Mass grave linked to Viking Great Army

  Last updated April 18, 2018 at 9:42 am


A mass grave uncovered in the English East Midlands in the 1980s may indeed be as significant as archaeologists had first thought and hoped.

A female skull from the Repton charnel house. Credit: Cat Jarman

During the initial excavations at Repton, in Derbyshire, everything pointed to the grave’s association with the Viking Great Army, but initial radiocarbon dating suggested otherwise. It revealed a mix of bones of different ages.

However, new dating carried out by a team from the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology proves that the bones are all consistent with a single date in the 9th century.

Historical records state that the Viking Great Army wintered in the area in 873 AD and drove the Mercian king into exile.

“The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old,” says Cat Jarman, who revisited the evidence as part of her PhD.

A shallow grave in the vicarage garden

“When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate.”

The original excavations at St Wystan’s Church in Repton discovered several Viking graves and a charnel deposit of nearly 300 people underneath a shallow mound in the vicarage garden.

An Anglo-Saxon building, possibly a royal mausoleum, was cut down and partially ruined, before being turned into a burial chamber.

A double grave from the site – one of the only Viking weapon graves found in the country – contained two men, the older of whom was buried with a Thor’s hammer pendant, a Viking sword, and several other artefacts. He had received numerous fatal injuries around the time of death.

“The date of the Repton charnel bones is important because we know very little about the first Viking raiders that went on to become part of considerable Scandinavian settlement of England,” Jarman says

“Although these new radiocarbon dates don’t prove that these were Viking army members, it now seems very likely. It also shows how new techniques can be used to reassess and finally solve centuries-old mysteries.”

The original paper published in Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.