Forty years ago, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed in a mass grave in an English village. Bioarchaeologist Cat Jarman believes these bones are the last remains of the “Great Heathen Army,” a legendary Viking fighting force that invaded England in the ninth century and has long been lost to history. Armed with the latest scientific methods, Cat’s team uncovers extraordinary human stories from the front line, including evidence of women fighters and a lost warrior reunited with his son in death. (Premiered May 22, 2019)
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Lost Viking Army
PBS Airdate: May 22, 2019
NARRATOR: Forty years ago, this sleepy village in the heart of England was the scene of a gruesome discovery…
PROFESSOR MARK HORTON (Archaeologist): Crammed in was, literally, this much of solid human bone.
NARRATOR: …nearly 300 battle-scarred skeletons. Could these be the last remains of a legendary Viking army that swept through medieval Britain?
SØREN SINDBÆK (Archaeologist, Aarhus University): Wherever the Vikings go, they don’t play by the rules.
NARRATOR: No one has been able to prove it, until now.
CAT JARMAN (Bioarchaeologist): We can get an awful lot of information out of these bones
NARRATOR: Archaeologists are on the trail of the Great Viking Army. It took Britain by force, helping to shape its laws, language and very identity, but left little trace on the landscape.
CAT JARMAN: I think we are in the right place. We just have to work out how to, to find the Vikings!
NARRATOR: Researchers unleash a boat full of modern-day Vikings, to retrace their voyage.
BOAT CREW: Heave!
NARRATOR: Using the latest scientific methods, the team pieces together extraordinary personal stories…
BOB STODDART (Pathologist): This was brought down with great violence.
NARRATOR: …unearthing what could be one of the biggest Viking sites in Britain.
MARK HORTON: One must imagine thousands of Vikings, covering this whole landscape.
CAT JARMAN: This is what we’re looking for!
MARK HORTON: Yay!
NARRATOR: Lost Viking Army, right now, on NOVA.
For 40 years, the sleepy village of Repton, in central England, has harbored an extraordinary archaeological mystery. This garden, in the shadow of the village church, is riddled with ancient graves.
CAT JARMAN: I think this might break in two pieces.
NARRATOR: It’s still giving up bodies today.
CAT JARMAN: Lovely. There we go.
That’s really lovely.
NARRATOR: The first human remains were discovered here in the 1970s, under this mound of earth.
MARK HORTON: So, the mound was just about here. It’s now been turned into a rather nice barbeque area. Of course, the excavation completely removed the mound.
NARRATOR: Archaeologist Mark Horton was a 26-year-old grad student, supervising the excavation of the mound, when he was shocked to uncover what lay beneath: a mass grave.
MARK HORTON: Crammed in was, literally, this much of solid human bone. One kind of felt, it was almost like “crunch, crunch, crunch,” as one moved across this sea of human charnel, human debris.
NARRATOR: The archaeologists recorded the position of every bone and calculated that the grave contained the remains of at least 264 people.
Many bones bore vicious scars, suggesting the victims had died in battle. But who were they? Where did they come from? And why are so many buried in this garden?
Clues began to emerge, including silver coins found with the bodies, which the archaeologists were able to date precisely to the 870s.
This was a violent period in the history of England. A great invasion force terrorized the land. Christian monks charted the attacks of this “Heathen Army” in a contemporary text, called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
VOICE READING FROM ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE: The raiding army burned and demolished, killed abbot and monks…
NARRATOR: In the year 873, the marauders swept into Repton. These heathens were Vikings.
Very little archaeological evidence of the existence of their Great Army has ever been found, but that may be about to change. Could the bones discovered in the grounds around Repton Church be the remains of the Viking war dead?
One skeleton, buried in a prominent position, away from the mass grave, yielded compelling evidence.
MARK HORTON: If I can remember, the warrior grave was located just about here. The head was to the west. The body was laid out, so, probably, his feet were just about here.
In fact, when we excavated it, we thought he had three legs, because one of them was a sword.
NARRATOR: The design of the sword was typically Viking. And a special piece of jewelry found in the grave—a silver hammer of Thor, the Norse god of thunder—suggested this was a Viking warrior.
MARK HORTON: Viking warrior graves are very unusual, and one that’s quite so richly furnished is very rare in, in Britain. It seems that this was a man of great significance.
Are you there? Are you holding on firmly?
MARK HORTON: Now, you won’t let me fall over?
