A Viking Great Army winter camp and beyond
In the 1970s and 1980s, investigations at Repton revealed evidence of a 9th-century Viking army camp, as well as a mass grave thought to contain their battle dead. Now new analysis and excavations have shed vivid new light on the nature of these remains, and given hints of a possible second camp nearby. Cat Jarman reports.
In AD 865, England witnessed a step change in the Viking raids that had been harrying its shores for almost a century. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in this year that the Great Army, or micel here, first appeared in England, overwintering in East Anglia. This marked a significant escalation from earlier hit-and-run activities, and over the next decade or so this apparently new and large entity came to dominate the AngloSaxon political agenda. Beyond chronicle entries, however, physical evidence for the Great Army’s activities was limited – until relatively recently.
The first archaeological evidence to be securely attributed to the Great Army came in the 1970s and 1980s, when Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle excavated at Repton in Derbyshire (see CA 100), which is named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the site of the 873-874 Great Army winter camp. Repton’s wealthy doublehouse monastery, founded in the late 7th century, had been a burial place for the Mercian royal dynasty, and its fall into Viking hands was a decisive loss, leading to the kingdom being taken over and Ceolwulf, a puppet king, placed on the throne.
Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle’s extensive excavations uncovered a large defensive ditch abutting the Anglo-Saxon church of St Wystan’s. Following geophysical surveys to the east and the excavation of further ditch-cuts to the north-west (at the bluff overlooking the former course of the River Trent), the ditch was reconstructed into a D-shaped enclosure – a distinctive shape that is reminiscent of fortifications at Scandinavian towns such as Aarhus and Hedeby, albeit on a smaller scale.
Adding to this picture, a number of burials with distinctly Scandinavian grave goods were discovered, both within and outside the enclosure, including one interment (labelled G529) that included five coins dating to 872-875 and a double grave of two men (G511 and G295). The latter burial had a prominent location in the corner between the east end of the church’s north aisle and its crypt, and was covered with a rectangular stone setting that included several broken fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross shaft. Might this suggest privileged status for the pair? The older man, G511, was buried with a Thor’s hammer pendant, a Petersen type M (Viking) sword, and several other artefacts, but his identity, and that of his companion, remained a mystery.
A GREAT ARMY GRAVE
There were more skeletons to come. West of the church, in the vicarage garden, Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle excavated a shallow mound that was found to cover a partially destroyed Anglo-Saxon building containing the commingled remains of at least 264 people. The building had most likely been part of the monastic complex, later repurposed into a burial chamber; some of the bones had originally been stacked charnel-wise along the walls, which shows that they were secondary burials moved from elsewhere.
Historical records suggest the deposit was disturbed several times by small-scale antiquarian investigations from the 17th century onwards, but it was still possible to unpick some details about the mound’s occupants. Osteological analysis showed that, where sex could be determined, 80% were men and 20% women, mostly aged between 18 and 45 years old. Among the bones, numerous artefacts linking the mound to Repton’s Viking occupation were found, including an axe, several knives, and five silver pennies dating to 872-874, so the charnel was interpreted as Great Army war dead. Biddle and KjølbyeBiddle proposed that it had once been arranged around a central burial, as described in a 17th-century antiquarian report. They suggested that this focal figure could have been the evocatively nicknamed Ivar the Boneless, one of the leaders of the Great Army and erstwhile ruler of the Irish Sea Vikings, who died at an unknown location in AD 873.
Despite extensive archaeological evidence for the Great Army’s presence in Repton, though, questions remained over this interpretation. A set of radiocarbon dates obtained from the charnel was particularly problematic – while some of the bones did fit a 9th-century date, others dated to as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, meaning that they could not all relate to this episode. More recent discoveries of other Viking winter camps like that at Torksey in Lincolnshire (CA 281) also cast doubt on whether the Repton enclosure really represented the 873 camp in its entirety. Would it not be too small to accommodate a raiding force of thousands? And why had excavations at Repton not produced the distinctive artefacts seen at other camps, like Arab dirhams, lead gaming pieces, and evidence of craftworking activities? These apparent issues were a conundrum – but new bioarchaeological evidence and recent fieldwork in and around Repton (drawn from my PhD thesis and ongoing research) are now shedding intriguing new light on the events that unfolded on this site in the late 9th century.
