This article is an edited transcript of The Great Viking Army at Repton with Cat Jarman on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 27 March 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
One of the major discoveries at Repton, a major Viking excavation site, was a mass grave full of the skulls and major bones of nearly 300 bodies.
They were all disarticulated bones in what we call a secondary burial, which means that they weren’t thrown into the mass grave just after death, when their bodies were still complete .
They’d already turned into skeletons and then their bones were moved. So they had a primary burial somewhere else first and then they were moved into the charnel.
The remains include numerous women
We were able to determine the sex of the bodies in this grave, which is only really possible if you’ve got the skull or the pelvis. We believe about 20% of these bodies were women.
This tallies with some of the historical records, which confirm that women accompanied the army. We don’t know what they did, if they were warriors who fought or if they were wives, slaves or hangers-on. That is part of what I’m trying to find out by looking at their bones.
When Dan visited for the HistoryHit podcast about Repton, I was able to show him the remains of a woman.
She was aged between 35 and 45. The skull was nice and complete, including some remaining teeth. But there was quite a bit of ware, which is how we know she’s a bit older than some of the others.
One of the things we can do with these remains is radiocarbon date them. We can then get a lot of other evidence about their diet and their geographical origins as well.
We know, for instance, that she couldn’t have come from England. This is because she’s got isotope values, from her tooth enamel, that are beyond anything we’ve found in England.
Lots of areas are consistent with these values, but it could include places like Scandinavia, for example, or other mountainous regions with similar geology. So, she could very well have been a Viking.
What next for the Repton skeletons?
We’re currently doing some DNA analysis. We haven’t got the results just yet, but I’m working with a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Max Planck Institute in Jena.
We’re doing full genome-wide sequencing with the ancient DNA to get as much information as we can about ancestry and things like family relationships. In some cases, we’ll be able to tell things like eye and hair color.
We should also be able to tell if any of the people in the grave were related. This is something that’s changed in recent years. About 15 years ago there was an attempt to extract DNA from these same skeletons but it was unsuccessful.
In the intervening years, techniques have moved on so much that we can now get things we couldn’t even dream of 20 years ago.
I can’t really predict how my field will evolve in the coming years and how much more we’ll be able to learn from these bones, but I’m extremely excited about because I think this is just the starting point
If you look back at how much we’ve been able to do in the last 20 years, I really think we should be able to find out so much about these people’s lives how they connected with history.