NARRATOR: Mark Horton has been pondering the mysteries of the Repton graves for four decades. But, in 2012, one of his former grad students took the lead on the case. Scandinavian-born bioarchaeologist, Cat Jarman has been trying to prove that the skeletons at Repton really are the remains of the Viking army.
CAT JARMAN: It’s like a forensic exercise. You start with just a completely unknown skeleton, and then you, you really start to build up a story around this person, by looking at everything from age and sex and cause of death, to things like diet and D.N.A. And then we can really put this person into that bigger picture that we’re looking at.
NARRATOR: As part of her investigation, Cat’s been reexamining the bones of the warrior figure, to see if she can find clues to his identity.
She’s met up with pathologist, Bob Stoddart. He first analyzed the skeleton almost two decades ago.
BOB STODDART: This was a chap who was a professional soldier. He was tough; he kept fighting when he was already severely injured.
NARRATOR: The number of injuries suggests to Bob that the attackers were intent on completing this kill. On the left thighbone, a deep V-shaped gash implies he’d been struck by a heavy-bladed weapon.
BOB STODDART: He was stopped by being hit with one of these. And this was brought down with great violence into his groin. This wound would have cut through his penis, would have removed at least one testes.
CAT JARMAN: So this was very dramatic end?
BOB STODDART: Well, this isn’t quite the end.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, right, okay.
BOB STODDART: There’s more. Because he’s now down, but not yet quite out, they now set about his head.
NARRATOR: Bob believes that this large fracture to the cranium was the result of a heavy blow that smashed the man’s helmet into his skull and dislodged the visor protecting his face.
CAT JARMAN: So, he’s wearing a helmet? It’s sort of all askew…
BOB STODDART: All tilts.
CAT JARMAN: …tilted, which means that they can then attack.
BOB STODDART: They attack through the eyehole of his faceguard, but the eyehole has risen up. He was stabbed with, probably, a spear, which went through the skull, through the brain; a wound which could not be survived for more than a few seconds.
NARRATOR: As his men laid the dead warrior to rest, they attempted to restore his mutilated body in preparation for the afterlife, by using the tusk of a boar.
CAT JARMAN: The boar’s tusk was placed right between his legs…
BOB STODDART: Yes.
CAT JARMAN: …presumably to replace what he’d lost. So, there’s some care in this, thinking about what he would need. Presumably, he’d want his penis in the afterlife.
BOB STODDART: Yes, if he was going to enjoy Valhalla fully.
NARRATOR: The extraordinary measures his enemies took to kill him and the special care his comrades took burying him suggests that this was no ordinary warrior. Was he one of the leaders of the Great Viking Army? Cat’s taken samples from the warrior’s teeth, in the hope his 1,100-year-old D.N.A. will reveal some answers.
If Repton is the final resting place of the Viking war dead, what brought the army to this remote spot?
In the ninth century, England was under the control of the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes that had colonized the country, splitting it into several kingdoms. The most powerful was Mercia, with Repton its political and religious center.
Hidden beneath the village church is an ancient Mercian site of unique importance.
MARK HORTON: This is the most atmospheric space to have survived from, from Anglo-Saxon England. It’s really the only substantial architectural remains from the great Mercian monastery that was built here, from the late seventh century onwards: probably the richest monastery in Mercia and the burial place of the kings of Mercia.
NARRATOR: Saints were also interned in the monastery that stood here, which grew rich from tributes paid by Christian pilgrims.
MARK HORTON: The Vikings would have been attracted here, because it was such a wealthy place. It would have been, literally, dripping in precious stones and gold and silver.
NARRATOR: The Viking army drove out the Saxon king, Burgred, sacked the monastery and buried their dead in the consecrated ground. But who were these ruthless invaders?
The Vikings first emerged almost a century earlier. They were comprised of disparate tribes from the vast region we now know as Scandinavia.
SØREN SINDBÆK: The people that we call the Vikings certainly would not have thought of themselves as a unified people, but they had one thing in common, though. They had the language which was mutually intelligible. So, a person from the far north of Norway could actually speak to a Dane or to a Swede. That’s a huge benefit. We call that language, “Old Norse.”
But what really makes the Vikings, “the Vikings” are their ships. You can’t go from one place in Scandinavia to another without them. And for this reason, this is really a maritime culture. Everything you do is connected to the sea.
NARRATOR: At Roskilde in Denmark, longships are still constructed in the Viking way, using techniques derived from ancient Viking vessels excavated from the mud of the estuary.
