Researchers at Oxford have discovered that bones found in the grounds of St John’s College may be those of tenth-century Viking raiders.
It was previously speculated that the remains might have been those of Danes killed in the well documented St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002 AD, when King Aethelred the Unready ordered the deaths of all Danish men in England.
Academics from the University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art undertook analysis of bones, collagen and dental enamel, which suggested that the skeletons were captured professional warriors from Denmark who were then executed, rather than Danes living in England.
The researchers carried out radio-carbon dating, analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the collagen, and analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes in the dental enamel. They came to their conclusion by combining these results with a preliminary investigation of the bones by Thames Valley Archaeological Services.
Professor Mark Pollard, Director of the Research Laboratory in the School of Archaeology, explained, “Carbon-dating gives an age slightly earlier than the St Brice’s Massacre, although there are various technical reasons why it might do so. However, results from the collagen showed the group had more seafood in their diet than would be expected for the Oxfordshire region. Furthermore, enamel analysis clearly did not suggest that they were brought up in the Thames Valley.
“We have an ongoing project to look at human populations around Oxford right back to Neolithic times. Further finds will be compared and may help confirm this hypothesis.”
The researchers found similarities to a group of skeletons found on the Weymouth Ridgeway in Dorset, who were identified as Viking raiders.
The skeletons were found in 2008 between St Giles’ and Blackhall Road, buried in a mass grave in sthe ditch of a Neolithic ‘henge monument’. They were mostly of men aged between 16 and 25 who were “robust and taller than average”, analysts explained.
According to the research paper, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, it appeared that all the skeletons had been stabbed many times shortly before they died, and severe wounds show they were brutally slaughtered.
Some of the men also appear to have older scars, which experts believe could point to the fact that they were professional warriors. There is also evidence of charring on some of the skeletons, showing they may have been exposed to fire before being buried. According to the paper, “this evidence left little doubt that these bodies were the result of a mass execution.”
The knife wounds and charring initially associated the bones with the massacre at St Frideswide’s Church on St Brice’s Day. The church was burnt down during the Massacre, leading to the construction of Christ Church Cathedral.