Decapitated bodies in Dorset are Vikings
12 March 2010, by Tamera Jones
Chemical analysis of teeth from decapitated bodies in an ancient burial pit in Dorset has revealed that the victims were Vikings.
Archaeologist in the burial pit.
All of the victims had suffered wounds inflicted by a sharp weapon to their skulls, jaws and upper spines consistent with decapitation injuries. Some also had their limbs hacked off.
'I'm not aware of many other burial sites in this country with this level of slaughter. It's particularly unusual,' says Dr Jane Evans, head of science-based archaeology at the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (NIGL) in Keyworth, Nottingham.
'What's fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking and raping. But here we've got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them,' she says.
Workers uncovered the site in summer 2009 while digging to make way for a new relief road at Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth, Dorset. At first, archaeologists surmised the victims were Iron Age, suggesting invading Romans slaughtered them around AD43.
They thought this, because of the site's proximity to Maiden Castle - a major Roman post. Maiden Castle is Europe's largest Iron Age hill fort and is thought to be the place where the local Celtic tribe made their last stand against General Vespasian and his legion after the Roman invasion.
Burial pit of skulls and bones.
But after using carbon-14 to date the remains to between AD910 and AD1030 - the exact time of the Viking invasions - Oxford Archaeology asked Evans and her colleague Carolyn Chenery, also from NIGL, to further analyse the victims and see if they really were Anglo Saxons.
Of 51 individuals, the researchers analysed ten. Evans and Chenery used isotopic analysis to find out what part of the world the victims came from and what sort of food they grew up on.
Isotopes are different forms of the same chemical element that exist in different proportions, because they have slightly different atomic weights. Isotope composition varies around the world, which means that scientists can use these differences to unearth a wealth of information, such as people's origins.
Because our modern diets are based on food from around the world, it's not possible to use the same approach to figure out where people come from today.
'Isotopes from local drinking water and food are fixed into the enamel and dentine of growing teeth. This means we can figure out what sort of food people ate and where they're likely to have eaten this food,' explains Evans.
Both strontium and oxygen isotopes revealed that the burial pit victims grew up in countries with a much colder climate than Britain's. One individual was traced to north of the Arctic Circle.
'It's the only site where we've done isotopic analysis and demonstrated that the victims are all from outside Britain,' says Evans.
But surprisingly, the isotopic analysis revealed that rather than coming from one small area, the men came from all over Scandinavia.
'The group could've been an army drawn from a large area,' suggests Evans.
Carbon and nitrogen isotopes showed that the men had a high protein diet, comparable with known sites in Sweden.
Other injuries, such as a cut to the pelvis, blows to the chest and stomach, as well as defensive injuries to the hands are also consistent with a major slaughter.
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