16th September 2020:

A major new international study of the genomic history of the Viking era co-authored by OA's Head of Burials has been published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature.

Our understanding of Viking expansion to date has been largely based on historical sources and evidence from archaeological artefacts. In this new study, the genomes of over 440 ancient humans across Europe and Greenland were sequenced in order to better understand the genetic structure and influence of Viking populations. The results published today in Nature broadly agree with patterns of Viking expansion from archaeological sources, with individuals with “Danish-like” ancestry more pronounced in England compared to those with “Swedish-like” ancestry who moved eastwards from Scandinavia, and those with “Norweigian-like” and “North Atlantic-like” ancestry travelling to Iceland, Greenland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

However, the genomic analyses hint at interesting cases of complexity in this broad picture. Thirty-two Viking individuals found in England were analysed, including samples from the Ridgeway Hill mass grave excavated by Oxford Archaeology South in 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset. Around 50 skeletons, predominantly of young adult males, were found decapitated in an old quarry pit. Head of OA’s Burials Team and co-author of the Nature paper, Louise Loe, oversaw the post-excavation work on the skeletons and, with a team of experts, identified the burials as a mass grave of executed Vikings. The site has featured in several television documentaries and in the British Museum’s ‘Vikings: life and legend’ exhibition.

The individuals studied from Ridgeway Hill, and another execution site at St John’s College in Oxford, have significant “North Atlantic” ancestry, as well as “Danish-like” and “Norwegian-like” ancestries. It is thought that these mass graves represent defeated and captured Viking raiding parties, with different places of origin compared to settlers with predominantly “Danish-like” ancestry in southern Britain. Intriguingly, one of the individuals analysed from St John’s College, and excavated by Thames Valley Archaeological Services, was found to be related to another skeleton sampled in Denmark. They were found to be second degree male relatives (i.e. half-brothers, nephew-uncle, or grandson-grandfather).

For more information about the Ridgeway Hill Viking Age Mass Grave, including details of the publication, visit our webpage: https://oxfordarchaeology.com/articles/287-given-to-the-ground-a-viking-age-mass-grave-on-ridgeway-hill-weymouth