Cut marks on the original planks reveal how the boat builders worked. Instead of cutting across the wood grain with a saw, they used an axe to shape the planks, following undulations in the natural wood fibers.
SØREN NIELSON (Head of Boat Building, Viking Ship Museum): One of the keys for this way of constructing a boat is that you follow the grain, you follow the fibers in the trees. I’ve got a piece here, so you can see the long fibers. And when you try to cut it, it’s not, it’s not easy, as you can see.
NARRATOR: Long, unbroken fibers gave great strength and flexibility to the planks.
SØREN NIELSON: In the beginning, we were a bit afraid of the flexibility, because you, you know, of the big schooners and ships from today, it’s stiff and, and very strong. But, but the strength is the flexibility.
NARRATOR: The huge forces exerted on the ships by pounding waves were absorbed by the flexible hulls. With so many strong, seafaring ships, parties of Vikings began to brave the North Sea and conduct lightening raids on English coastal communities.
SØREN SINDBÆK: People return from expeditions to the British Isles with huge treasure, and nobody in Scandinavia can just ignore that. If you’re a chieftain, you need to reward your warriors. You need to reward them better than the neighboring chieftain.
The moment that somebody starts this new game in town, bringing ships across the North Sea, raiding foreign lands, it’s all over. Everybody has to go. So, within one generation, we go from a few isolated raids, to large armies.
NARRATOR: There could be another reason why the disparate tribes started to unite. By the mid-ninth century, Scandinavia’s barren land may have struggled to support its growing populations. Fertile England must have looked alluring.
SØREN SINDBÆK: Resources in Scandinavia are under pressure. If you’re the younger son in the family, chances are that you’re not going to set up your own farm; there’s no new land to be taken that’s worth having.
As the Viking age progresses, what they’re really after becomes not the things to be taken home, but the things that you can gain out there, the land.
NARRATOR: United under the banner of conquest, the largest-ever force of Vikings crossed the North Sea to England in the year 865. This time, it was no smash-and-grab raid, they had come to stay.
Because the Viking Army left so little physical evidence behind, historians have to make educated guesses about how they operated.
MARK HORTON: Hi, Vikings! We’ve chosen a windy old day, haven’t we?
NARRATOR: So, Mark Horton is joining a group of reenactors, who try to get into the heads of the enigmatic Norsemen by living like them.
MARK HORTON: Have you ever taken a longship on the Trent before?
STEVE ETHERIDGE (Longboat Captain): No, it’s going to be a bit of a new experience for us.
MARK HORTON: By my calculation, it’s probably the first time in a thousand years.
STEVE ETHERIDGE: Cast off aft, please.
NARRATOR: Under the command of Captain Steve Etheridge, these enthusiasts wear meticulously recreated clothing, carry replica weapons and sail in a reconstructed longship.
MARK HORTON: That’s the local sailing club. I don’t think they’ve seen one of these things for some time.
VIKING REENACTOR: Let’s hope they don’t remember last time, eh?
NARRATOR: No one knows how big the Viking fleet was, but the Chronicle tells us one flotilla alone contained 250 longships. For eight years the Vikings used the river network to take their bloody campaign across eastern England. Then, in 873, they sailed into the very center of the country, up the River Trent, to Repton.
Mark’s crew is retracing the last leg of that journey.
MARK HORTON: It’s like a sort of open gate into Britain.
STEVE ETHERIDGE: Absolutely.
MARK HORTON: We’re just one ship, but if you imagine 50, 100 of these vessels. We’re talking about three miles’ worth of ships, moving their way up the Trent.
STEVE ETHERIDGE: It would have been terrifying. It’s, it’s a city on the move, not just an army. You’re bringing everything that you need with you.
If you want to move thousands of people, supplies and stores and weaponry, these are the motorways of the Dark Ages. This is the way into the heart of England. This is how you conquer England, up this river.
NARRATOR: The Chronicle records numerous battles between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons along the way.
VOICE READING FROM ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE: King Æthelred fought against the raiding army; and great slaughter was made on either side.
NARRATOR: At first, these written accounts appeared to be corroborated by the battle-scarred bones found at Repton, but in the 1990s, when the archaeologists carbon-dated those bones, the results were shocking. Many of the bodies appeared to be a century too old to belong to the Great Viking Army, a mystery Cat Jarman has been determined to solve.
CAT JARMAN: Everything, the bones, the artifacts, the coins, everything is really screaming Viking Great Army. But the science, the radiocarbon dates said that’s not possible.
