Viking Graveyard

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.

from the Smithsonian Magazine

I wonder what the Vikings who did the backstabbing were thinking. Was this some kind of group attack? How would a person be able to stab multiple people in the back?

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.

So it’s right in the middle of my favorite era of literature to teach (or at least part of it). I wonder if we could find reasonable arguments for this in a class.

The article offers a solution, a reasonable and literary solution.

The lab data indicating that the men buried there for 1,000 years had eaten lots of seafood, plus the burn markings and other evidence, convinced the archaeologists that the grave probably held victims of the St. Brice’s Day massacre. Aethelred himself recounted exactly how the residents of Oxford killed the Danes in a local church: “Striving to escape death, [the Danes] entered [a] sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the [building’s] timbers and burnt [it] down.”

Wallis, the archaeologist in charge at Oxford, surmises that the townspeople loaded the corpses onto a cart and drove out through the north gate of the city, past land that today encompasses the Oxford colleges of Balliol and most of St. John’s, then threw the Vikings into the prehistoric henge—the largest ditch nearest the city’s northern exit.

The source also gives some good history.

Aethelred’s massacre of the Danes likely reinforced Danish determination to attack England and set in motion a chain of events that would change the course of England’s future. In A.D. 1003, the year after the massacres, King Svein of Denmark launched his own assault against a much wider swath of Anglo-Saxon England. This renewed aggression continued off and on for more than a decade, inspiring a level of terror the Anglo-Saxons had not faced since the first Viking invasions a century and a half earlier. An Anglo-Danish text, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written around A.D. 1041 or 1042, described the Danish war fleet of 1016: “What adversary could gaze upon the lions, terrible in the glitter of their gold…all these on the ships, and not feel dread and fear in the face of a king with so great a fighting force?”

Both circumstantial and historical evidence suggests that revenge was at least part of the motivation for Svein’s invasions. There were almost certainly blood ties between Aethelred’s victims and Danish nobility. According to medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, Svein’s sister (or, possibly, half sister) Gunnhild was a victim of the St. Brice’s Day massacre (although her body has never been found). Neither her gender nor her royal blood saved her, probably because she was the wife of Pallig, one of the turncoat mercenaries. Wrote William of Malmesbury: “[She was] beheaded with the other Danes, though she declared plainly that the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear.”

Gunnhild’s words proved prophetic. The Danes ultimately conquered England, in A.D. 1016, and Canute, the son of Svein, was crowned the nation’s king in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in January 1017.

The most significant issue for the history of England?

Although the English pushed back the Scandinavian invaders, the effort so weakened the Anglo-Saxons that they were defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings, also in 1066.

This is an interesting article.

I may have to start reading the Smithsonian Magazine more often.

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