Because the Norse did not systematically record their own written history during the Viking Age, it can be a genuine challenge for historians to map out the true extent of their activities and influence. 

Fortunately, a series of major archeological investigations over the past century or so have enabled us to form a more sophisticated picture of how the Vikings lived. 

In particular, we have gained a far better understanding of their impact in those parts of northern Europe where they settled for extended periods.

In the south of Europe, however, the story is rather different. Though historians generally agree that the Vikings ventured south on occasion, these visits are believed to have generally been short-lived and sporadic. 

Some contemporary accounts and fragmentary evidence have pointed to Norse expeditions to Portugal, Spain, and Italy, but more conclusive material proof has often been hard to come by, at least so far. 

In 2018, however, the discovery of some exceptionally tall skeletons in Sicily did provide a tantalizing suggestion that some intrepid Norse may have made it to the Italian island at the very end of the Viking Age

The find made headlines around the world, with many media outlets claiming it provided clear evidence of Vikings in Italy

To find out more about how accurate this may be, The Viking Herald speaks to Sławomir Moździoch, a Polish archeologist who helped lead the investigations. 

The cemetery at Santa Maria di Campogrosso contained 35 fully intact graves, including a distinct set of tall male skeletons which indicated the presence of outsiders. Photo: Sławomir Moździoch / Polish Academy of Sciences

A site of possible interest 

As Sławomir explains, the archeological project that led to the discovery happened almost by chance. "The original excavation in Sicily began in 2015," Sławomir tells us. 

"The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences was interested in the Normans' role in shaping Europe's cultural face." 

"We had already conducted research within this broader project, mainly in Poland and Central Europe. However, during a tourist visit to Sicily, we discovered the ruins of a church, Santa Maria di Campogrosso, which was built in a possible Norman style.” 

Thanks to the potential Norman link, the team decided the ruins of the church and adjacent monastery, located in the small coastal town of Altavilla Milicia, could be a fruitful area of interest, and applied for permission to excavate the area. 

The digs were conducted in cooperation with Palermo’s Superintendency for Cultural and Environmental Heritage and would last for a total of six years. 

Over the course of their investigations, the team unearthed a cemetery with some intriguing finds. 

The archeological project at Santa Maria di Campogrosso evolved into a comprehensive six-year excavation revealing significant anthropological and historical finds. Photo: Sławomir Moździoch / Polish Academy of Sciences 

Unexpected heights 

The burial site contained a large group of men, women, and children, including 35 graves that were fully intact. 

The researchers found that the graves of three of the children had been covered with roof tiles. 

This particular grave type, known as a cappuccina, has been used in the Mediterranean since antiquity, and suggested that a number of the people buried here were of local origin. 

It was a different story with some of the male individuals, however. 

As Sławomir tells us, "The first anthropological analyses of nearly 50 individuals buried by the church's southern wall were accompanied by comments from an experienced local anthropologist." 

"The anthropologist told us that compared to the skeletons of ancient inhabitants of Sicily found so far, the burials we discovered contained the remains of significantly taller individuals." 

Though height alone is not enough to reach any firm conclusions, the disparity was certainly notable. 

"One of them, who was buried in a monumental stone grave (no. 4), may have been up to 190 cm tall," Sławomir reveals. "This fact alone indicated we were dealing with newcomers from outside the island." 

A possible multicultural site 

Though the archeologists were now curious about the origin of the male skeletons, further clues were hard to come by. 

The archeologists did unearth a total of 116 bronze and silver coins dating from the 12th to the 16th or 17th century. These were, however, mainly of local use, and very few other artifacts were identified that could have confirmed the origin of the deceased. 

As Sławomir indicates, most of the contextual evidence pointed towards a Christian burial site, though some isolated graves also indicated a possible Islamic presence. 

"We could conclude that the deceased were buried in the Christian rite, without grave goods, using the typical arrangement of bodies in the east-west orientation, with the head on the west side," Sławomir explains. 

"At the same time, some of the deceased had their heads fixed with stones to look east towards the Holy Land." 

Indeed, Sicily has a diverse history. In addition to the more pervasive Christian culture, a large part of the island of Sicily was also ruled as an emirate for more than 250 years. 

In the 11th century, however, the Normans invaded, eventually subduing the Saracen opposition and taking complete control by 1091. 

Records suggest that the church of Santa Maria di Campogrosso was constructed by the Normans during their conquest of Sicily, with its foundations likely laid between 1068 and 1072. Photo: Sławomir Moździoch / Polish Academy of Sciences 

Suspected Norman church 

In order to obtain a more comprehensive picture of the archeological site, Sławomir and the rest of the team conducted a series of studies on the church itself. 

Though there were no apparent traces of construction from the Islamic period, and some of the later walls were likely constructed in the 12th century, the team found the foundations were most likely built during the Norman period. 

This theory aligns with the records of 16th-century historian Tommaso Fazello, who recorded that the church was built by the Norman leader Roger I after the Normans defeated the Saracens in the battle of Misilmeri but before the capture of Palermo. 

This would place the date of its foundation between 1068 and 1072. 

Another Sicilian chronicler, Rocco Pirro, assigned the monastery foundation to Roger I’s brother Robert Guiscard, who lived in the same era. 

Indeed, it is possible that the site could have been deliberately selected by the invaders due to its advantageous location. 

"The monastery was located in a very picturesque place that would also have served as an observation point," Sławomir tells us. 

"It controlled the trade route running along the coast from the west to the east of the island." 

Given the best available evidence, therefore, it appears likely the church was built during the period of Norman occupation. 

But does this mean the huge skeletons found at the church of Santa Maria di Campogrosso were definitively of Norman origin? 

And if so, could they have been Vikings, given that many of the Norman leaders were descendants of the Norse? 

In the next phase of the investigation, work would begin to determine the true origin of the people found at the site. 

In part two, we will examine the conclusions of the investigating team in relation to the Norman history of Sicily.

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