The mass burial took place at a time when the English were battling Viking invaders, say archaeologists who are now trying to verify the identity of the slain.
The dead are thought to have been war captives, possibly Vikings, whose heads were hacked off with swords or axes, according to excavation leader David Score of Oxford Archaeology, an archaeological-services company.
Announced in June, the pit discovery took place during an archaeological survey prior to road construction near the seaside town of Weymouth
Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. “The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” Score said.
The bodies show few signs of other trauma, suggesting the men were alive when beheaded.
One victim appears to have raised an arm in self-defense: “The hand appears to have had its fingers sliced through,” Score noted.
The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display, the team suggests.
Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.
Even if their weapons and valuables had been taken “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.
“They look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”
The burial has been radiocarbon-dated between A.D. 890 and 1034.
During this time England was split between Anglo-Saxons, in the south and west, and Danish settlers, in the north and east.
The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who colonized England beginning in the 400s; founded the country on the island of Great Britain; and gave rise to the English language. Around the time of the mass burial, the Celts were still largely in control of the non-English regions of Great Britain: Scotland and Wales.
“You’ve got Danish and Saxon armies fighting backwards and forwards across England,” Score said.
The early English also faced the threat of longship-sailing Vikings, Scandinavian seafarers who pillaged coastal regions.
“It’s not just the odd ship” attacking, Score said. For example, “there’s a documented account of 94 longships attacking London at one point, and then they work their way down the coast.”
The team hopes chemical analysis of the buried men’s teeth will show whether they grew up in Britain or Scandinavia. (Related: “Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows.”)
Wear and tear on the bones could also help reveal whether the executed were Viking oarsmen, since “strong physical exertion in a particular direction does affect the bones,” Score said.
“It might be possible to say they are overdeveloped in their upper body and arm strength … people who are doing a lot of heavy rowing.”
Anglo-Saxon Slayers, Viking Victims
The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop hints that a local group carried out the killings, Score said.
“Locations like this are classic sites for executions in late Saxon and medieval times,” he added.
Vikings, he said, had a different M.O.
“If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach,” he said.
Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, suspects the executed men were indeed Vikings.
“I would say this was a Viking raiding party which had been trapped,” he said.
“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender.”
There was little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.
“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said
Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.
But Vikings had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side.
“Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.
“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”