The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

October 18, 2010

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 17 Oct 2010 23:16:13
From: Portside Moderator <moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG>
Subject: A Viking Mystery

A Viking Mystery
Beneath Oxford University, archaeologists have
uncovered a medieval city that altered the course
of English history
By David Keys
Smithsonian Magazine
October 2010

Before construction could begin on new student housing
at one of Oxford University's 38 colleges, St. John's,
archaeologists were summoned to investigate the site in
January 2008. After just a few hours of digging, one
archaeologist discovered the remains of a 4,000-year-old
religious complex-an earthwork enclosure, or henge,
built by late Neolithic tribesmen, probably for a sun-
worshiping cult. About 400 feet in diameter, the temple
was one of the largest of Britain's prehistoric henges,
of which more than 100 have been found.

Later, the archaeologists found pits full of broken
pottery and food debris suggesting that people had used
the henge as a medieval garbage dump millennia after it
had been dug. Excited, they began searching for items
that might reveal details of daily life in the Middle
Ages. Instead they found bones. Human bones.

"At first we thought it was just the remains of one
individual," says Sean Wallis of Thames Valley
Archaeological Services, the company that did the
excavating. "Then, to our surprise, we realized that
corpses had been dumped one on top of another. Wherever
we dug, there were more of them. 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.

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. Originally from Germany, Anglo-Saxons had
invaded England almost six centuries earlier, after the
Roman Empire had fallen into disarray. They established
their own kingdoms and converted to Christianity. After
decades of conflict, England enjoyed a degree of
stability in the tenth century under the rule of King
Edgar the Peaceful.

But "peaceful" is a relative term. Public executions
were common. British archaeologists have discovered some
20 "execution cemeteries" across the country-testifying
to a harsh penal code that claimed the lives of up to 3
percent of the male population. One such site in East
Yorkshire contains the remains of six decapitated

The Oxford grave, however, didn't fit the profile of an
execution cemetery, which typically contains remains of
people put to death over many centuries-not all at once,
as at Oxford. And execution victims tended to be various
ages and body types. By contrast, the bodies buried at
Oxford were those of vigorous males of fighting age,
most between 16 and 35 years old. Most were unusually
large; an examination of the muscle-attachment areas of
their bones revealed extremely robust physiques. Some
victims had suffered serious burns to their heads,
backs, pelvic regions and arms.

The most telling clue would emerge from a lab analysis,
in which scientists measured atomic variations within
the skeletal bone collagen. The tests indicated that the
men ate, on average, more fish and shellfish than did

The mounting evidence increasingly pointed to an
astonishing conclusion: this was a mass grave of Viking

In the late eighth century a.d., the Vikings-a
Scandinavian people from Denmark, Norway and Sweden-
began a 300-year campaign of pillaging and piracy
throughout Europe. Some scholars say that political
changes (especially the emergence of fewer yet more
powerful rulers) forced local Viking chieftains to seek
new sources of revenue through foreign conquests. Others
point to advances in shipbuilding that enabled longer
voyages-allowing the Vikings to establish trade networks
extending as far as the Mediterranean. But when an
economic recession hit Europe in the ninth century,
Scandinavian seamen increasingly turned from trading to

Most historians believe that England suffered more from
the Vikings than other European countries. In the first
recorded attack, in A.D. 793, Vikings raided an
undefended monastic community at Lindisfarne in the
northeast. Alcuin of York, an Anglo-Saxon scholar,
recorded the onslaught: "We and our fathers have now
lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and
fifty years, and never before has such a terror been
seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of
a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible.
The church of St. Cuthbert is spattered with the blood
of the priests of God."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary historical
account, records that the Vikings waged some 50 battles
and destroyed or ravaged scores of settlements. Dublin,
one of the largest Viking cities in the British Isles,
became a major European slave-trading center, where,
historians estimate, tens of thousands of kidnapped
Irishmen, Scotsmen, Anglo-Saxons and others were bought
and sold.

"In many respects the Vikings were the medieval
equivalent of organized crime," says Simon Keynes, a
professor of Anglo-Saxon history at Cambridge
University. "They engaged in extortion on a massive
scale, using the threat of violence to extract vast
quantities of silver from England and some other
vulnerable western European states."

"Certainly the Vikings did all these things, but so did
everyone else," says Dagfinn Skre, a professor of
archaeology at the University of Oslo. "Although
admittedly, the Vikings did it on a grander scale."

Martin Carver, an emeritus professor of archaeology at
the University of York, characterizes the antagonism
between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians as part
of a wider clash of ideologies. Between the sixth and
ninth centuries, Vikings in Scandinavia preferred to be
organized "in loose confederations, favoring
enterprise," says Carver. But other parts of Europe,
such as Britain, yearned for a more orderly, centralized
government-and looked to the Roman Empire as a model.

Only one Anglo-Saxon kingdom-Wessex, ruled by Alfred the
Great-is known to have withstood the Viking invasion.
Alfred and his son, Edward, built up an army and navy
and constructed a network of fortifications; then Edward
and his successors wrested back control of those areas
the Vikings had taken over, thus paving the way for
English unification.

