Executed Vikings were inexperienced raiders who oozed smelly pus, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 06 March 2014

As the British Museum opens its Vikings exhibition to the public, Scandinavian skeletons are causing a stir again

A photo of a woman in a white scientific coat piecing together the bones of a skeleton
Osteological analysis of a skeleton from the mass grave found in Weymouth, Dorset in 2009© Oxford Archaeology
The bony discovery of 50 young male skeletons, decapitated and lumped in an old quarry pit before being found by diggers on an Olympic relief road in Weymouth five years ago, became an even more gripping story following scientific examinations revealing that this mass grave carried executed Vikings.

David Score, of excavators Oxford Archaeology, called the test results “thrilling”, while Angus Campbell, the then-leader of Dorset County Council who is now the county’s Lord Lieutenant, admitted organisers “never would have dreamed of finding a Viking war grave.”

Such is the significance of this burial that a book, Given to the Ground, has just been published, written by some of the experts involved. Meanwhile, the British Museum’s major new Norse exhibition – the first in more than 30 years to be held on Vikings there – altered its layout to include some of the skeletons.

A photo of a large brown mud grave full of skeleton heads and bones
The grave was excavated during the creation of the Weymouth Relief Road, in the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games© Oxford Archaeology
The individuals are thought to have been executed at the graveside and stripped of their clothes, with defence wounds on their hands, arms and skulls and injuries to their necks and shoulders suggesting a bloodbath in which several blows were required to remove each head.

“Curiously, many of the individuals had suffered from infections and physical impairment,” says Louise Loe, a member of the Oxford Archaeology team and co-author of the revealing book.

“A spectacular example, on display at the British Museum, is one individual who had osteomyelitis – chronic bone infection – involving his thigh bone.

“The bone was twice the size of a normal thigh bone and had openings which would have oozed smelly pus during his life.

“The leg would have been swollen and painful. It must have posed a considerable disability to the individual, and consequently the rest of the group.

“Other examples of impaired mobility or limb usage were also evident. There was a deformed right leg caused by a fracture to the femur and a collar bone fracture.

“Bladder or kidney disease was also evidenced by a stone found amongst the disarticulated bones.”

A photo of a group of archaeologists in high visibility clothing digging a pit on a road
Most of the men found were between 18 and 25 years old© Oxford Archaeology
The full story, as the findings surmise, is “hardly the picture” of an “elite group of Viking warriors", living between 970-1025 AD under the rule of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great.

Chemical dental analysis suggests their members came from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia, with the youngest in his early teens and the oldest over 50.

Various surprises come courtesy of their intentional teeth decorations.

“There is direct evidence of deliberate modification of the body that rarely survives in archaeological records,” says Loe.

“All of them were made in more or less the same area of the teeth in all of the individuals and, in several cases, the furrows were identical, even though the skeletons were from different parts of Sweden.

“Modifying teeth in this way may have been undertaken for the same reasons that we choose to have tattoos today."

More than 90 similar fillings have been found on Scandinavian skeletons during the past nine years.

A photo of ancient skulls with red arrows indicating cut points on them
Several sword blows were apparently needed to sever some of the heads© Oxford Archaeology
“In all cases, one or both of the medial incisors showed filing marks, and in a third of cases these were also found on the lateral incisors.

“Most of the individuals had two or three furrows. A few had only one.

“Given the depth and precision of the filing marks, they are likely to have been created by a skilled person, although the motivation behind their creation is unclear. The associated archaeological contexts and finds do not provide any clues.

“They may have been created in reference to a person's occupational status, or they may simply have been pure decoration.”

Loe adds that the Vikings would have had to “smile quite broadly” to show off their grills, referencing examinations carried out on a grave in Sweden, which perhaps explains why a Swedish science programme, Vetenskapens Varld, covered the Weymouth discoveries.

The National Geographic Channel carried an hour-long Viking Apocalypse special on the grave, with more than 7,000 people attempting to deduce why the Vikings were in Dorset during an exhibition held in Dorchester in 2010.

One indisputable conclusion is that these victims bore a more fragile mortality than the mightiness usually associated with Vikings.

“Several individuals had suspected brucellocis,” says Loe, describing “a highly contagious infectious disease that is passed from animals to humans, either by the ingestion of unsterilised milk or meat or by coming into close contact with secretions from infected animals.”

“These diseases and injuries provide a very tangible link to these individuals.

“Many of us will have come across these conditions, especially kidney stones, or know of people who have suffered from them today and therefore can relate to the pain and discomfort they can cause.

“They reveal a more human side to the vikings that has not really been revealed before.

“The diseases are consistent with peasant status individuals.

“Coupled with the fact that the skeletons showed little evidence of previous battle injuries, it does not fulfill ideas of an elite fighting group, although an inexperienced group of raiders is conceivable.”

Elements of the exhibition, including the skeletons, will move to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin between September and the start of next year, eventually returning to a new, £350,000 Ancient Dorset gallery at the Dorset County Museum where they will be returned to their original positions around a reconstructed burial pit. Until then, their latest high-profile exposure is in London.

“We had already begun planning the exhibition when news broke about the discovery of the Weymouth mass grave, so we revised our plans to be able to include it,” says Gareth Williams, the curator of the British Museum show.

“Not only is it one of the most dramatic Viking finds of recent years, it is particularly important in providing a very different perspective to the usual view of Viking military success in England in that period.”

  • ‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset is available at the British Museum and online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of two ancient sections of brown bone against a black background
Viking raids and wars were commonplace at the time the men were in Dorset© Oxford Archaeology
A photo of a pair of white gloves handling some ancient mottled dentures
Dentists may have akin to modern day tattooists for the Vikings© Oxford Archaeology
A photo of a pair of white gloves handling a long section of bone with holes in it
An infected leg bone from the grave© Oxford Archaeology
A photo of a pair of white gloves handling a small section of dental bone with a hole in it
A cut to the vertebra© Oxford Archaeology
A photo of a pair of white gloves handling a small section of dental bone with a hole in it
Deliberately-filled teeth have been a common find in Scandinavia, but unknown until now in Britain© Oxford Archaeology
More on this story:

Ancient Burial Site Uncovered On Weymouth's Olympic Relief Road

Mass grave on Weymouth Olympic road dated to bloody Saxon-Viking beheadings

Dorset Burial Site Excavation Film Released Online

Executed Iron Age bodies from Roman battle found in pit on Olympic transport route

Teeth tests show victims from mass war grave in Weymouth pit could have been Swedish
Latest comment: >Make a comment
Could this been a group of sickly individuals, too ill to fight, that were hunkered down in the area--then attacked? These men--too weak to put up much of a fight, would be easy pickings for the locals, who were not fond of the Norsemen.
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