The Great Heathen Army was a mass of probably fastidiously-washed barbarians, allegedly led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok—better known as “that guy from Vikings”—who attacked England in 865 AD. The term “Great Army” is something of a misnomer; anybody who has been imagining endless legions in the style of Napoleon or Alexander is bound to be somewhat disappointed by the thousand-or-so scruffy Scandinavians that history presents us with. Nonetheless, these scruffy Scandinavians were on British soil for several years and eventually settled there; it may be assumed that such a mass of men marching, eating, breeding, defecating, and dying for such a considerable period of time would leave a suitably-impressive archaeological trove.
Lamentably, archaeologists were deprived of any sterling Viking skeletons until the 1980s, when some unfortunate Anglican vicar had the good luck to stumble upon the earthly remains of three hundred unsaved heathen souls. One may well imagine the joy and alcohol this news brought to the historical community, but any celebrations would have been untimely cut short by a stern lab-coated scientist proclaiming, clipboard in hand, that these were not the corpses you are looking for.
Radioactive dating showed that the remains were too old to belong to the illustrious Heathen Army, but now the molecules have evidently recanted their statement. A new study proposes that the burial site dates the 9th century, meaning that the inhabitants of the grave were very probably part of the Great Heathen Army.
The original dating error occurred because the Vikings ate too much fish. According to lead archaeologist Cat Jarman, “When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods.” This error was rectified by estimating for how much seafood the corpses once ate.
The majority of the corpses belonged to young men. Many of the corpses showed traumatic injuries consistent with battle or an exceptionally vigorous bar brawl; to further corroborate the Heathen Army theory, Viking weaponry was found near the site of the burial.
Two other graves were found nearby. One boasted four youths, between the ages of eight and eighteen, who are believed to have been ritual sacrifices intended to accompany the warriors in the afterlife. (The Vikings were surprisingly fond of human sacrifice.) The other grave contained two men, who may have been leaders in the Great Heathen Army. One of the men had a boar’s tusk placed between his legs—possibly “to replace what he had lost and prepare him for the afterlife.”
Viking raiders and settlers played a respectably large, if not precisely respectable, role in early British history. A Viking king—the unfortunately named Cnut—even ruled England at one point in time. The majority of these escapades have been lost to time or the recesses of some university library, because, as one knows, English history only really began after they were conquered by the French.