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Brand new evidence of the Great Viking Army might give us a greater understanding of who these Norse warriors really were.
In 865 A.D., a coalition of unified Vikings primarily from Denmark, came together to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England. The aim was to conquer land and to seek revenge against the Anglo-Saxons who had previously fought back against Viking raids.
Arriving in East Anglia in their thousands, the army spread across the country during a 14-year campaign that stretched from Northumbria to Exeter. However, very little trace has ever been found of this historic army… until now.
New research on a mass grave of 300 bodies in Derbyshire suggests this might be a burial site of the Great Viking Army, also known as the Great Heathen Army.
A Fishy Business
The grave is not new, found at St. Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire, it was discovered in the 1980s, but, after radiocarbon dating suggested the bones dates 200 years previous, the Vikings were ruled out.
But the new study, led by University of Bristol's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, suggests fish, a stable Viking diet, played foul with the data.
“The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects,” explained Bioarchaeologist, Dr Cat Jarman. “When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods… It's a phenomenon that we only started realising,” she says.
This “fish” in the Vikings diet threw off the estimation, as the carbon in the fish dated as “much older, then that of the Viking bones.”
“If you eat fish, then some of the carbon has come from the ocean. Some of these Vikings were eating a lot of fish, so that affects carbon dating,” Jarman says.
The Evidence Has Arrived
Digging on the site took place between 1980 and 1986 with the excavations uncovering remains of just under 300 people, 80% of which were male aged 18 to 45, with many showing signs of violent injury.
Also found at the site were axes, knives, and a double grave containing two pen, one of which was buried with a pendant of Thor’s hammer and a Vikings sword.
Based on this new look at the evidence, it seems factually correct to believe that this is a burial site for the Great Viking Army. The new date estimates that the burial took place in the period of 872 to 855 A.D.
'Although these new radiocarbon dates don't prove that these were Viking army members it now seems very likely,” says Jarman, who also pointed out that this new understanding of radiocarbon dating could help “reassess and finally solve centuries old mysteries,” such as this.
For a deeper dive into the history and archaeology of the Vikings, watch The Real Vikings a brand-new series that speaks to the world’s top Viking experts, exploring what the Vikings were really like.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.