In March of 2010, scientists confirmed that the 54 decapitated bodies unearthed in Dorset a year previously were Vikings. Isotope analysis on their teeth proved that they had grown up in Scandinavia, one of them in the Arctic circle, no less. The theory researchers were working from at the time was that the deceased were members of a Viking raiding party who had been decapitated by Saxon defenders.
University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Britt Baillie has a new theory on who they might have been. Based on further analysis of the bones and on documentary research, Dr. Baillie posits that these Vikings were an elite force of mercenaries executed not by Saxons, but by other Viking mercenaries, perhaps even at the behest of English King Aethelred the Unready.
Mass executions from the medieval period are not common finds, and there have been several other discovered from Aethelred’s reign. Aethelred had been paying tribute (the Danegeld) to Danish kings since they defeated his forces at the Battle of Maldon in 991. The Viking raids didn’t stop, though, and by 1002, Aethelred was sick of it. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the king’s councilors told him the Danes would kill them all and steal his kingdom so he ordered all Danes in England be slain on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002. The St. Brice’s Day Massacre, as it would become known, saw Anglo-Saxon mobs tear through their communities, killing Danish settlers.
The Dorset mass grave, however, was not the work of a mob. It was a deliberate execution and decapitation only of men of fighting age, and most interestingly for Dr. Baillie, these men weren’t decapitated by a blade to the back of the neck. They were decapitated from the front, just like the captured warriors in the Saga of the Jomsvikings, an Icelandic saga about a quasi-legendary fighting force of Viking mercenaries who were reputedly the fiercest of all Viking warriors.
The captured Jomsviking in the saga is glad to make sweet love to death’s steely blade, but only face to face. “I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.”
While historians will probably never agree conclusively about who the men were, Baillie’s analysis draws her to the conclusion that they may have been Viking mercenaries who modelled themselves on, or behaved in a similar way to the legendary Jomsvikings – a brotherhood of elite killers whose strict military code involved never showing fear, and never fleeing in the face of the enemy unless totally outnumbered.
Allegedly founded by Harald Bluetooth, the Jomsvikings are thought to have been based at a stronghold called Jomsborg on the Baltic coast. At a time when Vikings were feared across Europe, they were known as perhaps the fiercest of them all – a reputation which even earned them their own saga.
“The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups,” Baillie said.
One of the victims had filed teeth, a rare Scandinavian practice which might have been an indication of high status or a way to look extra scary while making a war face.
So even if the Dorset Vikings weren’t Jomsvikings, they may have been modelling themselves after them, and their executioners apparently respected that, hence the theory that they were Vikings as well. Since Aethelred was in the practice of pitting different bands of Danes against each other, even ones he had hired himself, that’s certainly plausible.
The discovery of the grave and analyses of the human remains are documented in a National Geographic special that aired in the US in December. It was luridly titled Viking Apocalypse for the sensation of it, I suppose, but despite that and the tedious shouty reenactments, it was actually fairly science-heavy. Sadly there’s no video available on the website any more, but the show is still airing in the UK. You can catch it next on Sunday, January 29 at 7:00P.M.
Here’s a short clip from the beginning of the show with some excellent footage of the mass grave.