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Mystery Behind Mass Grave of Viking Warriors Finally Solved
By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer | February 5, 2018 07:11am ET
Archaeologists could barely believe their luck when they uncovered a mass grave in the 1980s that appeared to be filled with the remains of more than 200 warriors from the Viking Great Army. But subsequent radiocarbon dating cast doubt on this idea, showing that some of the remains dated to hundreds of years before the Viking Age.
Now, researchers have finally gotten to the bottom of the mystery. The grave does, in fact, date to the Viking Age, according to a new study. Their research shows how the Vikings' dining choices, that is, chowing down on fish, caused the earlier radiocarbon-dating blunder.
According to historical records, the Great Army spent the winter in Repton in A.D. 873-874 and attacked the king of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, sending him into exile. So, when archaeologists led by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjï¿½lbye-Biddle excavated a mass grave at St. Wystan's Church in Repton in the 1980s, they expected to find Viking remains.
One room of the burial chamber contained at least 264 people - 20 percent of them female. Viking weapons and artifacts, including an ax, several knives and five silver pennies dated to between A.D. 872 and 875, were found among the remains of men, most of them ages 18 to 45. Several men had signs that they sustained violent injuries before dying, the researchers said.
All of these signs indicated that the grave belonged to the Great Army, but "although several samples were consistent with a ninth-century date, a number dated to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., and thus seemed to belong to an earlier phase of activity," the researchers wrote in the study.
But now, new radiocarbon dating has revealed what archaeologists thought all along: the bodies in the grave date to the ninth century A.D., a date that corresponds with the Great Army's winter stay.
"The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old," study lead researcher Cat Jarman, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, said in a statement. "When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial [land] foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate."
Jarman and her colleagues also dated a double grave at the site, one of the only graves with Viking weapons in it in England, to A.D. 873-886.
The findings were published online today (Feb. 2) in the journal Antiquity.