“Off with their heads!”

Some of you may have spotted a news item on the BBC website about a recent find in Weymouth, Dorset. Fifty-one decapitated skeletons were found in a burial pit and an analysis of their teeth has now revealed the remains to be those of Scandinavian Vikings. According to the news item, archaeologists from Oxford believe the men were probably executed by local Anglo-Saxons in front of an audience sometime between AD 910 and AD 1030.

Of course, we don’t yet know the circumstances surrounding this execution – it could simply have been a raiding party gone wrong. However, there are some other intriguing possibilities, which are of interest to this project. For instance, in 1002 King Aethelred II ordered the killing of all the Danes who were living in England.  Historians are divided over whether this statement applied to those Danes that had settled during the course of the tenth century or whether it referred to those Scandinavians that were living in England as part of an agreement, such as that anticipated in the lawcode known as II Aethelred where the Viking leaders were expected to remain in England, being provisioned with all that they could want and need in return for dealing with any threats to the English people, presumably other Viking armies. Such agreements were commonly used by kings, but not always successfully.

The laws from the reigns of Aethelred (978-1016) and Cnut (1016-1035) are littered with references to the importance of loyalty and trustworthiness, and there are also some indications of what might happen to a person who had proved to be untrustworthy. For instance, an oath breaker could lose his hand for swearing falsely on a relic. Could Aethelred’s order of the killing of all the unfaithful Scandinavians in England refer to what might happen to those Viking bands that had broken their agreements with the king? If so, it is just possible that the evidence of the punishment being meted out is found with the decapitated skeletons in Dorset. Certainly, the theory that they were killed in front of an audience might indicate that it was an act of deterrence.

Wild speculations apart, I look forward to hearing more about this intriguing find in the future. However, if you’d like to add your voice to the debate or merely want to read the original news story, it can be found on http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/dorset/8563377.stm

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