Excavations shed light on the rich history of the Vikings in Britain

(ORDO NEWS) — Kat Jarman led me through a dense forest called Heath Wood. We were in Derbyshire, not far from the heart of England. There were no paths, and the forest floor was overgrown with bracken and shrubs.

It was easy to go astray and even easier to lose the road. Jarman, a fit, cheerful woman of about 30, briskly walked forward, and I tried to keep up. “See all those bumps and bumps?” she asked as we entered a small clearing.

She pointed to an array of 59 small, rounded bumps, many of which were two or so feet high and four or five feet in diameter. Obviously, these bumps were created by people, not nature, and eerie, supernatural energy emanated from them.

We are literally walking through a Viking cemetery – the only known Scandinavian cremation cemetery in the entire country,” says Jarman, an archaeologist whose new book Kings of the River provides a fresh look at who the Vikings really were and what they did here. She smiles broadly, “It’s very good, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is good – simple, powerful and mysterious. For a ceremonial burial, the Vikings chose a surprisingly unceremonious place.

The overgrown forest shrouds these tombs in anonymity. There are no visible signs of a Viking settlement nearby, just an expanse of open fields, and beyond that a small village with a church, a school and a few houses.

The Vikings used the rivers to travel, but from here to where the River Trent flows today is a terribly long journey. This raises a big question, says Jarman. “Why are these Scandinavian cremation mounds here in the middle of nowhere?”.

Jarman believes she has finally found the answer, but only after new research methods, a change in attitude, and luck filled in numerous gaps. A thousand years ago, Heath Wood was most likely without trees and was visible from everywhere.

Then the river Trent flowed nearby; now satellite imagery with lidar shows how the course of the river has changed dramatically over the last thousand years. And the empty fields around Foremark have been turned by scientists into a likely site for a Viking settlement.

It is possible that the men and women who lived there came with the Great Viking Army around 873 AD, but they did not all leave when the army moved on. They stayed and took root in England.

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In general, other than stone sculptures and place names, the Vikings have left us little record of their 250-year stay on the stage of English history, from about the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th.

Scientists are left to sort out old bones, sometimes charred, sometimes not, and useful items that accompanied their owners to the afterlife – what archaeologists call “grave property”.

The Vikings also left behind silver coins and jewelry, which are sometimes buried for later retrieval and referred to as hoard, or, more commonly, haphazardly scattered across fields where they await an electromagnetic pulse from an amateur metal detector.

That’s practically all. The Vikings have left no contemporary written record, and the later Icelandic sagas, while fascinating, are a vague guide. Most likely, the Vikings really built dwellings in England.

“But most of the buildings from that period, apart from churches, were built of wood, like the wooden halls with Scandinavian designs depicted in the Lord of the Rings films. We don’t have them,” says Julian Richards, archaeologist and co-author, along with Dawn Hadley, 2021 book The Great Viking Army and the Making of England.

It draws new conclusions from finds at Torxey, where the Vikings spent the winter from 872 to 873 before marching south to Repton and probably to Foremark and Heath Wood.

Vikings seem to be everywhere in the last few years, and why not? Who does not love these “hairy people, huge as sin, with horned heads,” as the Victorian poet G.K. Chesterton. They are teeming with Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling Saxon Tales series and the television series based on the novels, The Last Kingdom.

They swarm over the English countryside in 89 episodes of the History Channel series Vikings. In these red meat extravaganzas, you can often see a bunch of thugs happy with Thor.

They shout: “Wall of shields!”, and we see how they are preparing to massacre the unlucky Anglo-Saxons, who, it seems, did not understand what struck them.

But the Vikings are also returning to a richer, more nuanced life, thanks to a surge in scientific research from people like Jarman and Richards. They began to decipher the classic story of the Vikings in England, in which the Vikings are portrayed as invaders who blew their roaring hour on the stage and vanished from English history without a trace. “I would say the change in perception is quite revolutionary,” says Richards.

Don’t expect to find Eric the Pussycat at the end of this new research. The duties of the Vikings have always included fierce battles and robberies. But the Vikings of the new model had much more to worry about than robbery.

