1 October 2010

The Weymouth dig - Viking Warriors or Mercenaries?

Robert Cronin, who is studying at Birkbeck University London UK (I did my half-degree there!) has offered these thoughts about the recent mass grave of Viking skeletons found in Dorset.

Fifty one beheaded bodies and skulls were found at Weymouth, Dorset, England in July 2009. They were carbon dated to c.910-c.1030 and water tests on ten sets of teeth revealed they came from a wide range of area in Scandinavia. One set of teeth came from north of the Arctic Circle, which means this person was not a Norseman, but probably one of the Saami or Finn Reindeer nomads and herders. These people were fantastic archers, which is perhaps why he was a member of the Viking crew.
Saami's and Finns do appear in some Viking sagas (and sea-battles, like at Svold in the Baltic c.1000 between Norse v Rebel Nose, Danes & Swedes *) and were used by Norse kings as their body-guards.

It is thought that this Viking crew went too far inland but got caught out. However I do not agree with this official explanation.

Vikings would usually fight to the death if cornered. There is also a problem with the archaeological explanation since some of the bodies have sword cuts to the arms. For me that sent alarm bells ringing, and I have come up with the following explanation.

I think these Vikings were mercenaries in the pay of the Anglo-Saxons, and killed by the Anglo-Saxons in an ambush or surprise attack in the night or just before dawn of Friday 13th November 1002 - otherwise known as the 'St. Brice's Day Massacre'.

The reason being that Pallig (married to Swegn of Denmark's sister) the commander of the mercenaries, was plotting to take the English throne, but were pre-emptied by the English. (See the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and William of Malmsbury for more details.) There were other massacres in Oxford and probably two Viking armies in winter quarters, under a peace treaty were wiped out in the same ordered massacre in London and another place in Essex or East Anglia.

[N.B. from Helen: Æthelred ordered all the Danish settled in England to be slaughtered. We do not know why, obviously some political or treacherous reason was behind it. In most places the order was ignored: Oxford, in particular did obey the command, however, under the leadership of Eadric Streona one of Æthelred’s “trusted” advisors. I do not agree with Robert’s theory about Pallig. He was incited as being behind a Norse attack on Exeter, Queen Emma’s holding, but it is recorded that he vehemently denied this. There is no record to say that Pallig was involved in the massacre – given that he was accused of Exeter, I would have thought there would have been a reference of some sort. In my novel The Forever Queen / A Hollow Crown I have assumed that Pallig was already dead by St Brice’s Day.]


According to my reckoning perhaps as many as 8,000 Viking mercenaries and warriors were killed. Most of these would have been killed by the population of the Danelaw. Even though they were in origin of 9th century Danish decent, they hated the Viking mercenaries and raiders because they also suffered in raids, and had to pay the lion's share of the tribute (or salary) that had to be paid to Viking raiders and mercenaries.
[Helen: the ‘heregeld’, it was not called the more common ‘Danegeld’ until much later than 1002. ]

Still 910 to 1030 is a wide range of date, and trying to tie it into a particular event is hard to prove. Most of the bodies are in their early 20's and a few are late 30's. For me that would suggest the younger men are the crew and the older men are the ship's officers.

Weymouth lies on the edge of a zone with double tides and I think this Viking crew were perhaps employed as a guard ship by the Bishop of Sherborne to keep watch and guard the coasts from other Viking raiders.

Just because 10 sets of teeth are Scandinavian, does not guarantee this is a Scandinavian ship. Since, if costs allow, the 41 other sets of teeth, might reveal a different origin. If tests prove some skulls have a southern or eastern Baltic origin this may send shock-waves through the (Dark-Age) history and archaeology academic community, as this means Slavs, Balts, Finno-Ugrians (Estonians and Finns, Saami) will have to be included in late Anglo-Saxon and Viking history, rather than excluded from it by means of a 'Berlin Wall' or 'Iron Curtain'?
A crew of 50 is closer to a Western Slav Ship than an 80 strong Danish ship.

Thank you for the contribution to this blog Robert.

comments, feedback, thoughts and ideas are welcome

This is a very good related article
A Viking Mystery

BBC History Website

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