In the winter of AD 872-873 a Viking army made camp at Torksey in Lincolnshire. Dawn Hadley and Julian D Richards are leading a new project to investigate life in those winter quarters, and to discover what happened after the Norsemen moved on.
A brief, understated entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 872 records that ‘Her nam se here wintersetle Ã¦t Turcesige‘. Written in Old English, the 9th-century annal is generally translated as ‘Here the army took winter quarters at Turc’s island’. The army in question was a massive Viking war band that had been plundering England for seven years, while the location of their winter camp is modern Torksey, on the River Trent, 13km northwest of Lincoln. Despite this guide, the precise location of the camp defied detection for many years. Now, fresh survey is shedding light on how a Viking army whiled away the winter months, and even the development of Early Medieval urbanism.
The Viking force, often referred to as the Great Army (micel here) because it was so much larger than previous coastal raiding parties, first landed in East Anglia in AD 865. There the invaders quickly acquired horses, transforming it into a highly mobile force. They also found the Anglo- Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex riven with internecine strife, which the Vikings astutely exploited. Over the course of a decade they brought death and destruction to every corner of England.
First the Vikings attacked Northumbria, seizing York in 867, and then Mercia, where they besieged Nottingham. Next, battles raged across southern England as the Viking host clashed with the armies of Mercia and Wessex. In 871 the raiders were reinforced by what the Chronicle describes as a ‘summer army’ under the leadership of Guthrum. Following the death of his brother Aethelred, King Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in the same year, and bought time by making peace with the Vikings. It was against this backdrop that the army returned northwards and overwintered at Torksey.
A Viking army on the move leaves few archaeological traces. After Torksey the army’s next winter quarters were at Repton. Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle excavated there in the 1970s and 1980s, discovering the remains of a D-shaped enclosure occupying some 1.46ha. With a massive V-shaped ditch, 4m wide and 4m deep, the enclosure opportunistically reused the Mercian royal shrine of St Wigstan (now the church of St Wystan) as a gatehouse to create a strongly fortified camp (CA 100). A handful of furnished graves were also unearthed during the excavations, one containing silver pennies of the mid 870s. It is believed that the deceased were members of the Viking army who died during the winter of 873-874. As well as individual burials, the disarticulated remains of over 260 people were found in an abandoned mausoleum. Presumably at least some were also part of the Viking force.
From 1998-2000 Julian Richards excavated the site of a Viking cremation cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby (CA 184), just 4km to the southeast of Repton. Lying on higher ground overlooking the Trent, members of the great Viking army were also interred here. Such archaeological evidence all points to the Norse incursion having a huge impact on this region of midland England, but until recently little more was known about the army’s activities in the 870s. Now work on the Viking winter camp at Torksey is bringing this period into sharp focus.
Field of dirhams
The precise location of the Viking winter camp at Torksey had been a mystery until the late Mark Blackburn, then Keeper of Numismatics at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, started to record objects brought to him by metal-detector users working fields north of the modern village. Finds have been recovered from these fields for at least the last 20 years and, building on Mark Blackburn’s work, over 1,500 individual items have now been logged. Many of these can be seen on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (www.finds.org.uk). The objects range from the mundane to the spectacular and, although there are some Roman as well as Medieval and later objects, over three-quarters of the datable items are Early Medieval.
More than 300 coins have been recovered, including English and Carolingian examples and over 100 tiny copper-alloy stycas, which were struck in Northumbria. Stycas were not widely used outside Northumbria, and therefore usually only occur elsewhere as single finds. The conspicuous concentration of stycas at Torksey suggests that they were carried there by the Great Army. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the army had been in Northumbria in the months before it settled down for winter at Torksey. There are also over a hundred Arabic coins, or dirhams. These had all been cut into halves or quarters, indicating that they were retained for their silver content as bullion, rather than their face value. Such dirhams would have been brought to Torksey from the Middle East via Scandinavia. Similar concentrations of dirhams have been found at Scandinavian trading centres such as Birka (Sweden) and Kaupang (Norway).
The English coins mainly date to the 860s and early 870s, while the dirhams date to no later than the mid 860s. When allowing for the length of time it would have taken for the dirhams to be transported to Torksey, it appears that the end date of the various types of coin on the site is remarkably similar. Together this provides strong evidence for linking the deposition of the coins with the Viking army’s overwintering.
There are also over 50 pieces of chopped-up silver, including brooch fragments and ingots or partial ingots, known as hacksilver. Exceptionally, there are also over ten pieces of hackgold, and even an ingenious fake, in the form of a copper-alloy ingot plated in gold. Further evidence for a bullion economy is provided by more than 100 weights, belonging to several sets. Around half of them are of a type found in the Islamic world, and seemingly based on the weight-standard of the dirhams.
