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British archaeologists looking for evidence of prehistoric activity in the English county of Dorset discovered instead a mass grave holding 54 male skeletons. (Oxford Archaeology)

A Viking Mystery

Beneath Oxford University, archaeologists have uncovered a medieval city that altered the course of English history

Before construction could begin on new student housing at one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges, St. John’s, archaeologists were summoned to investigate the site in January 2008. After just a few hours of digging, one archaeologist discovered the remains of a 4,000-year-old religious complex—an earthwork enclosure, or henge, built by late Neolithic tribesmen, probably for a sun-worshiping cult. About 400 feet in diameter, the temple was one of the largest of Britain’s prehistoric henges, of which more than 100 have been found.

Later, the archaeologists found pits full of broken pottery and food debris suggesting that people had used the henge as a medieval garbage dump millennia after it had been dug. Excited, they began searching for items that might reveal details of daily life in the Middle Ages. Instead they found bones. Human bones.

“At first we thought it was just the remains of one individual,” says Sean Wallis of Thames Valley Archaeological Services, the company that did the excavating. “Then, to our surprise, we realized that corpses had been dumped one on top of another. Wherever we dug, there were more of them. Not only did we have a 4,000-year-old prehistoric temple, but now a mass grave as well.”

After one month of digging at the grave site and two years of lab tests, the researchers concluded that between 34 and 38 individuals were buried in the grave, all of them victims of violence. Some 20 skeletons bore punctures in their vertebrae and pelvic bones, and 27 skulls were broken or cracked, indicating traumatic head injury. To judge from markings on the ribs, at least a dozen had been stabbed in the back. One individual had been decapitated; attempts were made on five others.

Radiocarbon analysis of the bones convinced the archaeologists that the remains date from A.D. 960 to 1020—the period in which the Anglo-Saxon monarchy peaked in power. Originally from Germany, Anglo-Saxons had invaded England almost six centuries earlier, after the Roman Empire had fallen into disarray. They established their own kingdoms and converted to Christianity. After decades of conflict, England enjoyed a degree of stability in the tenth century under the rule of King Edgar the Peaceful.

But “peaceful” is a relative term. Public executions were common. British archaeologists have discovered some 20 “execution cemeteries” across the country—testifying to a harsh penal code that claimed the lives of up to 3 percent of the male population. One such site in East Yorkshire contains the remains of six decapitated individuals.

The Oxford grave, however, didn’t fit the profile of an execution cemetery, which typically contains remains of people put to death over many centuries—not all at once, as at Oxford. And execution victims tended to be various ages and body types. By contrast, the bodies buried at Oxford were those of vigorous males of fighting age, most between 16 and 35 years old. Most were unusually large; an examination of the muscle-attachment areas of their bones revealed extremely robust physiques. Some victims had suffered serious burns to their heads, backs, pelvic regions and arms.

The most telling clue would emerge from a lab analysis, in which scientists measured atomic variations within the skeletal bone collagen. The tests indicated that the men ate, on average, more fish and shellfish than did Anglo-Saxons.

The mounting evidence increasingly pointed to an astonishing conclusion: this was a mass grave of Viking warriors.

In the late eighth century a.d., the Vikings—a Scandinavian people from Denmark, Norway and Sweden—began a 300-year campaign of pillaging and piracy throughout Europe. Some scholars say that political changes (especially the emergence of fewer yet more powerful rulers) forced local Viking chieftains to seek new sources of revenue through foreign conquests. Others point to advances in shipbuilding that enabled longer voyages—allowing the Vikings to establish trade networks extending as far as the Mediterranean. But when an economic recession hit Europe in the ninth century, Scandinavian seamen increasingly turned from trading to pillaging.

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