The skeleton of the young man, believed to have been one of at least 35 brutally executed in the city in AD 1002 on the orders of the king, was couriered from its home at Oxfordshire County Council’s Museums Resource Centre in Standlake, West Oxfordshire, to Copenhagen earlier this month. The bones were laid out earlier this week after a period in quarantine.
Ancient DNA evidence published last year revealed that the skeleton – labelled SK1756 but named Vidar by its Danish hosts – is a close relative, such as an uncle, nephew, grandson or half-brother, of a skeleton uncovered during an excavation in Denmark. Both will soon be on display to the public at a Viking exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark and have already been the subject of a Danish documentary, partly filmed in Oxfordshire last September.
Oxfordshire County Council’s Curator of Archaeology, Angie Bolton, said: “It was a bit emotional waving goodbye to him after all of this planning, filming, and getting to know his story.”
The mass grave was discovered in 2008 when archaeological excavations took place ahead of a development in the grounds of Oxford University’s St John’s College. Research shows that they had all been massacred at the same time, probably in AD 1002.
While 33 of them were tall, robust adult males, two were adolescents who had all met a violent death but did not necessarily lead a violent life. Isotopic analysis suggests that some of the victims originated from within the UK, Denmark and Germany.
SK1756 had been hit with a sword eight to ten times in the head and stabbed several times in the spine.
The massacre was prompted by King Aethelred II’s inability to stop Viking invaders from raiding England towards the end of the 10th century, despite paying them large bribes to stop.
As a result, in AD 1002 he issued a decree ordering the killing of all Danes on St Brice’s Day, including Danish raiders, plus settlers and their offspring. The timing, plus historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the remains found in Oxford were probably of people killed as part of this decree.
The Danish exhibition is due to run in various forms until 2024 and was the brainchild of Dr Rane Willerslev, Director of the National Museum of Denmark, who also visited Standlake last year to film the documentary. His twin brother Eske – an expert in DNA – helped to establish the family link between the two skeletons.
Jeanette Varberg, Exhibition Curator, said: “We are honoured and delighted that we can reunite two family members that were separated 1,000 years ago. These two men carry a harsh story in their bones. We will share our new insights during the upcoming exhibition on Vikings at the National Museum of Denmark, opening on 26 June.”
However, you don’t have to travel all the way to Copenhagen if you want to view Viking skeletons. The Oxfordshire Museum, in Woodstock, has another of the massacred Oxford Vikings on display as part of its Skeleton Science exhibition, which opened to the public last month. The museum and display is free to visit.
Created by Durham University, this exhibition explores how scientific analysis of their skeletons helps us to understand more about the lives of people from the past.
The bones of the young Viking on display show that his upper body was muscular and that he had an unusually shaped head due to the plates of his skull having started to fuse before he had stopped growing. We know he was aged between 16 and 20 years old, suffered with tuberculosis, and had violent wounds inflicted on him, resulting in his death.
Councillor Neil Fawcett, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Community Services and Safety, said: “We are delighted that our museums are once again opening up to visitors. The skeleton science exhibition offers a glimpse into Oxford’s gory past, as well a fascinating look at what scientists can teach us about the lives of our ancestors.”
The Museums Resource Centre is the principal store for all archaeological sites excavated or studied in Oxfordshire. Collections include objects from every period of human history – prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, medieval and post-medieval.