By Dr. Tom Horne
The Viking Great Army
In the winter of 873, the Viking Great Army descended on the church/monastery complex at Repton in Derbyshire, royal burial place and saint shrine of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, selecting it as the site of its latest ‘winter-camp’, a term relating to the Old English word (wintersetl) for a defensible overwintering position maintained while weather made campaigning difficult.
The site was likely targeted due to several factors: its socio-political importance to Mercia; its probable precious metal wealth; a strategic position on a navigable river and near an extant Roman road (today’s A38); and – crucially for Great Army logistics – its renders of food and fodder, taken in from the harvest to feed Derbyshire’s Mercian elites over the winter of 873-4.
Subsequent to the sack of St. Wystan’s church – named after the Mercian saint-king once buried in its crypt – and associated ‘double monastery’ (a rare foundation which accommodated both monks and nuns), the Great Army set up camp in and around Repton. After the early seasons of excavation, the theory was that a major defensive position – a ‘D-shaped enclosure’ ditch – incorporating the church structure was created by the Great Army, which established a citadel between the church and the steep banks of the River Trent, now a relic watercourse known as Old Trent Water.
With, it seems, tied-up longships under repair and guarded by the camp, and with their people and horses provisioned, the leaders of the Great Army – a mixed force probably consisting of mainly southern Scandinavian veterans of campaigns in Frankia, the Low Countries and Ireland active in England since 865 – could recuperate and plan the further subjugation of Mercia. In 874, the Great Army split in two after leaving the Trent valley, with part of the force heading north towards Northumbria (and possibly a winter-camp in the Coquet Valley) and part to the south.
A Viking Mass Grave?
1,100 years later, archaeologists led by Harold Taylor and subsequently Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle (1974-86/8) came to Repton to investigate the early Anglo-Saxon church and its environs, including the first modern investigation of the low mound on St. Wystan’s vicarage lawn. The subsequent discovery of the massive defensive ditch and the rediscovery of the Repton charnel (originally opened in earlier centuries) under that low mound would make international headlines and mark Repton as one of the most important Viking-Age sites in Europe (1).
The charnel, originally a 7th-8th century Anglo-Saxon (chapel?) building levelled to its basement, was found to contain at least 264 individuals (2), with approximately an 80/20 male/female gender split of individuals aged between 18 and 45, where identifiable (3). Iron blades (an axe and knives) and silver coins found amid the bones suggested a remarkable survival: a mass grave of the Great Army’s dead (4). Indeed, the placing of four adolescents aged 6 to 17 with a sheep’s jaw offering in a single grave next to charnel mound is suggestive of a Viking sacrifice to the charnel dead (5).
However, when initial radiocarbon dating of the charnel bones offered a confusing picture of pre-Viking (7th-8th) and 9th-century dates, a competing narrative that the charnel contained the remains of pre-Viking Age Mercians and, consequently, not individuals associated with the Great Army was (tentatively) established (6).
The Appliance of Science: Marine Reservoirs, Isotopes and aDNA
In 2018, this rather opaque image was resolved: Jarman et al.’s Open Access Antiquity paper would confirm the dating of this mass grave to the late 9th century via radiocarbon dates corrected to take account of the Marine Reservoir Effect (where large consumers of maritime carbon sources like fish have artificially ‘old’ bones); this major breakthrough finally associating the charnel bones with the numismatic tpq provided by five silver pennies dating to 872-874 found amongst the skeletons (7).
Three furnished inhumation burials found near the surviving Mercian crypt (located beneath the eastern end of the present church) added to the picture of the Great Army burying its (un-cremated) dead at Repton. Similar to the numismatic dating spread from the charnel, Grave 529 included five coins of 872-5 (8). This dating is matched by the G511-G295 double burial, which has now been revealed by aDNA, Strontium and Oxygen isotope tooth enamel analysis and osteological investigation to represent two closely-related individuals – probably from southern Scandinavia – and, given the generational gap in ages, possibly father and son. The older person (G511), who likely died between 873-886, was buried with a Thor’s hammer pendant and a sword typical of Viking ‘warrior’ burials. Pathology (sharp-blade bone trauma) suggests both suffered violent deaths (9).
In sum, the numismatic and historical evidence viewed in combination with characteristic burials (now dated definitively to the period of Great Army activity) and the massive defensive – and sacrilegious – position protecting a river anchorage seems to confirm this was, indeed, the site of the 873-4 winter-camp described by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Winter-Camps to the West and East? New Digs, 2016-2023
Excavations in the vicarage garden resumed in 2016 under co-directors Cat Jarman and Mark Horton (the latter having dug in the 1974-86/8 seasons) to the immediate south and south-west of the charnel, in an attempt to gain wider knowledge of both the Mercian monastery and its grounds, and to discern whether Great Army occupation continued outside a d-shaped enclosure too small to contain a force increasingly considered to be in the thousands (10).