This is trade, and craft, and urban development, and language. Rather than wait out the Vikings until they were gone, the Anglo-Saxons reaped innumerable benefits from a broad cultural interpenetration that many people thought hadn’t happened before.

“The world was empty where they trod,” Chesterton wrote. Not so, say Jarman and Richards. Northerners – and, as we will now learn, women – have made the same indelible and lasting contribution to the English identity as the Anglo-Saxons.

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This is a controversial position that can be defended in these Brexit days. The national myth of Alfred the Great and Anglo-Saxon triumphalism will not go quietly.

“All archaeological and historical interpretations are politicized in a sense. We are writing at the moment,” says Richards. “Dawn and I have always tried to say in our work that we shouldn’t oversimplify identity. It hurts to emphasize the contribution of racial mixing and displacement.”

Beginning in 1998, Richards was part of the team that excavated several burial mounds at the Viking burial ground Heath Wood. These were not the first excavations of these burial mounds. A small number were excavated in the middle of the 19th century and again in the middle of the 20th century.

Items such as sword blades and sword fragments have been found in these excavations, which indicated the ninth or tenth century and suggested a Scandinavian origin, but could not be confirmed. More were discovered when Richards and other members of his team opened up three more mounds.

One of them contained charred ashes and the bones of two bodies: an adult, possibly a woman, and a youth, who could be a young warrior or even a child. It could be a slave woman buried with her young master; such gloomy ceremonies were told in old chronicles.

Or it could be a female warrior; recent finds in Scandinavia make this hypothesis more plausible. We just don’t know. A cow’s jaw was also found: a remnant from a ritual feast? Sacrifices? We cannot say. But Richards and his colleagues established for the first time that they really were the Vikings of the late 9th and early 10th centuries.

Some of them were cremated at the site where they were found, while others were cremated elsewhere and transported – both practices were common. Oh, they also found horse bones – Viking horses, according to isotopic analysis. Whoever these Vikings were, they brought their horses to England. This was an important discovery.

But Richards and his colleagues established for the first time that they really were the Vikings of the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Some were cremated at the site where they were found, while others were cremated elsewhere and transported – both practices were common. Oh, they also found horse bones – Viking horses, according to isotopic analysis.

Whoever these Vikings were, they brought their horses to England. This was an important discovery. But Richards and his colleagues established for the first time that they really were the Vikings of the late 9th and early 10th centuries.

Some were cremated at the site where they were found, while others were cremated elsewhere and transported – both practices were common.

Oh, they also found horse bones – Viking horses, according to isotopic analysis. Whoever these Vikings were, they brought their horses to England. This was an important discovery.

Viking history in England is generally considered to have begun on June 8, 793, when a Viking force landed on the tidal island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work on the history of England written at the end of the ninth century, says the following: “The terrible incursions of the Gentiles have made deplorable chaos in the church of God in the Holy Island, by robbery and massacre.”

Lindisfarne established a pattern of Viking raids during the summer months, but by the 850s some of these raiders preferred to winter in England.

And then everything changed – and, of course, for the worse, if you were an Anglo-Saxon. In 865, the Great Heathen Army – translated from the Old English micel haephen – landed in East Anglia, a small Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the east coast of England.

No one knows exactly how big it was and what kind of “army” was meant by this Old English word. These questions are still of concern to archaeologists. But whatever its exact size, this army was a new and terrible force.

The Grand Army spent the next ten years wreaking havoc on the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria. Its goal was conquest, not robbery. They made treaties, overthrew kings and set up puppets, and generally made the lives of the people of what was to be England miserable.

The village of Repton, two and a half miles up the road from Heath Wood, is a leafy village in the once mighty kingdom of Mercia. Repton School, founded in 1557, has educated such pillars of English culture as actor Basil Rathbone and Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams (the inspiration for the film Chariots of Fire).

The beautiful St. Wistan’s Church, with its simple spire, casts a medieval glow on the countryside. The crypt under the church goes back even further, to the eighth century.

Kings of Mercia, Æthelbald and Wiglaf, were buried here, as well as Wiglaf’s grandson, Saint Wigstan (also spelled Wistan), who gave the church its name. In the ninth century it was a place of pilgrimage and power.