NARRATOR: Scientists date bones by measuring the amount of carbon-14 they contain. This radioactive isotope remains in the skeleton after death. It decays over time at a steady rate, so, by measuring what’s left in the bones, scientists can figure out roughly when the person died.
CAT JARMAN: What we didn’t realize 20 years ago, we actually have to take into account how the carbon that we’re dating gets into our bodies. And it actually gets into our bodies through the food that we eat.
NARRATOR: It turns out that people with a diet high in fish absorb older carbon than meat-eaters. That’s because the oceans contain carbon that is hundreds of years old. When fish ingest this and people, in turn, eat the fish, the ancient carbon enters their bones. Scientists now know that the bones of people who eat fish appear older than they really are, skewing carbon-dating results.
Cat has also been able to calculate just how much fish each person has eaten, by using the distinctive chemical markers seafood leaves in human bones.
CAT JARMAN: I looked at all these different bones and it turned out, everybody with a sort of “wrong date,” as it were, had been eating a lot of fish. That was a really brilliant moment, actually, to be able to see those dates fitting perfectly. And that meant the entire mass grave could now be dated to the late ninth century, meaning it’s completely consistent with the Viking Great Army.
NARRATOR: Now that she’s proved they’re all the right age to be Vikings, Cat wants to put flesh back on their bones. Her research has revealed a surprise about the demographics of the army.
CAT JARMAN: We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve successfully extracted ancient D.N.A. from these skulls, and we’ve been able to determine what sex these individuals were. And out of these five, these three are men, but these two are actually women. And that fits really well with the rest of the mass grave, because about 20 percent of those individuals are women.
NARRATOR: What were so many women doing here? Were they supporting their menfolk? Or is there more to the story?
In Sweden, the remains of an 1,100-year-old Viking might offer a clue. This skeleton was found in 1889, 30 miles from Stockholm, at the Viking stronghold of Birka.
Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson has recently reopened the case file on the “Birka warrior.”
CHARLOTTE HEDENSTIERNA-JONSON (Archaeologist): This is my, my baby at the moment, yes.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, wow!
NARRATOR: Charlotte’s been able to use the original archaeologists’ field drawing to reconstruct how the skeleton was found. The body was buried with a sword, battle-axe and some unexpected companions.
CHARLOTTE HEDENSTIERNA-JONSON: In the foot-end of the grave, there was two horses.
CAT JARMAN: Two complete horses?
CHARLOTTE HEDENSTIERNA-JONSON: Two complete horses. So, this is a very spectacular high status grave. From the very beginning, it’s been interpreted as a warrior grave. And we would, of course, interpret this as a male. But last year we got the results back from an ancient D.N.A. analysis, and it’s definitely confirmed to be a woman. And that caused quite a stir.
NARRATOR: D.N.A., extracted from the jawbone, proved that this was a strong, healthy woman in her 30s. Her bones show no sign of how she died, but the weapons in her grave suggest the position she held in life.
CHARLOTTE HEDENSTIERNA-JONSON: She is buried as a warrior. We can, of course, never prove that she was actively a warrior in life. But I think that she was a warrior, and I think that’s the message that they wanted to convey that we’re reading now 1,100 years later.
NARRATOR: Was she a real-life “shield-maiden,” a woman who, according to Norse mythology, fought alongside men?
CAT JARMAN: This is really exciting, because I’m looking at what we think is a war grave, which has women in it. And to have examples like this, where the woman is represented in that warrior role, we have to take that back to Repton and think about those women.
NARRATOR: The bones of some of the Repton women bear scars, perhaps of battle, and they were buried alongside male warriors. Could they have been shield-maidens too?
MARK HORTON: In out, in out, in out…
NARRATOR: On the Trent, Mark’s crew of modern-day Vikings is a mile from their landing site, just outside Repton.
MARK HORTON: It’s quite a difference now, isn’t it? The wind’s against us. It’s actually incredibly hard work.
STEVE ETHERIDGE: Starboard side, big strokes!
VIKING OARSMAN REENACTOR: Keep going! Keep pulling, starboard side.
NARRATOR: By the time the Great Army reached Mercia, it had conquered most of Anglo-Saxon England, but not just with strong-armed tactics. The Chronicle tells us the Vikings struck peace deals with embattled communities and replaced local rulers with puppet kings. It also records how the army camped for the winter at Repton.
MARK HORTON: Have you ever beached a longboat before?