Booty was not just being amassed at the camp; it was also being processed. Many examples of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Irish copper-alloy jewellery and mounts had been chopped up for melting down. One piece of molten silver had been used to test a metal die-punch, while various lead trial-pieces bear marks that indicate specialised punches were being used to make decorative silver objects, such as arm rings. There is also a smith’s set of iron tools, now in Lincoln Museum. Spindle whorls, needles, and awls have been found, along with fishing weights suggesting the army was making the most of the freshwater fish in the adjacent River Trent. There is also evidence for a Viking war band at leisure, with over 300 lead gaming pieces having been identified. In total the assemblage is a collection of booty gathered over several years’ campaigning not only in Wessex and Northumbria, but also in Ireland and, on the Continent, in Frankia and perhaps further east.
As well as compiling a catalogue of all the known artefacts, and working with metal-detectorists to use handheld global positioning systems (GPS) to record the location of their finds, our project has tried to understand the nature and topography of the camp. All the artefacts come from six large fields immediately to the east of the River Trent and, when looked at from the air, they clearly form a natural oval, demarcating higher land overlooking the Trent’s floodplain. At its highest point, a near-vertical cliff edge plunging down to the river forms the camp’s edge. The surrounding land is still prone to flooding, and it is easy to see how it could have formed a natural island in the past, with the river on one side, and standing water or marsh on the other.
We have adopted a multidisciplinary approach to understanding how this landscape evolved, using soil science, palynology (pollen analysis), and geophysics. An extensive auger survey, accompanied by test-pitting and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating to determine the age of soil layers, has revealed that the area was originally dune-like, with windblown sands held fast by scrub and trees. The local peat and pollen sequence indicates that the trees were felled and the land converted to arable farming in the 2nd/3rd centuries AD. This undoubtedly accelerated wind erosion, levelling the dunes and creating an unstable, ever-shifting landscape. Today the farmers do not plough until they are ready to plant, or strong winds will whip away the light topsoil. By the time the Vikings arrived in 872 most of the original dunes had probably already gone.
The variable depth of windblown sand has hampered geophysics on the winter camp site. Nonetheless, an extensive magnetometer survey revealed a sub-rectangular enclosure on the east-facing slopes near the centre of our site. A concentration of Roman pottery recovered by fieldwalking in this area confirms this as a Romano-British farmstead, presumably home to the farmer responsible for the tree clearance. Elsewhere there are many features that could be Viking Age, including pits or cellared workshops. Some of the features may represent metal-working hearths and workshops. The absence of more substantial structural remains was not unexpected, as an overwintering Viking army was likely to live under canvas, rather than construct durable timber halls.
Torksey certainly did not have defensive ditches comparable to those observed at Repton. The natural defences of the cliff-face on the river side, and marshes elsewhere, would have rendered major earthworks superfluous. The lack of man-made defences does raise renewed questions about the interpretation of the D-shaped enclosure at Repton, though, which has always seemed rather small to accommodate an army and its accompanying camp-followers. Although the size of the Great Army has been much debated, Anglo-Saxon accounts number Viking forces in the thousands. While these may include face-saving exaggerations from those taking a beating from the ‘heathen host’, we believe that the lower estimates of 300-500 are too conservative. The probable total area of Torksey’s camp is c.26ha.
Over the next year we intend to excavate some of the features revealed by our magnetometer survey, as the site continues to be disturbed by modern agriculture. In one area fragments of human bone from two individuals have been brought to the surface. Radiocarbon dates show that both of these males probably died in the late 9th century. While there is no record of any fighting at Torksey, no doubt a few individuals would succumb to disease on a long campaign and, as we have seen, Viking burials are known from the winter camp at Repton. We excavated to establish whether any graves survived, but it was clear that modern ploughing had obliterated anything above the natural clay. Given the variable depth of the sand, we remain hopeful that occupation levels may survive elsewhere at the site.
Location, location, location
Why then did the Viking army choose Torksey for its winter camp? Clearly it is easily accessible from the River Trent, and boats could have been dragged out of the water onto the floodplain for repairs, while the higher ground would have offered protection from both winter floods and any Anglo-Saxon forces in the area. It is also strategically located at the junction of several land- and river-communication routes. The army must also have had an eye on the availability of winter food provisions if it was going to feed several thousand soldiers.
It is likely that at Repton, as well as the strategic and symbolic importance of the Mercian royal site, the royal and archiepiscopal food rents held in neighbouring barns would have been attractive. We have no evidence for a contemporary royal site at Torksey, although according to Domesday Book it was certainly a royal holding in 1066, when the burgesses of Torksey had the special duty of accompanying royal messengers to York with their ships. It has also been suggested that there was an Anglo-Saxon market on the river foreshore at Marton, just north of Torksey. It is possible that a major Anglo-Saxon estate centre lay nearby. Stow Park, 1km to the northeast, was one of many deer parks in this part of Lincolnshire in the Medieval period. In the 9th century it is likely to have formed part of the landholding of the Anglo-Saxon minster church at Stow. Stow was an important church, and by the 12th century the Bishop of Lincoln had a palace in StowPark, which may have been established earlier. Further afield, Lincoln itself would have been accessible via the Roman Foss Dyke Canal, which joins the Trent at Torksey Lock.
