Saturday 29 June 2019

Vikings: Return to Repton

The Vikings had been carrying out coastal raids around the British Isles since the late 8th century. But their tactics changed in the second half of the 9th century; instead of hit and run raiding parties the Vikings now seemed intent on settling a Great Army on the land.

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland record that Ímar (Ivar) was the son of Gofraid, King of Laithlinn (Norway?). Ímar had two brothers, Auisle and Amlaíb (Olaf), collectively described in the Irish Annals as “kings of the foreigners”, forming the Uí Ímair dynasty. Another Viking leader, Halfdan is often named as another brother.They were leaders of a particularly aggressive Scandinavian group active across Ireland and Britain, raiding into Wales and Scotland by the mid-9th century, taking York in 866 and ruling the city until 954, taking Dumbarton, the rock of the Britons in 870 after a 4-month siege, and being the dominant force in England for a short period in 878.

Ivar (Ímar) was given the title "King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain" in contemporary annals and has been identified by historians as ‘Ivar the Boneless’, the Viking who led the Great Heathen Army in England in the 860’s, returning to Dublin in 870 with much booty and slaves after his success at Dumbarton.  This period of activity in England and Scotland corresponds with Ivar’s absence from the Irish Annals during these years. Furthermore, the death of both Ivar the Boneless and Ivar (Ímar) is recorded as 873 in Ireland, After his death, it is claimed, Ivar’s body was transported to England and buried at the Viking camp at Repton, where a significant grave of an individual was uncovered.

The Danes appear to have lost interest in Wessex and after overwintering at London 871-72 headed for York the following year. After overwintering at Torksey 872-73 they then moved to Repton in Derbyshire on the river Trent. Overwinter 873-74 they dug in and fortified this settlement with the church of St Wystan, desecrating the Royal Mercian mausoleum, centred in the ditch and rampart.

When the Great Army left Repton, destroying the monastery buildings and setting fire to the church, they went on to complete the conquest of Mercia in 874, driving the Mercian king Burgred into exile and replacing him with Ceowulf II.

Early Excavations
Repton was first excavated between 1974 and 1993 when Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle investigated the site. They found evidence of a D-shaped enclosure with a massive V-shaped ditch, 4m wide and 4m deep. This enclosure used the Trent as a boundary on one side (closing the 'D') and the Mercian royal shrine of St Wigstan (Wystan) as a gatehouse to control access on the opposite side.

Evidence for the Danish presence was found around the east end of the church. During the Biddles' excavations a number of furnished graves were uncovered at the site in the churchyard, immediately north and south of the crypt; one contained silver pennies securely dating the grave to the mid-870s. The most significant grave, originally marked by a 12 in square wooden post, was found north of the church containing the skeleton of a 35-45 year old man, about 6 ft tall.

This individual showed evidence of weapon trauma; he had received a blow to the skull, and a sword-cut to the thigh had severed the femoral artery. Around his neck a leather string held two glass beads, a leaded bronze fastener  and a small silver Thor's hammer. Between his thighs had been placed the tusk of a boar and lower down the humerus of a jackdaw.

Between 1980-86 the Biddles also investigated a mound (a charnel house) in the vicarage garden to the west of St Wystan’s church. Here they discovered a charnel deposit with the remains of at least 264 people, approximately 80% of which were determined to be male, mostly aged between 18 and 45, with many displaying evidence of fatal violent injury. Based on this analysis, it was thought that these might be the remains of the Viking Great Army 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 the Biddles' theory, suggesting a 9th century date for the burials. However, other Carbon-14 dates indicated that some of the remains dated from as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. This was explained by the suggestion that the deposit had been mixed with reinterred burials from the Saxon cemetery, which may have been unearthed by the digging of the defensive ditch around the church.

Within the mound was the remains of a structure which held a stone coffin, containing 'a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long.' Speculation has led to claims that this was the body of Ivar the Boneless. Around this singular interment the disarticulated remains of over 260 people were found with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin. The entombment is without parallel in Europe during the Viking age, and it is interesting that one saga notes that Ivar died and was buried in England 'in the manner of former times', an allusion to the fact he was interred in a barrow. At least some of these individuals must have been part of the Great Army who died at Repton during the winter of 873-874.

