Vikings’ skeletons found underneath one of St John’s quads are the remains of a violent “ethnic cleansing” over 1,000 years ago.
The bones, discovered in March 2008 by a team from the Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) during excavations of the newly-opened Kendrew Quadrangle, presented a mystery to the experts. The skeletons were evidently not part of an organised cemetery, but they were mostly complete, and bundled together in a mass grave.
Cracked skulls, stab wounds and evidence of burning show that between 34 and 38 young men had been brutally murdered; five had been stabbed in the back, and one had been decapitated.
Guesses that the bones could be the remains from a known slaughter of Danes in Oxford on St Brice’s Day (13th November) 1002 AD were confirmed after two years of analysis.
The massacre happened on the insistence of King Aethelred the Unready, who ordered Englishmen across his kingdom to murder their Danish neighbours.
Team leader, Sean Wallis said: “Obviously, we can never be 100 percent definite, but everything points to these skeletons being the remains of the men murdered in the St Brice’s Day massacre.”
Levels of collagen in the bones suggest that the men were from North West Europe. Analysis of the chemical composition of the bones hinted at the men being Viking settlers from Denmark, since they had eaten more fish and shellfish than Anglo-Saxons.
Written evidence from the time describes how Oxford residents rounded up the Danes, and burnt down a wooden church to which the Vikings fled for safety. The bodies were then discarded outside the city walls. Wallis said: “It is the find of my career so far.”
The future of the Viking skeletons is undecided, but for now forensic science students at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, Oxpens Road, are continuing the study of the remains.
Photo: Rachel Harrison