Once upon a time, back in the 9th century, there was a predominantly Danish Viking horde of militants that led a ferocious campaign across England. Unlike other Viking groups at the time, they didn’t just set out to raid, but to conquer, gain land, and seize political power too.
Referred to by the Christian Saxons as “heathens”, they briefly settled in Repton, Derbyshire, before disappearing into the weaves of time. It’s known that they fragmented shortly after their reign of terror, in 873-874 CE, but much about them remains enigmatic.
So – what happened to the so-called Great Army? A new study published in the journal Antiquity, led by the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, has at least a partial answer. Reexamining a mass grave first discovered in the 1980s, it’s been confirmed that it dates back to the Viking era, and there’s a chance that it’s comprised of fallen members of the long-lost invaders from the north.
The Repton burial mound was analyzed shortly after its original excavation, and the bones of at least 264 men (80 percent) and women (20 percent), aged 18-45, were found beneath it. A double grave containing two heavily injured men, a Viking sword, and a Thor's hammer pendant, as well as a sacrificial grave containing the remains of four juveniles, were also found close by.
Rather uncomfortably, one unfortunate occupant of the double grave seemed to have had his severed penis replaced with a boar’s tusk to presumably accompany him into the afterlife.
Controversially, at the time, academics concluded that this mass grave was filled in over the course of several centuries. This was based on radiocarbon dating, which uses the decay of unstable carbon isotopes as a measure of time – and it revealed not a point in time, but an elongated chronology. Researchers at the time were baffled: sedimentological and archaeological evidence clearly demonstrated that the mass grave was made and filled in just once.
As time ticked on, it transpired that something may have thrown off the dating method, and Bristol bioarchaeologist Cat Jarman, a “Doctor of the Dead”, felt that a reassessment was required. As it turns out, that radiocarbon dating was thrown off by these mysterious fellows’ fish-heavy diet.