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Mystery of Weymouth Viking Grave Joins One of the Largest Museums in the World


7:43am 5th March 2014

A major exhibition exploring the world of Vikings at the British Museum will feature some local relics.

Skeletons of Vikings found in a mass grave during the excavation of Weymouth Relief Road in 2009 will feature in the display.

Visitors will be able to walk around a specially reconstructed pit to see the decapitated bodies lying in their original positions.

After they were found the skeletons were carefully lifted and removed to the laboratory, experts undertook forensic studies of the bones and applied a raft of scientific techniques to gain as much information as possible about who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their dramatic and gruesome demise.

The results suggested that the burial took place at the time of, or shortly after, the men's execution which had probably been performed at the graveside. Using methods normally employed to investigate modern day mass graves, it was estimated that between 47 and 52 individuals were present. The individuals may have been stripped of their clothes prior to burial, but were unbound. Defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls imply that not all men died without a struggle. Wounds to necks and shoulders indicate that the process of decapitation was no less chaotic, and in some cases several blows of the sword were required to remove the heads.

Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain, but originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia.

Dr Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, who carried out the work on the teeth, said: "These results are fantastic. This is the best example we have ever seen of a group of individuals that clearly have their origins outside Britain."

Examination of the bones indicated that most of the men were 18-25 years old. The youngest was in his early or mid teens, while the oldest was over 50. One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation. The phenomenon has previously been recorded in Scandinavia, but until now was unknown in the UK.

Curiously, many of the individuals suffered from infections and physical impairment, and none of showed convincing evidence for previous war wounds; hardly the picture of an elite group of Viking warriors. The burial was radiocarbon dated to AD 970-1025, which places it in the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. This was a time in England of Viking raids, war, hostages and retribution, but ultimately questions of how the men came to be in Dorset remain open.

In recognition of its global importance, the burial will feature in 'Vikings: life and legend', a major exhibition exploring the world of the Vikings from 6 March to 22 June 2014 at the British Museum. Visitors will be able to see a display of some of the skeletons and learn more about the individuals buried and the ground-breaking investigation.

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