A GRASSY mound in a Derbyshire vicarage garden could be the first tangible evidence of a Viking army that wreaked havoc through ninth-century England.
Re-examination of 264 skeletons found at the site at St Wystan’s, Repton, during the 1970s and ’80s, suggests that they are war dead from what contemporary chronicles described as a “large heathen army”. The invading force conducted a 14-year rampage through Anglo-Saxon England, until it was finally halted by Alfred the Great in 878.
Historical records describe Repton as a Viking winter camp in 873, and finds on the site indicated Viking origins. Also, the remains of four children, aged eight to 18, found near the mass grave, parallel accounts of sacrificial killings to accompany Viking dead.
Carbon dating of the bones indicated that they came from a period 200 years earlier. Refinement of the process, however, has now found that a diet high in seafood could affect an accurate reading. Once adjusted, the dates matched the records.
The Great Viking Army theory had also been discounted, as one fifth of the bones were female; but recent research shows that women played a significant part in Viking armies.
The research leader from the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, Cat Jarman, said: “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 original excavation found that an Anglo-Saxon building — possibly a royal mausoleum — had been turned into a burial chamber. One room was packed with bones, mostly of men aged 18 to 45: several showed signs of violent injury. Among them were Viking weapons and artefacts, including five silver pennies dated to 872-875.
“This army had left almost no trace: but maybe here it is,” Dr Jarman said. “This was a key part in the story of how England was made. The defeat of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the creation of a Viking state, and Alfred’s reaction to it were all major parts of this. Its echoes are still felt today, but, because of the lack of physical evidence, it has not been given the attention it deserves.”