In 1974, archaeologists Martin Biddle and his wife Birte Kjölbø-Biddle began excavations in the old crypt of St. Wistan’s Church in search of the Anglo-Saxon roots of the church.

A few years later, “we said, ‘Why don’t we dig outside,'” Martin Biddle told me. “There was an unusual mound in the vicar’s garden, and we thought we’d better take a look.” This brought us face to face with the presence of the Vikings. The rest is history.”

An entry for 874 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads: “In this year [a great army] set out from Lindsay to Repton, and camped there for the winter, drove King Burhred across the sea… and conquered all that land.” It seemed to everyone that the Biddles had stumbled upon a Viking winter camp.

Around the church they found a wide semi-circular ditch forming a D-shaped enclosure. Similar fortifications have been found in Scandinavia. In Vicar Biddle’s garden, a shallow burial mound containing the bones of 264 bodies was discovered.

In Vicar Biddle’s garden, a mound containing the bones of 264 bodies and a double grave containing two men were found.

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The Biddles also discovered a double grave containing the skeletons of two men. This pair, named Warrior 511 and Warrior 295, became the most famous dead Vikings in England, but no one knew who they were. Warrior 511, recently determined to be between 35 and 45 years old, met the death in battle that the Vikings always talk about.

The battle ax pierced his left side, most likely cutting off his left testicle and penis, and then leaving a deep gash in his left thigh. He may have been brought here from somewhere else – no one knows exactly where – and buried with everything necessary for a healthy Viking afterlife in Valhalla – a silver pendant in the form of Thor’s hammer, a sword, two daggers, buckles and clasps to fasten clothes.

Next to his pelvis lay a boar’s tusk, which archaeologists such as Jarman believe could replace the 511’s missing penis. He was buried with everything needed for a healthy Viking afterlife in Valhalla.

Jarman first came to the site in 2011 as an archeology student and has been digging here ever since. Years after the Biddles first found it, the Repton site has raised as many questions as it has answered.

To begin with: If the Grand Army is so large according to period records, it numbered in the thousands then why is the D-shaped pen so small? It would hardly fit a street gang. Studies of the isotope dating of the bodies in the Vicariate Mound revealed large differences.

While many of the remains are clearly from the period when the Grand Army passed through here, others appear to have been found much earlier. What were they doing there? And, perhaps less important for scientists, but at least no less intriguing for you and me, the question: who could be the warrior 511 and the warrior 295,

Jarman was showing me the place where the two warriors were found. Grass grew again over their grave in the shadow of St. Wistan’s. In the vicar’s garden, the bodies in the barrow fell asleep again. But in the new trenches in the garden, Jarman continues to look for more detailed evidence of the presence of the Grand Army here.

Repton is still open for business. Jarman recently found weapon fragments and ship nails. “Martin Biddle is a fantastic archaeologist, but this is a very complex dig, so work continues after 40 years,” says Jarman.

In 2018, Jarman published a study on conflicting radiocarbon dates among old bones in a garden. Jarman argued that the discrepancy could be explained by the different diets of the people whose bones had been radiocarbon dated.

Carbon from the sea circulates for an average of 400 years before entering the food chain – much longer than carbon from the atmosphere. As a result, the bones of people who eat mostly fish are significantly older in tests than the bones of people who eat mainly meat, which absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.

After correcting for the so-called seawater effect, Jarman found that all the bones date from roughly the same period – the time when the Grand Army wintered in Repton.

Jarman believes that she may have been able to identify the names of two warriors. Her isotopic analysis of the warriors’ teeth had already told her that both of them came from somewhere in the south of Scandinavia, probably from Denmark.

She then collaborated with geneticists at the University of California at Santa Cruz to isolate and analyze DNA extracted from teeth and bones. Using the latest techniques to study maternal and paternal DNA, Jarman determined that the pair were first-degree relatives and most likely father and son.

After that, she combed the records for references to Viking fathers and sons raiding the British Isles around that time. Bingo!