STEVE ETHERIDGE: No, first time for this. We’re going to give it a go.
MARK HORTON: Ha ha!
NARRATOR: Viking nails found by the river, suggest the invaders dragged their boats ashore for repairs. But they left no record of how.
MARK HORTON: This is terrifying.
NARRATOR: So Steve’s crew…
VIKING GIRL REENACTOR: Put it down there, so Daddy can get up.
NARRATOR: …and their friends and family on the bank…
VIKING REENACTOR: Okay, another roller.
NARRATOR: ...will improvise.
VIKING REENACTOR: Heave! Come on, on.
VIKING REENACTOR: Pull, keep pulling!
STEVE ETHERIDGE: We’ve got so far, and we’re stuck.
MARK HORTON: Hi there! We’re having a struggle.
NARRATOR: Luckily, Mark spots a passing boat crew.
MEMBERS OF PASSING ROWING CREW: One, two, three, heave!
That’ll do. Let’s stop there!
STEVE ETHERIDGE: That’ll do.
CREW MEMBERS AND VIKING REENACTORS: (Cheering)
NARRATOR: Now our team can set up camp, just as their Viking forbears did.
MARK HORTON: So, what it makes one think is, actually, just how important it was to come to dry land for the winter.
STEVE ETHERIDGE: Yeah, we’ve been struggling today. And you want to find somewhere where you can pull your boats up, make yourself secure and stay here until spring. And then the raiding begins again.
NARRATOR: The army often hunkered down through the worst of the winter weather. But what happened inside their temporary camps had been lost to history, until a series of recent discoveries made at a site 60 miles downriver, called Torksey.
The chroniclers record the army sat out winter in these Lincolnshire fields, the year before they reached Repton. Now, a team of metal detectorists and archaeologists has unearthed intriguing evidence of that occupation.
JULIAN RICHARDS (Archaeologist, University of York): We’ve got about 2,000 finds. Most of the objects that are here have been brought to the site as plunder. It’s the stuff that they’ve looted from, mainly, Anglo-Saxon churches over the previous season of campaigning. And they’re bringing it here, melting it down, turning it into other objects, trading with it, so forth.
And, as well as all the small objects, the loot, we’ve also got quite a lot of iron objects from the site. We’ve got here the hilt from a sword. You can see that the hole there is where the blade would have passed through. And we do have a number of axes. This was found just this last year.
But my favorite objects, these, are actually these. These are gaming pieces. You can imagine them overwintering, they’ve got a lot of leisure time. In total we’ve got over 300 of these gaming pieces. They seem to provide a bit of what we call the signature of the Viking Great Army.
NARRATOR: These modest lumps of lead are unique to Vikings and the calling card of the Heathen Army. Archaeologist Adam Parsons has been researching how they were used, in a game called Hnefatafl.
MARK HORTON: Can I have a little look?
ADAM PARSONS (Experimental Archaeologist): Of course you can. So, if you now make your gaming board and auger some little holes in it, and you could now place that piece there, and whether it’s on a ship or somebody drunk in a camp gambling wouldn’t knock the board over.
The crucial thing, archaeologically, of course, is the peg would rot away. So, when you find them, you’ve got a small hole in the bottom of them.
MARK HORTON: Because we would just think it was an empty hole. So, how was the game actually played?
ADAM PARSONS: Well, from what we can tell, there was a king piece that was placed in the center of the board, and he had a small army of perhaps 12 men surrounding him. And the king’s job was to either escape to the corner or the edge of the board.
MARK HORTON: This is a kind of everyman’s game?
ADAM PARSONS: Exactly. The soldiers in the camp can make these pieces quickly and cheaply, make a cheap wooden board, perhaps even scratch one in the dirt. It means that they can while away these boring wet evenings, you know, perhaps gambling away some of the, the money they’ve just stolen from various places.
MARK HORTON: But also, the key thing is they’re so easy to lose.
ADAM PARSONS: Yes.
MARK HORTON: And that’s what’s so good for archaeology; you just drop them down there in the grass, and they’re gone.
NARRATOR: Archaeologists have learnt to cherish such humble finds, as the Vikings rarely left dramatic relics behind.
But at Repton, they made an exception.
MARK HORTON: Some 40 years ago, we found the end of what appears to be a great Viking fortification. What we seem to have found is a kind of D-shaped enclosure. The trouble is that surface indications have all disappeared.
NARRATOR: While excavating the Viking burials in the 1980s, the archaeologists uncovered traces of a massive defensive ditch.