After decades of peace, Vikings again raided England, in
A.D. 980. At the time, the Anglo-Saxon ruler was King
Aethelred the Unraed (literally "the ill-advised"). As
his name suggests, popular history has portrayed him as
a mediocre successor to Alfred the Great and Edgar the
Peaceful. The 12th-century historian William of
Malmesbury wrote that Aethelred "occupied rather than
governed" the kingdom. "The career of his life was said
to have been cruel in the beginning, wretched in the
middle and disgraceful in the end."

To avert war, Aethelred paid the Vikings some 26,000
pounds in silver between A.D. 991 and 994. In the years
that followed, the king employed many of them as
mercenaries to discourage other Vikings from attacking

But, in A.D. 997, some of the mercenaries turned on
their royal employer and attacked the Anglo-Saxon
southern counties. In early A.D. 1002, Aethelred again
tried to buy off the Vikings-this time with 24,000
pounds in silver.

The geopolitical situation changed in England's favor
only when Aethelred made an alliance with Normandy and
sealed the deal by marrying the Duke of Normandy's
sister in A.D. 1002. Possibly emboldened by the support
of a powerful ally, Aethelred decided to take pre-
emptive action before the Danes again broke the truce.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Aethelred was
"informed" that Danish mercenaries intended to "beguile
him out of his life." (It is unknown whether an informer
learned of an actual plot, or if Aethelred and his
council fabricated the threat.) Aethelred then set in
motion one of the most heinous acts of mass murder in
English history, committed on St. Brice's Day, November
13, 1002. As he himself recounted in a charter written
two years later, "a decree was sent out by me, with the
counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect
that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island,
sprouting like cockle [weeds] amongst the wheat, were to
be destroyed by a most just extermination."

Prior to 2008, the only known inhabitants of the St.
John's College garden had been the songbirds and
squirrels that darted across the neatly cropped lawn and
hid in an ancient beech tree. Generations of dons and
students had strolled across that greenery, unsuspecting
of what lay beneath.

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.

A year after this discovery, another team of
investigators, from the company Oxford Archaeology, were
looking for evidence of prehistoric activity at a site
90 miles to the southwest in the English county of
Dorset, near Weymouth, when they discovered a second
mass grave. This one held the skeletons of 54 well-
built, fighting-age males, all of whom had been
decapitated with sharp weapons, most likely swords. Lab
tests of the teeth suggested the men were Scandinavians.
The ratio between various types of oxygen atoms in the
skeletons' tooth enamel indicates the victims came from
a cold region (one man from inside the Arctic Circle).
Radiocarbon dating placed the victims' deaths between
A.D. 910 and 1030; historical records of Viking
activities in England narrow that to between A.D. 980
and 1009. The corpses had been unceremoniously dumped in
a chalk and flint quarry that had been dug hundreds of
years earlier, possibly during Roman times. Although no
historical account of the massacre exists, the
archaeologists believe the Vikings were apprehended and
brought to the site to be executed.

The discovery of the two mass graves may resolve a
question that has long vexed historians. In the
centuries following the St. Brice's Day massacre, many
chroniclers believed that the Danish community in
England (a substantial percentage of the population) was
targeted for mass murder, akin to a pogrom. Certainly
there was undisguised hatred for the Scandinavians, who
were described by contemporary writers as "a most vile
people," "a filthy pestilence" and "the hated ones." But
more recently, the massacre has been seen more as a
police action against only those who posed a military
threat to the government. The discovery of the two mass
graves supports this view, since victims were found
where the rebellious mercenaries would have been
stationed: close to royal administrative centers
(usually towns or important royal estates) on or near
England's south coast and in the Thames Valley. By
contrast, no such graves have been found in the region
of eastern England once known as the Danelaw, which was
populated by descendants of Scandinavian settlers. "I
would estimate that out of a total population of around
two million in England, perhaps half were of
Scandinavian or partly Scandinavian origin-most of whom
were loyal subjects," says Ian Howard, a historian
writing a biography of Aethelred. "I think it inherently
unlikely that the king ever intended to kill them all,
as it would obviously have been impossible to do so."

Far from being just a ghoulish footnote to medieval
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. Twenty-five years
later, the Anglo-Saxons would regain the crown, but only
for a generation. The Scandinavians, who had refused to
renounce the throne, embarked on yet another onslaught
against England in September 1066-less than a fortnight
before William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy,
launched his own invasion of the country.

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. The Norman Conquest consolidated the
unification of England, as the new rulers introduced a
more centralized, hierarchal government. The Anglo-
Saxons would rise again, their culture and language
merging with that of their oppressors to produce a new
nation-the predecessor of modern England, and eventually
an empire that would span half the globe.


Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

Submit via email:
Submit via the Web:
Frequently asked questions:
Account assistance:
Search the archives:


bad short films of burbling Gowanus Canal superfund site
pollution -
apparently the cleanup has stopped because of lack of funding
not to mention the tornado that blew sewage half way up
what you see is what you get, what remains

two cormorants in the Gowanus Canal

^ i don't know how they survive in the misery
of poisoned waters, drained from death and horror
^ if i had talent i'd write a waka
about the memory of these brilliant cormorants
^ all i can do is play the pipa and struggle
with pipa, with cormorants, hoping that some, beauty
emerges, and with courage,
with courage...

Generated by Mnemosyne 0.12.