Archaeology in East Oxford

Murdered Danes?

Last Thursday Jamie Lewis from Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS)  gave us a fascinating talk on the rescue dig at St John’s college in 2008. Jamie himself was not involved in the dig although it was almost opposite where he lived.  He was commuting daily to a dig at Gatwick Airport where he found some flints!

Towards the end of the St John’s dig, the archaeologist in charge, Sean Wallis, said they had to dig under the developers’ access ramp.  They found a mass grave containing the bones of 34 individuals, 33 male and one too young for the gender to be established.  The age ranges were:  1 under 16, 20 aged 16-25, 9 aged 26-35 and 4 over 35.  They were just thrown into a ditch, jumbled up as whole skeletons and odd bones, some showing signs of burning.

When Ceri Falys, the osteoarchaeologist, looked at them she found many injuries, 106 in total.  These included blade trauma, puncture wounds and one projectile wound.  Very few were to the head and most were in the back.  It appeared these people had not been warriors – they had almost none of the previously healed wounds commonly found in professional soldiers, though one had TB.

He told us that Oxford was founded as a ‘burh’ (fortified planned town) in 876 as a defence against the Vikings.  Later Danes settled in Oxford and would have been distinctively different from the local population.  It is recorded in a charter of 1004 that Aethelraed the Unraed (ill-advised) ordered Danes to be killed on St Brice’s Day in 1002.  He had paid them off to prevent them attacking many times but, oddly enough, they kept coming back!  The charter refers to Danes spreading ‘like cockle among wheat’.  They were also unpopular for another reason reported in a chronicle in the thirteenth century: they combed their hair every day and bathed every Saturday which gave them a big advantage when it came to seducing women…

There is an account that in Oxford, the Danes were duly slaughtered.  They fled into the church which was burnt down around them.  Are these their bones in the ditch in St John’s?

Various scientific tests were done on the bones of 13 individuals.  Analysis suggested that only one came from Scandinavia and two from the Mediterranean.  Dietary differences were only mildly significant.  However, the circumstantial evidence with regard to the injuries and burning is strong.

The final part of the mystery is that where they were dumped turns out to be the ditch of a massive henge 140m across dating from 2200BC.  There were two opposing entrances and the earliest pottery found was Grooved Ware.  Beaker pottery was found in higher levels with Roman and Iron Age pottery above that.  Jamie told us that henges were considered dangerous ‘pagan’ places where executions sometimes took place so the associated ditch would be an obvious place to dispose of the bodies.

There was a lively question and answer session and, after tea and coffee, a brief session on how TVAS work including what a desk assessment involves, holding a watching brief and so on up to an actual dig.  It was very interesting to hear from someone who has ‘been there and done it’ and there were some entertaining and enlightening anecdotes.  Jamie emphasised that archaeology is always destruction and without full recording and publication is merely destruction.

Finally there was a short debate.  Many people were upset at the thought of what happened to the Danes, some asked why no women and children?  Jamie pointed out that women and children were a commodity in Saxon times.  It was a slave society and women and children could be used or sold.  This did not cheer many of the audience.

It was a brief and vivid insight into other times.  Jamie is highly knowledgable and a natural communicator so we were sorry to finish the evening.  We wish him all the best in his move to Scotland.



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