MARK HORTON: We can begin to lay it out. One, two, three, four…about here.
NARRATOR: They only excavated a few sections of the structure.
MARK HORTON: …three and four. Here, I think.
NARRATOR: Now, Mark wants to reveal the whole picture for the first time.
MARK HORTON: It’s actually only by laying it out on the ground, that one can really understand how it worked and get back into the ninth century shape of the land.
Okay, so let’s put it… Which way are we facing? Where is it? There we go. Oh, I can see it. It looks beautiful. What you can actually see is the exact shape of the enclosure.
NARRATOR: The enclosure opened onto the River Trent, which used to run close to the church. When the archaeologists first discovered the ditch, they believed it could have encircled the Vikings’ winter camp, but Mark has a problem with this theory.
MARK HORTON: One thing that immediately strikes me is just how small it is. It’s scarcely more than four acres. I mean, you know, you could just about squeeze maybe a thousand men shoulder to shoulder. Don’t forget, they’ve also got to have their ships and their workshops and all the other things that go with it. I mean, it’s a tiny area.
NARRATOR: Is it possible that the Great Army was, in reality, not that great in size? That’s what some historians have concluded. But at Torksey, the archaeologists’ recent finds are scattered across a site 30-times larger.
JULIAN RICHARDS: This is a huge site, 135 acres in total. That has implications for the size of the Viking Army. You’ve got to imagine behind me what is, in effect, a small town, a sort of bustling area. And given the scale of the camp, we think that probably was up to about 5,000 warriors and camp followers. This is a huge number of people to be gathered in one place. It’s larger than most Anglo-Saxon towns.
NARRATOR: But, if there were 5,000 Vikings camping at Torksey, where did they stay when they reached Repton?
A local metal detectorist may have found some crucial clues. Cat’s on her way to meet him.
CAT JARMAN: I’m really, really excited and intrigued to find out what this guy has actually discovered. Repton’s, kind of, full of unresolved questions really. There’s a lot we don’t understand. There are things that aren’t there, and these things he’s found could be exactly what we’ve been looking for, the actual “missing link.”
NARRATOR: Rob Davis is a specialist metalworker and keen amateur historian.
ROB DAVIS (Amateur Historian): I’ve brought a good selection.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, wow!
NARRATOR: He’s been quietly finding Viking artifacts on a stretch of farmland near Repton, for more than a decade. Now, he’s invited Cat to see his collection for the first time.
CAT JARMAN: These are so brilliant, and I just want to pick them up and look at them.
ROB DAVIS: Yes. There’s a nice Scandinavian brooch here.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s beautiful.
ROB DAVIS: That’s a typical Viking type of brooch. The day I found that, I found the pendant, a Thor’s hammer pendant.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, wow. That’s incredible. You can’t really get much more Viking than that, can you? It’s almost identical to one found at Repton around the neck of the warrior. This is just shouting “Viking Army,” isn’t it, really?
This is exactly the sort of thing we are looking for when we are looking for Great Army sites.
And these are all from the same fields?
ROB DAVIS: Yes, all from the same field; one field in particular.
NARRATOR: Rob made his extraordinary discoveries on this hillside, just outside the tiny hamlet of Foremark, two miles east of Repton.
CAT JARMAN: So, most of this seems to be coming out from the field just beyond that tree. That’s the one over in the middle, is that right?
ROB DAVIS: That is the main field.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah.
NARRATOR: Unlike some metal detectorists, who frustrate archaeologists by removing artifacts from sites without recording where they found them, Rob has kept a careful record, which Cat can now use to begin mapping the ancient history of this landscape.
CAT JARMAN: Foremark Church, which is right here, it stems from a Scandinavian name, “Fornework,” which means “the old fortification.” So, it’s like the clue was in the name all the time, and we just didn’t realize! I think we’ve got a really, really important site here.
NARRATOR: Rob’s discoveries place the Vikings at Foremark. Was it here, on top of this hill, rather than at Repton, that the army spent the winter of 873?
Cat wants to find out.
CAT JARMAN: We’ve got the fields that Rob has been detecting, literally, just on the other side of this fence. That’s all been plowed. That means that Rob’s been able to go across it and find all those metal artifacts that come up with a plow. And that’s not great for us, as archaeologists, because it actually ruins a lot of the archaeology.
But here, nobody’s actually done any plowing or any sort of recent agriculture.
