This Mass Grave in England May Hold the Skeletons of Hundreds of Viking Invaders

Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity
Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity

In the late 9th century, a powerful army of Vikings from across Scandinavia joined forces to achieve a common goal: invade and conquer Anglo-Saxon England. Now, archaeologists think they may have identified the remains of hundreds of these marauding Norsemen, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing hundreds of skeletons on the grounds of St. Wystan's, a historic Ango-Saxon church in Repton, Derbyshire. Excavations that continued into the 1980s revealed that the mound contained 264 bodies, buried together in what appeared to be a partially leveled Anglo-Saxon chapel. Men comprised 80 percent of the remains, with several exhibiting signs of violent injury. Some graves held Scandinavian-style funerary goods, including a pendant of Thor's hammer and a Viking sword. One contained four children—possibly sacrificial offerings. The researchers also found the vestiges of a large defensive ditch.

mass grave of viking army at repton
© Martin Biddle

detail of mass viking grave at repton
© Martin Biddle

The researchers thought the mound was a Viking Great Army burial site; Anglo-Saxon records say Scandinavian combatants wintered in Repton in 873-874 CE, after forcing the local king into exile, and coins found at the site date to the same era.

Radiocarbon dating, however, suggested that some remains were actually from the 7th and 8th centuries CE. This meant that the skeletons would have been buried over the course of several centuries—some of them before the Vikings' arrival. The age of skeletons remained a point of contention among archaeologists for years.

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England
© Martin Biddle

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England.
© Martin Biddle

The current study found that those dates were wrong. University of Bristol archaeologist Cat Jarman re-evaluated the skeletons using a new form of carbon dating. She found that the bones did all date back to the late 9th century, contradicting initial tests. This mistake wasn't due to poor research methods, but to the Vikings' fish-heavy diets, she said.

"The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old," Jarman explained in a press statement. "When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material, and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate."

Jarman says that pinpointing the age of the Repton burial mound helps illuminate the history of the earliest Viking raiders, who went on to become part of a considerable Scandinavian settlement in England. "Although these new radiocarbon dates don't prove that these were Viking army members, it now seems very likely," she said. "It also shows how new techniques can be used to reassess and finally solve centuries-old mysteries."

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

Endeavour, Captain Cook's Lost Ship, Might Have Been Found—Solving a Centuries-Old Mystery

Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The exact location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island 200 years ago, is considered one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries. Now, after a 25-year effort to pinpoint its remains among 13 sunken vessels, The Age reports that the Endeavour might have finally been identified.

British explorer James Cook left England on the Endeavour in 1768 headed for the South Pacific. He and his crew became the first European expedition to map the entire coast of New Zealand, and later, the first to reach Australia’s east coast. Along the way, they collected hundreds of previously unknown plant species, became the first Europeans to record a kangaroo sighting, and gathered evidence that would help disprove the existence of the long-speculated southern continent, Terra Australis, that hypothetically extended all the way up to the equator.

A replica of the 18th-century 'Endeavour' in the ocean
A replica of the Endeavour in 2004
Dennis4trigger, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After that three-year journey, Cook and his crew returned to England. Though Cook became a legend, the Endeavour didn’t receive the star treatment. The British Royal Navy used it to ferry supplies to and from the Falkland Islands for several years before selling it to a private buyer. The ship was renamed the Lord Sandwich, and was eventually put into service transporting German mercenaries to fight on Britain's side in the American Revolution.

That’s how the ship ended up in Rhode Island, where it was stationed as part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in Newport Harbor and used as a prison ship for captured American soldiers. When French reinforcements came to assist American revolutionaries in Rhode Island, the British decided to sink their ships rather than allow them to be captured, creating a blockade out of scuttled vessels to block the French from getting into the harbor. They sank 12 transport vessels and set another on fire. Over the ensuing years, locals and French forces took equipment from the wrecks, but it’s never been entirely clear what happened to the remains.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began to try to map and identify those remains starting in the early 1990s, and eventually figured out that the Lord Sandwich was the same ship as the HMS Endeavour. As the ship played a vital role in Australian history, the Australian National Maritime Museum then got involved with the project.

The two organizations have announced that they have lowered the number of potential wrecks that could be the Endeavour from 14 to five—and perhaps down to just one—by inspecting the area and measuring the wrecks against historic information about Cook's vessel. The researchers think the final resting place of the ship is located off the coast of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, but to be absolutely certain, they’ll have to excavate the remains of the ship and examine its timbers. The researchers hope to have that work done by the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia’s Botany Bay—and his claiming of Australia as British territory—in 2020.

And there may be a battle over the remains. While the ship is considered a vital artifact of Australian history, the state of Rhode Island claimed ownership of all of the sunken ships in 1999, and they are overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

[h/t The Age]

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