Excavations at Repton between 1974 and 1993, near St Wystan’s Church, revealed the remains of the AD 873 Viking Great Army winter camp. Recent work by a team from the University of Bristol is shedding new light on some of the sight’s outstanding enigmas. (Image: Mark Horton)

A team from the University of Bristol, led by Cat Jarman and Mark Horton, is reanalysing the Viking site at Repton in Derbyshire and challenging previously held theories about it. Repton was first excavated between 1974 and 1993 by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle in order to investigate the Anglo-Saxon origins of St Wystan’s Church; they and the project also uncovered the AD 873 Viking Great Army winter camp (see CA 100).

Along with a double grave containing the remains of two men buried with Scandinavian artefacts, the Biddles also discovered a charnel deposit with the commingled remains of at least 264 people. Approximately 80% were determined to be male, mostly aged between 18 and 45, and many showed signs of fatal violent injury. Based on this analysis, it was thought that these might be the remains of Great Army soldiers who died in battle.

The archaeological context (including several coin finds dated between AD 872 and 875) and a few of the original radiocarbon dates from the site appeared to confirm this theory, suggesting a 9th-century date for the burials. But other 14C dates showed that some of the remains may have dated from as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. Using these results, it was then suggested that instead of being a single Viking inhumation, the deposit was likely a mix of a small number of Viking remains with reinterred burials from the Saxon cemetery, which may have been unearthed by the digging of a defensive ditch around the church.

Bristol’s recent work at Repton challenges this theory. Cat Jarman has redated samples from the Repton burials, this time accounting for marine reservoir effects (MREs). As discussed in CA 335’s ‘Science Notes’, a marine reservoir effect is caused by large amounts of ‘old’ carbon remaining in the marine system for longer than in the atmosphere. Marine organisms – and terrestrial organisms that have a primarily marine diet, including humans – thereby incorporate more of this ancient carbon, skewing their 14C results and making their remains appear older in date. By estimating the amount of marine food each individual consumed, however, and making the appropriate correction when dating the bone, a more accurate date for the Repton remains was determined.

‘Correcting the charnel and double grave burials in this way showed that the individuals yielding early dates were all affected by MREs,’ said Cat Jarman. ‘The corrected results were all completely consistent with a single date in the late 9th century and therefore with the presence of the Great Army. This new evidence fully supports the excavators’ original interpretations.’

New excavations at Repton by the team have also yielded interesting new details about the camp, and we will bring you the project’s wider story in a future issue of CA – watch this space! The full results of the radiocarbon study have recently been published in the journal, Antiquity.

This article appeared in CA 336.

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