NARRATOR: Because plowing rips ancient artifacts from their archaeological context, Cat’s assembled a team to search for traces of the winter camp in the only part of this land which has not been intensively farmed.
CAT JARMAN: We have no idea how far down that we need to go. I’m definitely feeling very nervous about it, because I’ve had to pick a spot out of this giant field, and I could have picked entirely the wrong spot. It could all go terribly wrong or we could find something amazing.
NARRATOR: If the army did camp at Foremark in 873, it still doesn’t explain why there are so many bodies buried back at Repton. But there has been a development in the search to identify the mutilated warrior buried near the church. Next to him, the archaeologists found the remains of a younger man. The close proximity of the two bodies suggests they may have known one another in life.
CAT JARMAN: Hey, hi, Lars.
LARS FEHREN-SCHMITZ (Paleogeneticist): Hey, Cat, how are you?
CAT JARMAN: I’m good, thanks. How are you?
NARRATOR: Cat’s had D.N.A. analysis done on both men’s remains.
LARS FEHREN-SCHMITZ: It’s actually quite exciting. We can now definitely confirm that the warrior and the other burial found with the warrior are first-degree relatives.
CAT JARMAN: Oh, brilliant!
LARS FEHREN-SCHMITZ: And it gets better. We can say they didn’t have the same mother, but they have the same paternal lineage, which actually only leaves that they were father and son.
CAT JARMAN: That’s wonderful.
That’s something very new. We suspected they had some kind of close relationship, but there was no way of knowing that. This is so unique. As far as we know, there are no other known father-son burials. We know there are lots of other double graves in the Viking world, but we’ve never been able to find out what the relationship is between those two individuals, so I’m, I’m thrilled.
NARRATOR: The revelation that the warrior is buried with his son narrows down the historical candidates as to who he might be. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers no clues, so Cat has asked medieval historian Clare Downham to follow a lead in another ancient text, this time from Ireland. It’s called the Annals of Ulster.
CLARE DOWNHAM (Historian): This tells us about a really interesting father and son relationship which might tie in to the burials at Repton. Their names are Olaf and his son, Eisten.
NARRATOR: Written in Middle Irish and Latin, the Annals record the exploits of King Olaf, a Viking chieftain based in Ireland, who led raids around Britain.
CLARE DOWNHAM: So this is, “Olaf returns to Dublin from Alaba,” which is North Britain, “with a fleet of 200 ships.” And these ships contain all the accumulated booty from their years of raiding and travelling around in Britain.
NARRATOR: The Annals tell us it was in Scotland that Olaf finally met his match.
CLARE DOWNHAM: This time, he’s trying to gather taxes and tributes from the Scottish people, which, of course, would make him deeply unpopular. In the year 874, he’s raiding around Scotland, and the king of Scotland, at that time, encounters Olaf and kills him.
NARRATOR: Could the body then have been carried to Repton and there, the following year, have been joined by his son, who was also killed in battle? But, if the two bodies are Olaf and Eisten, why would pagan Vikings carry their dead from distant battlefields and lay them to rest in the Christian burial place of Anglo-Saxon kings?
Archaeologist Howard Williams has a theory.
HOWARD WILLIAMS (Archaeologist): Given the political and the religious importance of Repton for the Mercian kings, the Viking Army coming here has a modern-day equivalence in taking over both Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, together. So, we have to see this as a grandstand political gesture.
The mass grave would have been, not simply a burial, but a monument in the landscape. It allowed you to show your claims to the land and your assertion that you intend to be here for generations.
NARRATOR: Perhaps the mass grave at Repton is at last giving up its secrets. But it still leaves the mystery of where the army camped through the winter of 873. And, the new dig at Foremark is not offering any answers.
CAT JARMAN: We’ve been here for a few days now, and our best finds, so far, are a Victorian marble and a musket ball! I still think we are in the right place. We just have to work out how to find the Vikings.
NARRATOR: But, in a far corner of the site, metal detectorist Rob has found something intriguing a foot beneath the surface.
CAT JARMAN: What have you got?
ROB DAVIS: Quite a deep piece of iron. You can just see the rust there.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah, okay.
It looks very much like a plowshare.
NARRATOR: It’s not what anyone was expecting to find in a Viking campsite. A plowshare is the blade of a plow, designed to cut a channel through the soil into which crops would be planted. Used in Britain from the seventh century, these were precious pieces of equipment.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah, it’s brilliant.
MARK HORTON: Gosh, what an enormous piece of iron that is.
