Archaeologists report that a UK mass grave discovered in the 1980s may have been the burial site of the greatest Viking army to ever invade the British Isles, over one millennium ago.

Viking ship.

Image credits Aline Dassel.

It’s not every day that someone tries to invade England — and, judging by the archaeological findings at St Wystan’s Church in Repton, that’s probably better for everyone involved. New research on a mass grave first discovered in the area in the 1970s and 80s reveals that the Vikings, which tried to do so in the 8th century, never managed to get away alive.

Dating issues

When it was first discovered, excavations at St. Wystan’s Church unearthed several Viking graves and a charnel deposit of nearly 300 people underneath a shallow mound in the vicarage garden. The mound was believed to be a burial monument linked to the Great Army, built with material scavenged from local buildings. In particular, one Anglo-Saxon building, possibly a royal mausoleum, seems to have been cut down and partially ruined before being turned into a burial chamber.

One of the rooms in this chamber contained the commingled remains of at least 264 people, around 20 percent of whom were women. Among these bones, the archaeologists also found Viking weapons and artefacts including an axe, several knives, and five silver pennies dating to the period 872-875 A.D. Most (80%) of the remains were men, mostly aged 18 to 45, with several showing signs of violent injury, reinforcing the idea that this is the resting place of an army.

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So right off the bat, researchers suspected the site to be related to the Viking Age and even believe it might be the burial site of their Great Army. Historical records say that the Viking Great Army wintered in Repton, Derbyshire, in 873 A.D., after driving the local king into exile — so the site would be consistent with these records both in regards to location, time, as well as the volume of remains.

Radiocarbon dating performed on the remains threw a wrench in the workings of that hypothesis — the results suggested that the graves contained bones collected over several centuries. However, new research now shows that the initial hypothesis was correct, and all the bones are consistent with a date in the late 9th century.

“Previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old,” says lead author Catrine Jarman.

“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.”

A double grave from the site — one of the only Viking weapon graves found in the country — was also dated, yielding a date range of 873-886 A.D. The grave contained the remains of two men, the older of which was inhumed with a Thor’s hammer pendant, a Viking sword, and several other artefacts. The team notes he had suffered multiple severe injuries around the time of death, including a deep cut to his left femur.

Interestingly, a boar’s tusk was placed between his legs before burial. One hypothesis is that the injury on his femur may have also severed his penis or testicles, and the tusk was meant to replace them in the after-life.

“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 the considerable Scandinavian settlement of England,” Jarman adds. “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 paper “The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel” has been published in the journal Antiquity.