Biddle proposed that the mass burial had been purposefully arranged around this central burial, suggesting Ivar the Boneless, one of the leaders of the Great Army and ruler of the Irish Sea Vikings who died in 873 at an unspecified location.

Return to Repton 
It is over 40 years ago since Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle’s excavations suggested the Great Army of the Vikings had encamped at Repton during the winter of AD 873-74. But many archaeologists had thrown doubt on their interpretation of the site and many questions remained unanswered.

Dating evidence, including silver pennies dated AD 872-75, supported the argument for winter camp of the Great Army at Repton. However, the dating of some of the 264 people found in the mass grave had long puzzled archaeologists; some of these bodies were dated to as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, which doesn't fit the historical context.

Now, new investigations carried out by archaeologists from the University of Bristol under the direction of Cat Jarman and Mark Horton, are using bioarchaeological methods to resolve unanswered questions about the human remains.

In 2017 new geophysical surveys took place, followed by further excavations on the site of the so-called charnel house in the Vicarage gardens west of the church.

Cat Jarman determined that the dating discrepancy turned out to be due to marine reservoir effects (MREs). Cat explains that radiocarbon measured in archaeological samples comes from the carbon absorbed during life, mainly from diet. Carbon 14 in terrestrial and marine animals gives an apparent age difference of around 400 years, due to the mixing at sea of atmospheric carbon and older carbon from deep water:

“Therefore a fish would yield a date significantly earlier than say a sheep, even if they were alive at the same time. This difference is passed on along the food chain, meaning that remains of humans with marine diets can give radiocarbon dates that seem artificially older than their real age.”

After making corrections by estimating the percentage of an individual’s marine food consumption it placed the human remains at Repton precisely within the range of the coins found with the skeletons, indicating that the charnel deposit is consistent with a single event.

Sampling a large selection from the charnel deposit revealed they were not local people but likely from southern Sacandinavia supporting the interpretation that they were members of the Viking Great Army from Denmark.

Brothers in Arms
The double grave of G.511 and G.295 at Repton gives dates of AD 677–866 and AD 715–890 respectively. The early date for G.511 is inconsistent with our current understanding of the historical context and archaeological evidence. The grave goods leave little doubt as to the Scandinavian cultural identity of this individual, yet a date before AD 873 seems unlikely, as there is no evidence for a Scandinavian presence in Repton prior to this date.

DNA extracted from G.511 and G.295 revealed the individuals were related in the first degree on the paternal side; meaning they are either father and son or half-brothers. Osteological analysis shows that the older man was at least 35-45 years old and the younger man 17-20 years old at the time of death, suggesting the father-son relationship may be the correct interpretation. Isotope analysis indicates that G.511 and G.295 grew up in a similar location, possibly southern Scandinavia (Denmark).

Both men had suffured violent trauma at the time of death,  and probably buried within a few years of each other. G.511 suffered two spear wounds above his left eye and a deep cut to the left femur, likely to have removed his genitallia. A boar's tusk was placed between his legs so that he arrived in the afterlife with his virility intact. The boar tusk buried with G.511 yielded a calibrated date of AD 695–889.

New radiocarbon dates indicate the death of the two men to between 873 and 886; the archaeological evidence supports a date toward the beginning of the range. We can identify a father and son from the Historical sources that matches these two individuals. The Annals of Ulster records Olaf (Amlaib) as one of the Viking kings active in Ireland and Britain in this period but particularly dominant in Ireland in the 850's and 860's. Olaf was the brother of Ivar the Boneless who he campaigned with in Northern Britain from 870-871, besigung Dumbarton Rock before returning to Ireland.

Olaf returned to Scotland in 874 when he was killed by King Constantine. The following years Olaf's son Eystienn was killed by Halfdan at an unspecified location, probably the same Halfdan, Olaf's brother, named as being at Repton in 873 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Cat Jarman suggests Olaf and Eystienn as the best candidates for the individuals in graves G.511 and G.295.

Cat Jarman, Resolving Repton, Current Archaeology 352, July 2019, pp.18-25.
Catrine L. Jarman, Martin Biddle, Tom Higham & Christopher Bronk Ramsey, The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel, Antiquity 92 - 361 (2018): pp.183–199

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