People don’t leave plowshares just lying around. This is their livelihood. If they lose something like that, you would literally starve, because you couldn’t cultivate your fields. So, this is quite exceptional. They’re really very rare finds.
NARRATOR: Eleventh-century records reveal there was once an Anglo-Saxon settlement on this site. But why would its inhabitants abandon such an important item?
The plowshare has told the team how deep they need to dig to look for further traces of habitation, so they can step it up a gear.
MARK HORTON: Digging stuff out by hand is really boring. This bucket enables us to get down to the archaeology much more quickly. This is just the job.
God knows what’s in that one.
There’s something there. Wow. Ha ha!
CAT JARMAN: You found me something there?
MARK HORTON: We have something to show you.
CAT JARMAN: Agh! Amazing!
MARK HORTON: Yes.
CAT JARMAN: That’s brilliant. It’s a gaming piece.
MARK HORTON: Hole in the bottom.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah. Yay!
Brilliant. This is what we’re looking for.
NARRATOR: This lead gaming piece is almost identical to those found at Torksey.
MARK HORTON: That’s the presence of the Viking army.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah, I mean, this is the smoking gun, isn’t it?
MARK HORTON: That’s right.
NARRATOR: The gaming piece was found only 30 feet away from where the plowshare was discovered, and now that spot is of earth is beginning to tell its story.
MARK HORTON: I can see it there.
CAT JARMAN: It’s really clear.
MARK HORTON: Yes. You can see where it’s got a lot redder.
AMY PANNELL (Archaeologist): I would say this orange sand, here, and the red sand is evidence of burning, because when you burn sand at a high temperature, it goes to all of these beautiful sunset colors.
CAT JARMAN: These are some of the things that have come out of this trench here, in this area that we are associating with the burning. We have found a huge amount of charcoal, some really, really big lumps. And these are brilliant, because you can actually see that these are planks of wood. And they were found in a nice rectangular line. And putting it all together, we seem to be a getting a building. And that building may well have burned down.
MARK HORTON: Okay, I’ve got a theory. Do we have a Pompeii moment down there?
CAT JARMAN: Okay?
MARK HORTON: By which I mean, a catastrophic event happens and freezes everything in time. This is actually a Saxon building; we know the Vikings are here.
CAT JARMAN: Yeah.
MARK HORTON: They’re burning the Saxon houses down. The inhabitants fled and nobody came back to recover the artifacts.
NARRATOR: According to Mark’s theory, the precious plowshare was left behind, because the wooden Anglo-Saxon building it was in was burnt down by the Viking Army.
CAT JARMAN: I think that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.
NARRATOR: The artifacts discovered by detectorist Rob already point to a Viking camp at Foremark, and now Cat’s team is beginning to unearth evidence of the terror the army might have brought to the local population.
CAT JARMAN: If this really is what we think it is, then that’s hugely exciting, because it’s actually directly showing evidence of those attacks and what that must have been like for the people living here at the time.
NARRATOR: Together, Foremark and Repton now form one of the most important Viking sites in Britain, which Cat’s team will continue to explore for years to come.
CAT JARMAN: I’m really pleased. We’ve definitely found the Great Heathen Army. It’s all in the tiny little bits of evidence. It’s not the big structures, it’s not big fortifications and whole ships, it’s just the small single items that tell us so much of the whole story.
MARK HORTON: I actually think we’re now just scratching the surface, that further investigations of this site is going to totally change our understanding of the early Viking age in England.
NARRATOR: According to the Chronicle, after moving on from its winter camp, the Great Army began to fragment. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxon tribes rallied together, and by the year 878, they had finally gained the upper hand.
The Great Army scattered, many of its warriors settling in England. Local children were now being born with Scandinavian blood. And, as at Foremark, English places were given Norse names, a reminder, today, of a land once occupied by the Vikings.
MARK HORTON: It was the relationship between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons that led to the formation of England as a single nation.
The Vikings changed England forever.
CAT JARMAN: The Vikings made a huge impact, not only on this part of Derbyshire, but on the whole country. This is the real evidence. This is the actual, on the ground, the real hard facts. And I’m so, so happy to have been part of that.
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- Rob Davis, Clare Downham, Steve Etheridge, Lars Fehren-Schmitz, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Mark Horton, Cat Jarman, Søren Nielson, Amy Pannell, Adam Parsons, Julian Richards, Søren Sindbæk, Bob Stoddart, Howard Williams