Rare Viking burials found on the 'Olympic Highway' Dorset

 Burial pit of skulls and bones, Ridgeway, Dorset. © Oxford Archaeology.

New data show that human remains found in a mass grave in Dorset, originally thought to be Romans, date from a time of frequent Viking raids on Britain.

The decapitated Scandinavian men have been carbon-14 dated to between AD 910 and AD 1030.

The analysis of their teeth by the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratories NIGL show that they came from an area of much colder climate than Britain, typical of central Norway or Sweden.

Death on the 'Olympic Highway'

Decapitated torso remains. © Dorset County Council.

The site was discovered in June 2009 during building work on the 'Olympic Highway' by Dorset County Council; a relief road built to ease transport congestion for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Archaeologists, led by David Score of Oxford Archaeology, unearthed at least 51 decapitated individuals. Many of the executed men suffered multiple wounds, inflicted by a sharp-bladed weapon, to the skull and jaw as well as the upper spine — indicating that their execution was by decapitation.

Tooth enamel isotope signature

Tooth enamel provides a time capsule of information about a person’s childhood environment. The oxygen isotope composition of the enamel is related to the composition of drinking water and this, in turn, is controlled by the climate.

Jane Evans at work at the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratories, Keyworth, Nottingham

The Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden have a colder climate that Britain leading to a distinct and different isotope signature in tooth enamel.

The graph shows the isotope composition of the decapitated individuals (the blue diamond symbols) in comparison with the field of oxygen isotope composition for Britain and the strontium isotope composition expected in the area of Weymouth. © Oxford Archaeology.

All the individuals measured in this study had oxygen isotope tooth enamel values that were “too cold” to be British and consistent with Scandinavian origin.

“This is an amazing discovery. It is the largest group people of foreign origin that we have identified using isotopes.” Dr Jane Evans Head of Archaeological Studies, NIGL.

Strontium isotopes, which relate a person to the land on which they were raised, show the men came from several different places within Scandinavia.

“This is one of the largest Viking-age assemblages we have worked on. Up until now there have only been one or two confirmed Scandinavians of this period, found in the UK, using isotope techniques.” Carolyn Chenery, NIGL.

Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of tooth dentine supports the fact they had a meat-rich diet typical of Scandinavians of the same period.

Further information

Contact Dr Jane Evans for further information.