The Saxon burh
After the Viking army left, Torksey became a Saxon borough or burh. It may be one of the seven boroughs referenced in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1015, alongside the better documented ‘five boroughs’ of Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Lincoln, and Stamford. There was certainly a mint in Torksey in the early 11th century, and the site is also well known as the production site of the distinctive Torksey ware pottery. This is found on many sites in eastern and northern England from the late 9th century AD.
Two pottery kilns were excavated in a field south of the modern village in the 1960s by Maurice Barley, lecturer in continuing education at the University of Nottingham. More have been discovered in excavations elsewhere in the village, and the locations of around 15 are now known. Recently, geophysical survey in the fields to the south of the village has indicated the possibility of yet more kilns there. The pottery produced in Torksey was tempered with sand, formed on a fast wheel, and fired in up-draught kilns. This approach is very different from earlier fabrics in the region, which were coil-built — that is, using individual coils of clay to build height — and typically tempered with crushed fossil shell or rock before being fired on a bonfire.
The form and fabric, and use of the fast wheel for the first time since the Roman period, have prompted suggestions that Continental potters were responsible for this revolution in production. Similar transformations have been identified in other sites in eastern England, including Stamford (Lincolnshire) and Thetford (Norfolk). It is not certain when these new pottery industries emerged, but the fact that Continental-influenced pottery industries of later Anglo-Saxon England coincide with the areas of Scandinavian conquest and settlement is a persuasive reason to link them with the immediate aftermath of Scandinavian settlement. Torksey ware is so widely found that it was suggested there may have been kilns mimicking their produce elsewhere in northern and eastern England. Recent petrographic and chemical analysis of Torksey ware pottery from a range of sites is, however, confirming its production at Torksey itself.
We also intend to examine further Torksey’s burial record. Aside from those in the winter camp site, at least four other burial locations that seem to date to the later Anglo-Saxon period have been identified. It is hoped that reanalysis will identify whether they indicate the location of pre-Viking cemeteries (and perhaps churches), are contemporary with the period of the winter camp, or emerged later as the burh of Torksey grew. While excavating an Anglo-Saxon pottery kiln south of the village, Maurice Barley uncovered around 30 burials. These were very densely interred, but in an orderly fashion, and without evidence for coffins, other grave furniture, or grave goods. Some of the burials had been cut into an undated pit in which lime had been burned. A few sherds of Torksey ware pottery within some of the grave fills offered the only dating evidence. Recent fieldwalking has recovered further human remains in the area of this cemetery, and radiocarbon dates will be sought to confirm its date. Our geophysical survey has also revealed the presence of an enclosure that may have formed a cemetery boundary.
At the southern tip of the village ten or so adult burials were excavated in the early 1990s by Lindsey Archaeological Services and Pre- Construct Archaeology. An indication of the latest date for these graves was provided by a small pit that disturbed one of the burials and contained ten silver short-cross pennies of the late 11th century. A decade later, excavations conducted in the eastern part of the village by Lindsey Archaeological Services identified a third area of burials, some of which were in cists. One of the graves contained traces of gold thread dated to the 8th to 12th century which may have derived from high-status ecclesiastical clothing. This suggests the presence of a church nearby.
In 2007 an archaeological evaluation to the north of the village by Pre-Construct Archaeology revealed the remains of some 30 individuals. This cemetery included graves containing multiple bodies, with diverse, and somewhat disorderly, burial positions. Part of a possible church structure was also identified. There were three parish churches recorded in Torksey in the later Medieval period, but the burial record suggests that we are dealing with more than three cemeteries, and probably additional churches. There is potential for this burial record, once subject to radiocarbon dating, to help us to trace the development of the town of Torksey. It may also help to identify activity that pre-dated the Viking presence, which is notably thin within Torksey and its surrounding fields. The contrasting forms of burial in the various cemeteries may reveal something of the different groups that were buried here. Applying stable isotope evidence to trace the childhood origins of individuals buried in the different cemeteries clearly holds great potential.
From Viking camp to Saxon town
Our project is revealing the rich range of activities that occurred within Viking winter quarters. It is also apparent that even if the enclosure at Repton has been correctly reconstructed, it simply cannot represent the totality of Viking activity there. We should hardly be surprised. Occasional references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as Continental chronicles, reveal that Viking armies included many different leaders, called variously kings or jarls (earls), and that women and children sometimes travelled with them. The archaeological record suggests that they were also accompanied by craft-workers and merchants. The new archaeological insights into these sprawling winter camps, with their evidence for trade, burgeoning economic activity, and manufacturing reveal not only the impact of the Vikings, but also something of the possible processes by which they contributed to the growth and development of urban settlements.
As Gareth Williams recently noted, these winter camp sites are larger than any contemporary rural settlement, and perhaps bigger than many towns. The winter camps may have provided some of the earliest Medieval experiences of living in a densely occupied, bustling commercial and industrial settlement, paving the way for 10th-century urban expansion. We have scarcely begun our work at Torksey, but even this short period of initial analysis has convinced us of the enormous potential of the project to illuminate Viking Age England. As a next step we hope to be able to secure the funding to undertake much needed analysis on previously recovered material, as well as using targeted excavation to pursue the insights beginning to emerge.