Mass grave in Dorset holds Viking mercenaries

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A mass grave found ahead of the construction of a new road belongs to a group of Viking mercenaries, an archaeologist has claimed. The burial site at Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, was discovered in 2009 in anticipation of the road being built. 

The remains were found by workmen digging a new road and were thought to have been killed during the reign of Aethelred the Unready who ruled from 968 to 1016 [Credit: PA]

Archaeologists found the bodies of 54 men who had all been decapitated and placed in shallow graves with their heads piled up to one side. Carbon dating revealed that the bodies were from the 11th century, which gave the first hint that the bodies might be linked to the Vikings. 

At this time Anglo-Saxons on the south coast of England were under constant threat from Nordic attack. Isotope tests on the teeth of the men revealed they came from Scandinavia. 

Dr Britt Baillie, from the University of Cambridge, said that she believed they belonged to a group of violent Viking killers who modelled themselves on a legendary group of mercenaries founded by Harald Bluetooth and based at Jomsborg on the Baltic coast – the Jomsvikings. The Jomsvikings had strict military codes about not showing fear and never fleeing in the face of the enemy except when completely outnumbered. 

“The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups,” Dr Baillie said. 

These
men are thought to have been ambushed by the local Anglo-Saxon
villagers. Their remains were discovered in 2009 [Credit: PA]

She said that although finding graves of mass executions from the early medieval period was unusual, the murders could have taken place during the reign of Aethelred the Unready. 

Following a series of Viking attacks he had ordered all Danish men living in England to be killed on November 13 – St Brice’s Day – which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre. Remains have been found in Oxford and it is thought that massacres also took place in London, Bristol and Gloucester. 

There are signs that the murders at Ridgeway Hill were unique, Dr Baillie said. As unlike the frenzied mob attack that took place at Oxford, all the men were murdered methodically and beheaded in an unusual fashion from the front – just like those in the Jomsvikings legend. 

Dr Baillie also found evidence for the men being imitators of Jomsvikings in their teeth. One man’s teeth had incisions in them which could suggest that he had filled them himself to demonstrate his bravery. 

Both of these features led Dr Baillie to believe that this was a group of mercenaries imitating the Jomsvikings, if not the Jomsvikings themselves. 

Dr Britt Baillie, from Cambridge University, says bodies found in a mass grave in Dorset may belong to a group of Viking mercenaries [Credit: PA]

However she also found evidence in a commission by Aethelred’s second wife Queen Emma that there were a group of Viking killers in England at the time, led by Thorkel the Tall, an alleged Jomsviking. 

She said: “These men had shown a level of bravery similar to the Jomsviking code. While we cannot be certain about who they were, there are a number of tie-ins.” 

Source: This is Dorset [January 26, 2012]

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