NEW TALES FROM OLD BONES
In 2018, we published a new set of radiocarbon dates obtained from the charnel and individual graves in the journal Antiquity (see also CA 336). One of the main reasons behind this study was to investigate whether a phenomenon known as Marine Reservoir Effect could have caused the dating inconsistencies described above. Consumption of seafood can make radiocarbon dates from artificially ‘too old’ because carbon is incorporated into human tissues through an individual’s diet. If he or she only consumes land-based foods, the carbon we date has come directly from the atmosphere. However, carbon from marine environments has circulated in the ocean for an average of 400 years before it gets into the food chain – so if seafood forms a major part of someone’s diet, this means that we end up dating carbon that is considerably older than a land-based equivalent.
After correcting for this through individual estimates of fish consumption, we were able to show conclusively that the charnel remains are indeed all consistent with a 9th-century date: those individuals who had appeared to pre-date the Great Army had all consumed a considerable amount of seafood in life. This corroborates Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle’s original interpretation that these were Viking war dead – but radiocarbon dates are not enough to secure an identification. During my research into the Repton remains, I also carried out a broad range of isotope analyses to investigate their geographical origins and dietary differences. While these are ongoing, strontium results from the charnel show a diverse group with very mixed origins, few of whom could have grown up locally.
Unfortunately, because of overlaps in strontium-isotope ranges in many parts of northern Europe, it is not currently possible to pinpoint precisely where these people grew up. They all fit locations across Scandinavia, although we cannot completely exclude – with the exception of a few cases – childhoods in the British Isles. So far it seems the bioarchaeology can only support, but not prove, a Great Army interpretation. Nevertheless, a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds would fit well with current thinking on the makeup of late 9th-century Viking armies. Rather than being mono-ethnic groups deriving from a single location, the consensus is that these were composite groups of people from widespread origins that combined and coalesced when required.
QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY
The latest results from an ongoing ancient DNA collaboration have proven particularly exciting. Genome-wide aDNA has been extracted from several individuals from the charnel, as well as the double grave, and while the full results will be published later this year, we can now show that the two individuals in graves 511 and 295 are related in the first degree on the paternal side. This means they are either father and son or half-brothers. While double graves of this kind are common across the Viking world, this is the first time that a direct family relationship has been proven in this way. Recent osteological analysis by Dr Bob Stoddart showed that the older man was at least 35-45 years old at the time of death and the younger man 17-20 years old, which makes a father-and-son relationship especially likely.
Although G295 and G511 were covered by a joint stone setting, the stratigraphy of the graves shows that the former was buried slightly later – Stoddart suggests an interval of a few weeks to a maximum of a very few years. What is clear, though, is that both men had suffered violent trauma at the time of their death. G511’s injuries were particularly extensive, including a deep cut to the left femur that is likely to have severed his left testicle and penis – this may explain why a boar’s tusk had been placed between his thighs in the grave. He had also suffered two spear wounds just above his eye – very likely combat injuries; Stoddart’s analyses suggest that marks across his skull could mean he was wearing a helmet when he died. There were also clues to how his body had been treated after death: his skeleton showed evidence of evisceration (removal of internal organs), possibly carried out postmortem in order to prepare his corpse for transportation, as removing the intestines helps delay decomposition.
Strontium- and oxygen-isotope analysis shows that both G511 and G295 grew up in a similar location, with southern Scandinavia, possibly Denmark, a good fit. Both men also show a change in diet in their later life, from marine towards more terrestrial foods, possibly an indicator of a mobile lifestyle as might be expected for two warriors. But who were they?
