In the year 865 the dragons came over England. A large fleet of Viking boats appeared in the Thames estuary. Their fearsome crews landed on the Isle of Thanet and immediately began plundering. But unlike in previous decades, when the British Isles had been invaded again and again by the Norse, the latter did not leave again after a fruitful summer raid, but wintered in the country. In return, they extorted horses and other livestock from its residents, reports an author of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", which was compiled shortly afterwards.
The news marks a crucial shift in Viking expansion. The “great heathen army”, as the chronicler calls it, went into outright conquests. By 874, in just nine years, it had devastated all but one of the English kingdoms, writes Viking specialist Neil Price of Uppsala University. Only Wessex under Alfred the Great could maintain its existence. Now the northerners began to settle down permanently. The Danelag came into being, the "land under Danish law" which encompassed much of eastern England.
Many of the victims of these battles were buried in Heath Wood Hill Cemetery in Derbyshire, central England. In addition to people, numerous animals were also buried there, including horses and dogs. An international team of scientists from the Universities of Durham, the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and other institutes has now published the analyzes of their bones in the open access journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers used the bones of a horse, a dog and probably a pig as a basis. In it, the strontium content was determined, a trace element that occurs in rock, soil, water, plants and animals. The values were found to be inconsistent with contemporary samples, which are clearly localized in the Heath Wood area.
The team then examined fragments of skull and thigh bones from two adults and one boy, also recovered at the cemetery. Since the dead were cremated - as is sometimes common in Scandinavia - and not given a burial as in England, the scientists assume that they were members of the "Great Pagan Army" which, according to the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ' wintered in 873 at Repton, not far from Heath Wood.
The strontium structure of a dead person matched that of the animals examined. From this, the scientists conclude that the Viking army was recruited from troops of different origins, and that “Vikings brought animals, especially horses and dogs, to Great Britain in the 9th century. Most likely, they were transported on ships along with people,” the team writes. The result contradicts the statement of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle".
However, it fits with the findings from sites that have been assigned to the conquest since 865. While the total of 59 burial mounds at Heath Wood were excavated in the 1950s, campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s uncovered a burial mound in nearby Repton. From radiocarbon dating and coinage, the burials (which are at Repton) have been dated to 872 and 873 respectively.
Of the 264 bodies recovered so far, many of the men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 45, have gun wounds. Since 20 percent of those buried were women, the "Great Pagan Army" may have resembled a "mobile community" (Neil Price) rather than an army for short-term raiding. As in Heath Wood, strontium analysis shows that the members of the troupe came from all parts of Scandinavia, some even from Britain and mainland Europe.
The fact that the "Great Army" apparently looked for different locations to spend the winter with Heath Wood and Repton also fits into the structure of the Viking campaign: groups under different leaders had loosely joined forces to form a joint enterprise that not only aimed at short-term loot, but also served as a long-term land grab.
A finding at Torksey in Lincolnshire would fit in with this, where a 55-hectare camp was excavated between 2011 and 2015, in which parts of the "Great Army" apparently wintered in 872. Numerous testimonies to crafts, workshops, trade and fishing paint the picture of a wandering community that shocked its opponents with frightening details. In Heath Wood, for example, a woman was buried with weapons, which indicates that she was an outstanding warrior. At Repton, pits filled with sacrificial ditches suggest bloody rituals in which children were apparently killed and buried in human sacrifice.
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