The Annals of Ulster tells of a Viking king named Amlaib, also known as Olaf, who raided Ireland and Britain in the years after 853. Olaf was killed fighting the Picts in Scotland in 874, consistent with a return to Repton for burial.

Moreover, Olaf had a son named Øystein (or Oistin), who, according to the Ulster Annals, was “treacherously killed by Albann” (often identified as Halfdann). This Halfdann turned out to be one of the four leaders of the Grand Army in Repton.

This is far from proof, but the two famous warriors are no longer just numbers. Jarman managed to give them plausible names and stories.

If the Grand Army couldn’t fit in St. Wistan’s churchyard, then they had to go somewhere else. Where did they go? The answer may lie down the road from Repton in Foremark, in the area next to the isolated Viking graveyard at Heath Wood.

In 2017, Jarman was a guest on a BBC-TV show called “Digging for Britain” (Jarman’s casual, non-pedantic manner has made her a popular subject for interviews). “When I was running this program, I tweeted a photo of Foremark and someone texted me back, ‘Oh, my buddy does metal detecting in this area and he always finds really great Viking artifacts,’” Jarman recalls.

It was luck. Jarman had been trying to work with the local metal detectors for years and had gotten nowhere. “We know that people here are metal detecting, but no one has ever reported a Viking find, which is strange,” says Jarman. “No one wanted to talk to me. It was very difficult.”

In general, there is not much love between detectorists and archaeologists. Since the 1970s, there has been a boom in metal detecting in England and Wales. Now there are about 20,000 hobbyists who find a variety of things, including much of what the Vikings left behind. The problem is that many of them, instead of donating their findings to science, prefer to sell them secretly. Archaeologists call such opportunists “night hawks”.

In 1996, England passed the Treasure Act, which makes it illegal to sell items that are at least 300 years old and contain more than 10 percent gold or silver (weird coins are excluded). A year later, a voluntary database called the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was set up in England and Wales to record scattered finds not covered by the Treasure Act – a brooch here, a pendant there.

These two mechanisms, the Treasure Act and PAS, are not working flawlessly – negligence continues. In 2019, two detectorists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for secretly trading in the Leominster Hoard, a dazzling hoard of Viking jewelry and coins they found in a town near Hereford. Most of the treasure passed into private hands, which is a terrible loss for history.

But basically, the carrot and stick of the Hoards and Treasures Act has helped bring to light a lot of Viking items that would never have surfaced otherwise, especially in the last five to ten years. Says Julian Richards: “Recording and tracking finds through the PAS has opened up a huge opportunity for research in the UK, where many archaeologists used to be very concerned about metal detecting.”

The detectorist who contacted Kat Jarman after her telecast did not report his findings to PAS, but he was happy to show her what he found in the Foremark fields under Heath Wood. Piles of coins, Thor’s hammer pendants, and lead game items were the link Jarman was looking for.

“There were all the missing things that we didn’t have before,” says Jarman. Repton’s army was in the spotlight. “I think that part of the army was in Repton, probably guarding the main object and valuable parts.

And then all the trash gathered here, all ordinary people. I think that Foremark became a Viking settlement. We have not found it yet, because I suspect that it’s under a local school that I haven’t been allowed to dig up yet. I’m working on it.”

The most important part of this Viking settlement, says Jarman, was the cemetery at the top of Heath Wood. “I think it’s a claim that says, ‘This landscape and the whole place belongs to us Vikings!'” “The standard narrative was: the army comes, the army goes, and that’s it – the end of Repton’s story, 873-874,” continues Jarman.

“That’s what I don’t agree with. This idea that the Vikings come and then go is absolutely not true. I think Repton’s history is much longer.”

Jarman pointed me to an archaeologist named Jane Kershaw, whose recent work gave a significant boost to Jarman’s ideas. Richards also refers to Kershaw. As part of her doctoral research, Kershaw studied Scandinavian jewelry in the PAS database.

As she worked, she began to notice brooches and pendants that were identical to pieces known to her from Scandinavian museums, some of which had casting defects indicating that they were made from the same master mould.

For the most part, these were not finely crafted items made for the ruling elite; these were cheap, mass decorations for the common people.

