In 2012 the Olympic sailing events were held in Portland, Dorset, UK. In preparation for the Olympics, in order to improve transport links to Portland, a relief road was built over a hill in the Dorset Downs, called “The Ridgeway”. It was during the construction of this road that a completely unexpected archaeological discovery was made.
In 2009, the driver of a mechanical excavator, working on the foundation of the road, noticed bones in the chalky soil in the bucket of his excavator. Archaeologists, who had been keeping a watching brief on the construction of the road, were called in and a careful hand excavation of the site began. What became apparent was that an oval indentation in the ground contained human remains.
It was established that the grave was an old chalk pit, probably Roman, into which decapitated humans had been dumped on one single occasion, and then covered over with soil. There was a high degree of physical entanglement of the bones, indicating that the bodies had been deposited into the grave in a disorganised way.
A thorough investigation of the site revealed that up to 52 males of varying ages had been executed. The skulls, four of which were missing, had been piled to one side of the grave. The questions which were immediately raised were, who were these men and when and why had they been executed?
Oxford Archaeology was commissioned to undertake the massive task of carefully removing all the bones and skulls and carrying out a detailed examination, by sophisticated forensic techniques, to answer these questions.
Radio carbon dating of the bones indicated that they were from the period AD 970 to 1025. For the most part, this was the period when King Ethelred was monarch of England, (978 – 1016). This was a troubled period in English history, when there were many Viking attacks. Some were by organised Viking armies, such as that led by the Dane, Thorkell the Tall, and some were opportunistic raids by small fleets or even individual ships.
The detailed analysis of the bones indicated that the executioners had been quite inefficient at carrying out their grisly task. Many of the skeletons showed that between three and seven blows had been required to remove a head. In some cases, blows had also fallen on shoulders and several of the skeletons had damage to hands and forearms when, possibly, the person being executed had tried to defend himself. The nature of the cuts led archaeologists to the conclusion that they had been made by swords.
There were no traces of any clothing in the pit. It would seem that the prisoners had been ultimately humiliated by being executed naked.
Isotope analyses showed that the victims had spent all of their lives outside of the British Isles and that they were disparate in terms of origin, migration and dietary habits. In other words, they were foreigners from several different countries. Further, scientific results showed that they came from countries with a colder climate than Britain. These results suggested that they came from Scandinavia, the Baltic States or Russia. Five of them had isotope values which indicated that they came from exceptionally cold regions, probably north of the Arctic Circle.
A demographic study of the bones and the skulls showed that most of the bodies were those of young men, though there were at least a few aged over forty-five and possibly some adolescents. In addition, results suggest that some of the men were related to each other. The features of the bones of the upper arms indicated that the men had undertaken physically demanding work.
The answers resulting from the detailed scientific work cannot tell us more about who these men were and why they were killed, but the clues are there.
An historical account of the history of England, called the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which was written in the form of a diary by monks, records that there was a Viking raid on Portland in 982 and further raids along the Dorset coast in 998.
The men who were executed on Ridgeway Hill could only have got to England by ship and an average Viking ship had a crew of around fifty. The physical work indicated scientifically was probably associated with rowing. The conclusion I draw from all the scientific data and which formed the basis of my novel, “Finn’s Fate”, was that a Viking raiding party making their way in land from the Dorset coast, was overwhelmed by an Anglo Saxon force and the foreigners were made to surrender.
And what of the four missing skulls? It is likely that the Anglo Saxons would have put the heads on stakes and positioned them on the beach as a warning to other raiders.
The factual information, used in this blog is from the final report by Oxford Archaeology on the excavation and examination of the remains. The report is titled “Given to the Ground”. This quote comes from the following extract from the Anglo Saxon poem, “The Seafarer”, translated by John Wain.
Fame is hushed, the world’s dignity withers up
and shrivels as comes to every man now over
middle earth: age presses on him, his face grows
pale, white haired, he sorrows for his henchmen,
sons of greatness given to the ground.