At present, no DNA tests or bioarchaeological methods can prove G511 and G295’s identities. However, with an extensive range of osteological data, coupled with detailed historical accounts of the significant protagonists who were active in the British Isles during the Viking Age, it is possible to formulate a new hypothesis. Our new radiocarbon dates have narrowed down the death of G511 and G295 to 873-886, with a date towards the start of this range more likely based on the archaeological context. In this period, there is one father-and-son pair known from historical sources that matches the two individuals rather well.
Olaf (also known as Amlaib) appears in the Annals of Ulster as one of the Viking kings active in Ireland and Britain from 853 onwards, becoming a dominant person in Irish affairs during the 850s and 860s. He is thought to have been the brother of Ivar the Boneless, and the two campaigned in northern Britain in 870-871, famously besieging Dumbarton Rock before returning to Ireland. Olaf then came back to Scotland, where he was killed in 874 by King Constantine. The following year, Olaf’s son Eysteinn was killed by Halfdan at an unknown location. This is thought to be the Halfdan named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being present at Repton in 873; he was Olaf’s brother, and therefore Eysteinn’s uncle. The combination of historical circumstances, osteological evidence, and bioarchaeological data make Olaf and Eysteinn plausible candidates for G511 and G295.
If the new bioarchaeological data strongly hint at the Great Army’s presence in Repton, new excavations in the vicarage garden have provided more evidence for their winter camp. Since 2016, my co-director Mark Horton and I have spent three seasons digging to the west of St Wystan’s church, hoping to ascertain whether the camp could extend beyond the proposed D-shaped enclosure. Our work has uncovered extensive evidence of Viking activity in the form of several lead gaming pieces, a Viking arrow, a fragment of an axe head, ship nails, and signs of craftworking activities. We also found a broken-up fragment of an Anglo-Saxon crosshead and large numbers of shattered quern stones, which match those discovered among the curb surrounding the charnel mound. Most strikingly, these finds were also associated with a 1m-wide gravel path leading right up towards the mound’s entrance. But there were further finds to come.
Last year, a new trench in the south-west of the garden (Trench 70) yielded an enigmatic feature whose purpose we have yet to determine: a setting of large stones, filled in with smaller rubble. While we do not have precise dating evidence for this feature yet, stratigraphically it appears to be contemporary with early medieval finds and at the same depth as the winter-camp deposits further east. There may have been an outer line of larger stones on both sides of the feature, although its north edge has been disturbed by a later ditch. We have not yet reached a final interpretation of this find – it does not appear to have any structural purpose – but it does bear several tantalising similarities to boat and ship settings found in mortuary contexts across the Viking diaspora.
In particular, the stone setting above the Viking Age grave at Balladoole on the Isle of Man is very similar in shape, although twice the size of our feature. No evidence of a grave has so far been found underneath the Repton stones, though conditions for organic preservation in this part of the site are exceptionally poor. Could this have been a boat setting that formed part of a larger funerary landscape? Interestingly, a shield boss that was discovered on the site in a disturbed context in the 1980s can now be reclassified as belonging to the Irish Sea type A group defined by Stephen Harrison. This matches other examples found on the Isle of Man, Dublin, and in Cumbria, which suggests further connections between Repton and the Irish Sea region.
FOREMARK: A SECOND VIKING CAMP?
Just when events at Repton were beginning to seem a little clearer, a new discovery changed the picture once again. Last year, I was put in contact with two metal-detectorists who had been active in the local area for some time. Their finds from a series of fields a few miles downriver at Foremark included large numbers of lead gaming pieces, along with fragmented Islamic coins, polyhedral weights, and a wide range of Saxon and Scandinavian brooches and strap-ends. Could this suggest the discovery of a new and previously unknown Viking camp?
LiDAR maps show the site to be located by what is likely to have been an earlier course of the River Trent, near a steep bluff: a suitable location for drawing up boats as well as for accommodating a large army. Crucially, it is also only a few hundred metres from Heath Wood, home to at least 60 Scandinavian burial mounds representing the only largescale Viking Age cremation cemetery known in England (CA 184). The name ‘Foremark’ itself has Scandinavian origins, deriving from the Old Norse forn (‘old’) and verk (‘work’; meaning defensive fortification). Was the clue in the name the whole time? Several other nearby villages also have names with Old Norse elements – Ingleby, Bretby, Swarkestone – which indicates there might have been an ongoing Scandinavian presence in this area.
