When we think of the Vikings and the shores of the British Isles, we typically imagine a horde of fearsome Norse raiders hacking bits off helpless or hapless members of the local population.
It is worth recalling, however, that there were times when the Anglo-Saxons also enjoyed the upper hand, from the triumph of Alfred the Great at the Battle of Edington or Harold Godwinson’s admittedly pyrrhic victory against Harald Hardrada.
Then there are the chilling remains found in a burial pit on Ridgeway Hill, near Weymouth in Dorset.
This mass grave of more than 50 skeletons suggests that the local residents were just as capable of brutality as the invading forces.
So how was this illuminating archeological site first discovered, and what does it tell us about the nature of Anglo-Saxon and Norse relations? The Viking Herald now takes a look.
A road to somewhere
The story of the gruesome Ridgeway Hill burial pit begins with a 21st-century town-planning project.
In 2007, with the 2012 Olympic Games approaching and the sailing events scheduled to be held in Weymouth, local councilors approved an 87 million GBP project to build a relief road to improve access.
Before construction could begin, however, Oxford Archaeology was commissioned to carry out a thorough excavation of the surrounding land – now standard practice before any larger building project in the UK.
However, when they got to Ridgeway Hill in June 2009, they found more than they bargained for.
Weymouth Harbour, with its strategic location along the Dorset coast, could have been a familiar landmark or potential docking point for Viking vessels during their expeditions in the region. Photo: Savo Ilic / Shutterstock
A gruesome find
It was actually a construction worker digging just outside the archeological excavation zone who first came across the find, uncovering what appeared to be a fragment of a bone.
The experts from Oxford Archaeology were immediately called in.
After two hours, they had two skulls, and by the end of the first day, the count was up to eight.
Over the following days, weeks, and months, the full picture emerged: a pit, roughly five to seven meters in diameter, with a collection of skulls at the top and, within it, the skeletons of the people who had been killed.
There were a total of 52 skulls and 55 skeletons, some of which are now displayed in the Dorset County Museum. Every single one had been decapitated.
Additionally, there was a complete lack of other finds: no evidence of clothing, jewelry, weapons, or any other artifacts.
To help date the remains, bone samples were taken for initial radiocarbon dating.
The early assumption was that it was an Iron Age find, given the prevalence of similar finds in the local area, including Maiden Castle, the largest hill fort in the British Isles.
However, when the results came back, they shocked everyone: the samples were from the late 10th to early 11th century CE, the Anglo-Saxon era, some 1,000 years later than what anyone had expected.
While some of the skeletons showed a clean cut, many more displayed rather messier attempts at decapitation, indicating haste or a lack of experience in the executioner.
Cuts were identified in the shoulder blades and the frontal jaw. The evidence clearly pointed to a systematic execution of some kind. But of whom, and for what reason?
The contents of the Ridgeway Hill burial pit were notably stark, with the skeletons showing no evidence of clothing, jewelry, weapons, or any other accompanying artifacts. Photo: Oxford Archaeology
Who were they?
Isotope analysis was conducted to provide a deeper understanding of the origin of the remains – isotopic signatures offer insights into the soil and diet someone was exposed to.
By examining their teeth, it was possible to determine where they spent their childhood. And by analyzing their ribs and femur, scientists were able to gain information about where they spent the latter parts of their lives.
The analysis indicated that the victims were likely born in various locations in Northern Europe and had not long been in the British Isles.
In other words, they were almost certainly Vikings.
They were all male, ranging in age from teenagers to men in their early forties and fifties.
For what motive?
At this point in history, England was divided into Anglo-Saxon and Norse spheres of influence after the introduction of the Danelaw.
Though Dorset was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, there were many incursions by the Vikings as well.
Indeed, some experts believe the massacred group could have been a raiding party, while others have speculated that it might have been a band of Viking mercenaries eliminated by local forces.
At the same time, there was a notable absence of healed trauma, indicating the group may not have been experienced soldiers.
Perhaps they could even have been simple farmers: an act of reprisal on the local Norse population for some unknown transgression.
Indeed, there is even the possibility that the death of the Norsemen was part of the St Brice’s Day massacre, which took place on November 13 1002, after King Aethelred ordered all the Danish men living in England to be murdered.
Following the extensive archaeological excavations at Ridgeway Hill, the Weymouth Relief Road was successfully constructed and opened to the public on March 17, 2011. Photo: Andrew Bone / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A communal event
While we may never know the true reason for this mass execution, we can be sure it was a significant event.
The wounds identified are thought to have been made with a long, heavy blade – the use of a sword would be highly symbolic.
The site of Ridgeway Hill is also significant: with wide views, a junction between a road and a track, and a boundary between parishes, it was a classic location for a dramatic Anglo-Saxon judicial reckoning.
There is every chance that bonfires were lit so that people in the local area could attend the gruesome spectacle.
One of many?
The Ridgeway Hill burial pit serves as a reminder that it was not just the Vikings who had violent inclinations in this period of history.
It was a brutal time, and the struggle for power, influence, and basic survival across the British Isles was frequently waged to the death.
In fact, the burial pit found at Ridgeway may indicate one of many such events in an era of fierce and heavy conflict.
And the relief road? Having made a remarkable contribution to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon and Norse history, the main carriageway of the Weymouth Relief Road was opened on March 17, 2011. It has been in full operation ever since.
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