In the mid-ninth century, a Viking military force known as the Great Heathen Army invaded England. It marked the transition among Vikings from raiding cities to conquering them, and is considered an important historical event in the creation of England. Yet for decades, no one could find any archaeological evidence to back this up.
Now, a group of researchers at the University of Bristol in England think they might have found that evidence—i.e., the soldiers’ bones.
However, initial carbon dating placed the skeletons in earlier centuries, leading researchers to conclude that they couldn’t be Viking soldiers. It was only after adjusting for Vikings’ seafood diet that researchers were able to correctly carbon date them to the 9th century.
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The bones come from a mass grave of at least 264 skeletons at St. Wystan’s church in Repton, Derbyshire, that archaeologists first excavated in the 1970s and ‘80s. Historical records tell us the Viking army spent the winter in Repton in 873 A.D., so many thought carbon dating would show the bones came from that time period.
“When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods,” said lead archaeologist Cat Jarman, according to a University of Bristol press release. “This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate.”
Other clues support the theory that these are remnants of the Viking army. Many of these skeletons showed signs of violent injury. And near these remains, researchers also discovered an axe and several knives that dated to 872-875 A.D. About 20 percent of these skeletons were female, a fact that had previously raised doubts that this was a grave for Viking soldiers. But since their discovery, DNA evidence has proven that not all Viking soldiers were male.
The Great Heathen Army gets its name from the English Christians whose land the Vikings began invading around 865 A.D. Also known as the Great Viking Army, this military force defeated Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and established a Viking state, before losing to King Alfred when it tried to take his kingdom of Wessex. After this defeat, Alfred captured English territories that the Vikings had taken—such as London—thereby expanding his own rule.
“This was a key part in the story of how England was made,” Jarman told the BBC. “But because of the lack of physical evidence, it has not been given the attention it deserves.”
Now that this staggering mass grave from the Viking era has been made public, that may change.