“The decorations I found are being imported to England on the clothes of Scandinavian women. This means that there will be children and the whole structure of the settlement, based on family relations,” says Kershaw. “I contend that we are dealing with entire family groups that migrated from Denmark to England” after the Grand Army.

“And this is not an isolated surge. It starts in the late ninth century and continues for 50-75 years as jewelry styles (in England) keep up with the changing fashions in Scandinavia.

We tend to think that the Vikings plundered and took treasure with them. In fact, they brought silver in the form of jewelry and coins. They bring wealth to the country, which probably contributes to the growth of cities.”

In Torxey, Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley arrived at the same inconvenient truth in a different way. Torxey, which at that time was part of Mercia, is where the Great Viking Army wintered in 872-873 and moved to Repton the following year.

We know about it from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. What Richards and Hadley found there convinced them that the Grand Army was indeed great, possibly as high as 5,000 men.

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“Our work in Torxey suggests that the Grand Army was akin to a city on the move,” they write in their new book. “The arrival of such a large population should have been a catalyst for urban development in many places.”

Back in the 1960s, archaeologist Maurice Barley brought students to Torxey for a summer excavation that lasted nearly a decade. They were looking for the city’s medieval ancestors. Among other things, they found six ancient earthenware kilns and several pottery shards, possibly made by the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Torxey.

Richards, Hadley, and ceramicist Gareth Perry had doubts. Perry took samples of the local clay, conducted his own pottery-making experiments, and figured out how and, more importantly, when the Torxey ware was made: It was complex, produced on an industrial scale, and bore no resemblance to Anglo-Saxon styles and methods.

According to Richards and Hadley, the finds were amazing. First, there were many more ovens in the area than Barley found. Moreover, the starting dates for the production of ceramics in Torxey corresponded to the period when the Grand Army passed here.

And although Scandinavia itself did not produce anything similar to Torxey products, they were produced in the regions of Northern Europe that were under the influence of the Vikings.

Richards and Hadley believe that the Grand Army brought European potters with them to England; the remnants of this army, including some of the potters, remained, assimilated, and stimulated the industrial growth of their adopted homeland.

“Obviously we see the Viking influence in ninth-century England as a positive thing,” says Richards. “It led to a lot of things that really had a lasting impact.

After Torksey and Repton, the Grand Army disintegrated, never gathering into a single military unit. A Viking leader named Halfdann, the alleged killer of the 295 warrior, led his warriors north into Northumbria, where they became part of the larger Viking zone in England known as the Danelaw.

Meanwhile, the chieftains Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend led their warriors into East Anglia and then to Wessex, the only one of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that could resist the Viking raids.

Here history meets myth, and myth wins. As every English schoolboy knows, Alfred, King of Wessex, resists the Danes, gets lashed, regroups from his marshy redoubt, and unites Wessex to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in 878.

The origin myth of England starts here, with all its binary vigor: Anglo-Saxons are good, Vikings are bad. This is not the place to joke about the legend of Alfred. There are good reasons why Alfred is one of the only English kings with the prefix “Great” after his name (she was attached to it in the 16th century). By all accounts, Alfred was an outstanding man and, yes, a great king.

Significantly, however, these estimates begin with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Life of Alfred by Alfred’s chosen biographer, Bishop Asser. Objectivity is not their hallmark. The “Chronicle” was written in a monastery in Wessex from the point of view of the exaltation of Alfred and his battle with these terrible Vikings.

This strengthens his claim to the whole country,” says Kat Jarman. “These stories have become a bible for the study of the Vikings. Many people still use them as a set of rules, instead of saying, “OK, what is literally on earth? What does archeology say?”

British screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst, creator of the successful television series Vikings, also spent time digging with Jarman in Repton’s Vicarage’s garden. “The whole Viking thing is one of those things that you know something about and realize you know absolutely nothing about!” Hurst told me.

“One of the goals of the series is to try to overcome centuries of prejudice and ignorance about the Vikings and their culture. Little Englishmen and nationalists are my beasts, I hate it! We are still Vikings, they are ingrained in our culture. It’s time for people to wake up from this.”


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