Mass grave reveals 1,000 year old Viking massacre

Illustration for article titled Mass grave reveals 1,000 year old Viking massacre

And no, not the type of massacre where Vikings go around killing people: these Vikings were brutally killed by Englishmen ten centuries ago. It's the first archaeological evidence of an anti-Viking mass slaughter known as the St. Brice's Day Massacre.

At least 35 skeletons were discovered in 2008 on the grounds of Oxford's St. John's College. The skeletons were all male, all aged 16 to 25, and radiocarbon dating places their deaths to between 960 and 1020 CE. The skeletons all suffered serious injuries - most of the skulls were fractured or crushed, and further analysis reveals a number of blade and arrow wounds on the bones as well. The location and number of wounds indicate that these young men were being attacked from all sides.

Indeed, all indications suggest that this was nothing more than slaughter, according to archaeologist Ceri Falys:

"Usually when people have been involved in hand to hand combat or are attacked, you get evidence of this on the bones. You get cut marks on the forearms as they raise their arms to defend themselves, but we have minimal evidence of this on these skeletons, it seems that whoever was attacking them, it is likely that they were just trying to run away."


So what could have possibly motivated such slaughter? We can't know for absolutely certain, but the sixty-year date range around the turn of the 11th century suggests a clear possibility. Historical sources record that, in 1002, the Saxon king of England, Ethelred the Unready, learned of a supposed Viking plot to kill him and so ordered "a most just extermination" of every last Dane living in England. It appears that the people of England complied with this order.

This event became known as the St. Brice's Day Massacre, and records also show that Vikings living in Oxford fled to the church of St. Fridewides looking for sanctuary. The Saxon townspeople, however, chased them down and set the church on fire. These skeletons, who were discovered in a mass grave in the general vicinity of that ancient church, might well belong to the Vikings described in those particular records.

Sean Wallis, who directed the archaeological dig, explains:

"We found evidence of charring on some of the bones, but not in the soil surrounding them. This ties in nicely with the documentary sources that the bodies may have been partially burnt prior to burial."


There's at least one other piece of evidence to indicate they were Vikings. Isotope analysis indicates their diets were high in seafood, which isn't something you'd expect to find at a location as far inland as Oxford. That would tend to suggest that these men came from the coasts originally, which suggests their status as Viking immigrants.

It's a chilling archaeological reminder of an otherwise regrettably obscure moment of inhumanity, but at least the Vikings got something of the last laugh. A year after Ethelred ordered the massacre, the Danes invaded England and the king was forced to flee to France. He regained his throne, but died in 1014 in the midst of another war with the Danes, and by 1066 the last Saxon king of England was killed by William the Conqueror, a noble from Normandy...who was descended from Viking settlers on the French coast.


Via BBC News. Image via.

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I find it fascinating that the king's name was The Unready. I wonder, did he get to pick that himself? Or was it bestowed upon him by a snarky member of his retinue?