-25 years old when they died the youngest were in their early or mid teens and the oldest over 50. They possessed features, particularly those relating to height and facial appearance, that were very similar to Scandinavian populations of similar date. In addition, some had a physique that was similar to other skeletons of fighting/warrior class status, although this was not the case for all individuals. A remarkable find is that at least one individual had filed his teeth, seen as horizontal grooves on his two front central, upper incisors. In life, the grooves may have been coloured and they would have been clearly visible when the individual smiled; they may have been a status symbol or a marker of their occupation. This is a very rare find indeed; examples are known from Scandinavia, but none have been found in the UK before.
Evidence for infection and physical impairment was surprisingly frequent for a group of predominantly young individuals who had died in their prime of life. Most striking is a leg bone from one individual which, due to infection, was twice the size of a normal bone and had openings (holes) in the bone which would have oozed smelly pus during his life. The leg would have been swollen and painful and must have posed a considerable disability both to the individual and consequently to the rest of the group. Surprisingly, none of the skeletons showed convincing evidence for previous war wounds. These observations undermine the idea of an elite group of viking warriors, possibly a ships' crew.
So what might explain the reason why these men came to be in Dorset, and what event led to their untimely executions on the Ridgeway? We can estimate that they died in the 10th or 11th century, but there are no historical records that directly link their deaths with an event. There are a number of possibilities, however. For example, they may relate to the ravaging of Portland in 982, or viking attacks on Dorset in 998, 1015 and 1016, all of which took place during the reign of Æthelred (978-1016). Although it seems very likely that these were vikings executed by the English, the possibility that they were a group of mercenaries fighting for the English and executed by vikings cannot be entirely ruled out. Other possible scenarios are that the men were perceived as traitors who were sentenced to judicial execution by the English authorities, or were merchants or recent settlers in England, who were victims of the St Brice's Day massacre that took place in 1002, when Aethelred ordered all Danes (here thought to refer to all Scandinavians) in England to be killed. It is also possible that the grave relates to an event during the reign of Cnut (1016-35), with the individuals either hostages or combatants engaging in reprisals against previous enemies.
We may never know precisely what brought the men to Dorset, or how they came to be executed on the Ridgeway. Not only is the mass grave one of the most remarkable discoveries to be made in recent years, it is also perhaps one of the most perplexing and will, no doubt hold our attention for years to come.