Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 14:10 UK

Decapitated bodies - were they Vikings?

By Eleanor Williams
BBC News, Dorset

The burial pit (Copyright: Oxford Archaeology)
Archaeologists found more bodies than skulls in the pit

It looks like the aftermath of a massacre - the decapitated, naked bodies of at least 51 young men found thrown into an old quarry and their heads piled on top.

The mass grave uncovered by archaeologists at Ridgeway Hill, near Weymouth in rural Dorset, is a rare discovery.

The men had all been executed, their heads hacked off with swords - but who were they?

In early June, the team from Oxford Archaeology had finished excavating the area where a £87m relief road, from Dorchester to Weymouth, is being built.

But as the diggers went in to level the banks to the side of the new road, which runs along an ancient Roman way, skulls and bones started appearing.

In total, 51 skulls have been found along with the bodies they once were attached to.

'Robust men'

Radiocarbon dating showed they were from between AD 890 and AD 1030, a time when there was considerable conflict between the resident Saxon population and invading Vikings.

David Score, Oxford Archaeology project manager, said they had several theories as to why the bodies ended up there.

They may have been invading Vikings from Scandinavia or Viking descendants who had settled in the Dane Law area in the north and east of England.

David Score and Ceri Boston from Oxford Archaeology
The bones have been taken to Oxford to be examined by specialists

It has also been suggested that they could have been feuding rival Saxon groups or Saxons killed by Vikings, but Mr Score said they were "leaning away from this (the latter) theory".

"I like the picture of a group of Vikings landing on the coast and perhaps being caught out.

"There are 50 of them coming inland to raid but then they turn around and there are 200 to 300 locals and they can't get back to their ship."

He said the bodies that were found would support this theory.

"They were all men, generally robust, healthy and strong - your typical warrior."

Most of them were in their late teens to early 20s, with a handful of them being in their 30s.

'Humiliation process'

Mr Score said they believed the men were stripped naked either before being killed or before being buried because there was no evidence of clothing, such as pins or toggles.

Ceri Boston, the team's osteologist who has been examining the bones, said: "Whether this was because their clothes were valuable or part of a humiliation process we don't know."

Mr Score said: "The only issue is that it looks like we have slightly more bodies than skulls.

"There might be one or two skulls missing. It could be that the leaders' or chiefs' skulls were taken away and perhaps put on stakes.

"Some could have been taken away as souvenirs."

Ms Boston said the bodies showed no obvious battle wounds indicating that the men were captives who were executed at about the same time.

The burial pit (Copyright: Oxford Archaeology)
The burial pit was high on the Ridgeway near ancient barrows

She said they were all decapitated with a "very sharp weapon, most probably a sword".

But, she said: "It's not a straight one slice - head off. They have all been hacked at around the head and jaw.

"It doesn't look like they were very willing or the executioners very skilled.

"We think the decapitation is messy because the person is moving around.

"One man has had his hands sliced through," she says showing the skeletal remains of the right hand which clearly shows the fingers sliced in two.

"It looks like he was trying to grab hold of the sword as he was being executed."

Examining the skeleton of another man, who she estimates was about 23 years old when he died, she also discovers that his collarbone has been sliced through.

'Execution site'

Initially, it was thought the burial site dated from the Iron Age (from BC 800) to early Roman times (from AD 43).

Experts made the earlier estimate after examining pottery found in the pit, which has since been identified as a Roman quarry.

It was disused at the time and probably picked by the executioners out of convenience rather than dug for the purpose, Mr Score said.

The burial pit (Copyright: Oxford Archaeology)
The bodies were dismembered and entangled with the heads in one pile

"This is a typical place for a Saxon execution site, on a main road and parish boundary and close to prehistoric barrows."

The next step is carrying out an isotope analysis to find out where the victims were from.

That will determine where they grew up and can help establish if they had come across the seas from Scandinavia, were from the north of England or originated from Dorset.

Once it has been established where they were from researchers will start to look at links to historical events.

Hopefully then the question of who they were and why they were killed and buried in Dorset can be answered.

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