Photograph by Dorset County Council
Updated March 16, 2010
Naked, beheaded, and tangled, the bodies of 51 young males found in the United Kingdom have been identified as brutally slain Vikings, archaeologists announced Friday.
The decapitated skeletons—their heads stacked neatly to the side—were uncovered in June 2009 in a thousand-year-old execution pit near the southern seaside town of Weymouth (United Kingdom map).
Already radio-carbon dating results released in July had shown the men lived between A.D. 910 and 1030, a period when the English fought—and often lost—battles against Viking invaders. (Related: "Viking Weapon-Recycling Site Found in England?")
But until now it hadn't been clear who the headless bodies had belonged to.
Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle. (Related: "Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows.")
The new study, led by Jane Evans of the U.K.'s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, investigated telltale chemical markers called isotopes, which can reveal a person's geographic origins.
Oxygen isotopes from drinking water, for example, become fixed in people's teeth as they age. Since isotope ratios vary with climate, Evans could tell that the had all been raised in much cooler regions than Britain.
"The values these individuals gave us could not be British," Evans said, but the ratios do match those from Norway and Sweden.
In addition, nitrogen-isotope readings showed the men enjoyed a meaty, high-protein diet—similar to readings from remains from the same period found in Sweden.
"What's fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking, and raping," Evans said. (Related: "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade.")
"But here we've got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them."
Vikings Found With Hacked Heads, Naked Bodies
Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull, jaw, and neck. This suggests the men were war captives whose heads were savagely hacked off, said David Score of Oxford Archaeology, leader of the preconstruction survey that found the Vikings' execution pit.
"The majority seem to have taken multiple blows," he noted.
Other injuries hint that some of the slaughtered attempted to shield themselves from their executioners' blows. For instance, the hand of one victim had its fingers sliced through, Score said.
The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display. (Related: "Headless Man's Tomb Found Under Maya Torture Mural.")
Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.
Even if only their weapons and valuables had been taken, "we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we've got absolutely nothing," Score said. (Related: "Huge Viking Hoard Discovered in Sweden.")
Aside from their injuries, the headless Vikings "look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males," he added. "It's your classic sort of warrior."
Vikings Forced to Surrender?
The burial's prominent location on a hilltop by the ancient main road to Weymouth also points to the victims being Vikings, Score said.
"Locations like this are classic sites for executions [by British-born warriors] in late Saxon and medieval times," he said. "If you're a Viking raider, you're much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach."
What's more, the new isotope findings suggest that the slain men had much more diverse origins than would be expected among soldiers from the Saxons' other enemies, such as ethnic Danes in northern Britain, tooth-study leader Evans noted.
Even before the new results were released, Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, had thought the dead were Vikings.
"They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender," Siddorn speculated in July.
Despite the Vikings' brutal reputation, there was actually little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, also a founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.
"You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear," he said. Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.
But Vikings usually had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side. "Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload," he said.
"During the height of the Viking raids, it's reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast."
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