The Dorset Ridgeway Vikings appear both as part of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, Vikings: Life and Legend, and as the subjects of a new book.
Louise Loe and co-authors of Given to the Ground: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Weymouth, released 5 March 2014, detail the highlights of finds at the dig and results of batteries of tests applying modern scientific analyses to the remains.
Fifty young men died at this spot about a thousand years ago; their bodies tossed into an old quarry pit, their heads in a pile nearby. Who were they? Where did they come from? How had they lived? How did they perish?
Dorset Ridgeway Vikings Mass Grave
The mass grave of 50 decapitated young Viking men was unearthed beside England’s most ancient road, Ridgeway, which experts believe is of prehistoric origin. The site itself is one of the great surprise finds in recent British archaeology and a great mystery.
The construction of a new road called ‘the Weymouth Relief Road’ (designed to carry extra 2012 Olympic Games traffic attracted by the sailing competition sites of the games) led to the uncovering of the skeletons.
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The site, dubbed archaeology of global importance, is both unique and demonstrates that the Vikings did not always win as they swept aside Anglo-Saxon culture throughout Britain.
British Museum Welcomes New Finds
British Museum changed plans for a major Viking exhibition, which opened 6 March, to include material from the Ridgeway site; reflecting one of the museum’s aims to bring forward new finds and reflect new perspectives on the Vikings.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum told the press, “New discoveries and research have led to a wealth of new information about the Vikings so it is a perfect moment to look again at this critical era.”
While the exhibition places the Vikings’ warmongering and violent identity at its centre, the Dorset Vikings give clear evidence that all was not constantly well with the marauding Scandinavian invaders.
“Recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset, will provide a close-up encounter with ‘real’ Vikings and illustrate what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil,” the British Museum says.
What Went Wrong for the Dorset Vikings?
Forensic methods showed that the Dorset Ridgeway Vikings were young men aged 18 to 25 years, although researchers also identified a 50-year-old. Tooth analysis showed that all had grown up in much more northerly locations, their Arctic and sub-Arctic origins reaching between Norway and Russia. Stripped of all clothing and possessions, there is little to show who had killed them.
Further tests indicate that many of these so-called ‘warriors’ in fact were ill or disabled by chronic conditions, and their bones do not display warrior-like healed injuries.
One of the exhibits, a thigh bone, suggests a chronic bone infection called osteomyelitis, which caused the bone to become twice the normal size while oozing smelly pus.
Other bone diseases were present in various individuals and researchers even found a kidney stone.
The men were slaughtered in a brutal and clumsy way, so that some skulls bear evidence of multiple blows; the scene of their demise must have been bloody and horrific.
Vikings: Life and Legend
Archaeologists refer to the Dorset grave as a ‘war grave’ in spite of the obvious anomalies, and so it is as warriors that the remains will travel with the exhibition when it moves to Berlin in September 2014. The Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, refurbished a new facility to house the exhibit upon its return to Dorset.
Vikings: Life and Legend will be open to the public at the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, 6 March to 14 June 2014.