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

By Culture24 Staff Published: 30 July 2009

A picture of a digger in a hard hat and work clothes looking at skeletons in a muddy pit

Bones from a mass burial pit (above) in Weymouth have been dated to the late Saxon period after initial scientific testing. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

Scientists analysing the bones of executed bodies from a mass grave uncovered at an ancient burial site being dug up for the 2012 Olympics say the skeletons are the remains of men massacred in Anglo-Viking battles during the late Saxon period of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Experts have used radiocarbon dating to investigate decapitated skulls from the Weymouth Relief Road, on Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth, placing them in a bloody period of clashes between the resident rulers and invading Danes.

A close-up picture of skulls and bones in a muddy pit

The excavations are part of an £87 million relief road for London 2012. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

"Most of the skulls exhibit evidence of multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls with a large, very sharp weapon such as a sword," said Senior Osteologist Angela Boyle.

"All the remains uncovered are male and the overwhelming majority are aged from their late teens to about 25 years old, with just a small number of older individuals. As a general group they are tall, robust in stature with good teeth and appear to have had healthy lifestyles.

"The lack of any other finds, such as those associated with clothing, indicates that they may have been naked when thrown into the pit. Samples of soil are being taken from around the bodies to test for indications of textiles which have rotted away."

A picture of a pair of workmen looking at skeletons in a pit

Excavators initally discovered more than a dozen skeletons in the pit in January 2009. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

David Score, Project Manager for excavators Oxford Archaeology, hailed the impact of the scientific techniques, which have allowed the bodies to be placed between AD 890 and 1030.

"There was very little other evidence in the pit apart from a few shards of pottery," he said. "In order to clarify the date of the remains we sent off a sample of bone for urgent radiocarbon dating and, amazingly, the date which has come back is in the late Saxon period.

A close-up picture of dozens of skulls in a muddy pit

Project Manager David Score said the results from the tests were "amazing". Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

"The time period we're now looking at is one of considerable conflict between the resident Saxon population and invading Danes. Viking raids were common and there were a series of major battles in the South of England as successive Saxon Kings and Viking leaders fought for control.

"The burial location is typical of places used for executions during this time – in a prominent location and next to a main road and a parish boundary. However, the large number of individuals and method used make it unlikely that normal criminal justice was being practised in this instance.

"This result really highlights the important part that scientific techniques play in modern archaeological investigations."

A picture of dozens of skeletons in a muddy pit

Further tests on the bones are now planned. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

A total of 51 skulls were removed from the quarry, which is part of an £87 million transport route for the 2012 showcase. The team is now hoping to establish the precise origin of the victims through further detailed testing, including isotope analysis.

See a video of the January excavation here.