In the Domesday Book, Foremark is recorded as having eight households, but until recently nothing was known about its earlier medieval history. In October 2018, though, I carried out excavations with co-directors Mark Horton and Henry Webber in a paddock bordering the fields that had been metal-detected. As this area had not been ploughed but had clear signs of surviving ridge-and-furrow, we wanted to search both for further signs of the Viking camp and for evidence of an early medieval settlement. Most of our trenches yielded little evidence of occupation, apart from a single lead gaming piece and a fragmented but probably Anglo-Saxon coin. However, one trench proved far more successful.
After targeting a magnetometer anomaly and a very strong metaldetector signal, we found a promising deposit at the eastern end of the site. This contained several early medieval artefacts, including agricultural implements in the form of a large iron ploughshare and a billhook. The surrounding area showed clear evidence of burning, with large pieces of charcoal and what looked to be an in-situ piece of wood, along with orange-coloured sediments. We believe this may represent traces of a burntdown building, and a radiocarbon date obtained from one of the large pieces of charcoal associated with the ploughshare places the deposit in the late 9th or early 10th century (1120±30BP or 862-994 cal AD at 91.8% probability). Intriguingly, several hoards of similar agricultural implements have recently come to light elsewhere, including a set of three ploughshares almost identical to that from Foremark found near the Viking camp in Torksey (CA 347). However, the significance of such finds is not yet understood.
With such promising hints of the site’s archaeological potential, we will now be continuing work at Foremark to uncover more of both the possible settlement and the Viking camp, and I am working with the detectorists to ensure all finds – some of which were discovered quite some time ago – are as well recorded and documented as possible. Watch this space!
THE VIKINGS IN REPTON AND BEYOND
Taken together, the current evidence fully supports the idea that the Repton charnel contains Viking battle dead who had been given a temporary burial elsewhere and were subsequently moved to a communal grave. The mound covering their bones would have formed a significant monument and marker in the landscape, probably visible from the river, and along with the high-status burials near the church these funerary elements should be seen as deliberate statements. Taking over the former royal burial place of the Mercians and incorporating destroyed Christian stonework into new funerary monuments is a clear assertion of political power and control of the land. These acts also suggest that Viking use of Repton was not limited to a single winter, but rather shows an intention to leave a long-lasting legacy within the landscape.
The possible links to the Irish Sea Vikings suggested by the proposed identifications of G295 and G511 and the new archaeological evidence represent exciting new directions for future research, while another promising avenue to pursue is the relationship between the camps at Repton and Foremark. At present we don’t have precise dates for the latter site, but the assumption is that both relate to the 873-874 overwintering. If the two camps are contemporary, this could explain the apparent lack of space for a large army in Repton, as they could plausibly have served slightly different functions. It is very possible that part of the army overwintered in Repton, guarding the conquered monastery, with another fraction based in Foremark: this could, for instance, explain why items like dirhams and trading weights have only been found at the latter location.
In light of the burials at Heath Wood and the place-name evidence, it is also plausible that Foremark became a Scandinavian settlement subsequent to its use as a Viking camp. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after leaving Repton in 874, the Great Army divided and, a few years later, one half struck a deal with Alfred the Great, splitting England into two portions under Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian rulership. Around the same time, Mercia was divided between Ceolwulf and the Vikings, and with the new discoveries at Foremark in mind, this could strongly support a subsequent population remaining – or coming back – to settle in this area. If correct, we could finally be closer to finding a link between the early Viking raiders and the first permanent Scandinavian settlers in England.
C. jarman, M. Biddle, T. Higham, and C. Bronk Ramsey (2018) ‘The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel’, Antiquity 92(361): 183199; https://doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.196
Two exclusive podcast interviews with Dan snow about Repton and Foremark are at https://historyhit.com/vikings.
Follow Cat via the hashtag #greatheathenhunt on Twitter, and via @CatJarman on Instagram for updates from the field.