I was fortunate to dig at Repton in both May 2019 and April 2023, the latter on a CPD secondment from the Red River Archaeology Group, and in challenging underfoot conditions.
In 2016-19, the archaeologists revealed lead gaming pieces of the sort typical of Viking winter-camps, an axe fragment, Viking-style arrow, a shattered Mercian stone cross-head, and clinker-type ship nails of the type used in longships. Beyond this, Trench 70 may even have uncovered ground walked on by the Great Army: a pebble path leading towards the charnel entrance. Atop this sat an oval stone setting, perhaps in ship form, containing burnt animal bone. The surface was rich in finds – perhaps those one might expect to discover at a looted Anglo-Saxon Christian centre: spectacular copper alloy brooches with gilded surfaces, sherds of rare blue window glass and coins (11).
Was this that rare moment-in-time snapshot of a religious community fleeing, or being struck down by, Vikings, leaving behind personal adornment in the form of brooches and decorated stick pins, expensive glass vessels and money?
The Last Season (?)
In an attempt to answer those questions, and discover more about Christian activity before and after the winter-camp, we returned in 2023 to bottom out Trench 70 to the undisturbed natural subsoils and extend it to the east in order to investigate a line of grave/pit features likely containing pre-873 inhumations.
Of the eight grave cuts, most produced human remains, with a high water table contributing to generally poor levels of bone preservation. That aside, one skeleton survived in good enough condition for a team including myself to sex the pelvis and lift elements (the left femoral head and several teeth) for post-excavation study. This individual was also noteworthy for their height, with a right femur of c.0.48m, suggesting an extremely tall person for this era, and perhaps providing additional evidence for the presence of well-nourished elites at early medieval Christian communities. It was a real privilege to be given the responsibility to dig this with my colleagues.
Foremark: A Lost Derbyshire Winter-Camp?
While the 2018-23 phase of excavation is at an end, much remains to be done, both in post-ex and in the wider landscape. Indeed, on the latter, October 2018 saw the first excavation of an historically-invisible Great Army camp near the late 9th century Viking cremation cemetery at Heath Wood. Known as Foremark, I was digging at this site with a team under the direction of Cat and Mark that revealed – among other finds – a lead hnefatafl gaming piece considered a tell-tale marker of Great Army activity. Located only a short distance to the east of Repton along the Trent, the seemingly massive site of Foremark may be where the majority of the Great Army overwintered in Derbyshire, and, if possible, a place worthy of long-term investigation in the coming years (12).
The Future: Coquet Valley Vikings
I will return to Viking camps later in 2023; namely the Jane Kershaw-directed Great Army and Northumbrian site in the Coquet Valley identified originally by Jane and Cat Jarman via data – such as those distinctive lead gaming pieces – provided to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and its Finds Liaison Officers by metal detectorists.
The evolving story of the Great Army across Britain is truly exciting, innovative and interdisciplinary; it is a privilege to be involved and the future of the Viking past is exciting.
The 2018 Antiquity article, The Viking Great Army in England: New dates from the Repton charnel, is free to read here: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.196
Dr. Cat Jarman’s 2019 Current Archaeology article, Resolving Repton, is free to read in its website version here: https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/resolving-repton.htm
A 2019 Channel 4 (UK) and PBS (US) documentary, Britain’s Viking Graveyard, accompanied the Foremark and Repton excavations.
My thanks to Cat, Mark, the 1974-88; 2016-2023 teams, my 2018-23 colleagues, the Reverend Martin Flowerdew, the Church of England, and the Repton community. I would also like to thank the Red River Archaeology Group for allowing me to take time away from my job in digital outreach to attend a 2023 season that gave me my first sustained experience of excavating human remains.
1 Jarman et al., 2018: 183, 185
2 Jarman et al. 2018: 185-6
3 Jarman, Current Archaeology
4 Jarman, Current Archaeology (352) = Resolving Repton (website version)
5 Jarman et al. 2018: 186, 194-5
6 Jarman et al. 2018: 184-5
7 Jarman et al. 2018 : 186; Pagan, H. 1986
8 Jarman et al. 2018: 189, 192-3
9 Jarman, Current Archaeology (352); Jarman et al. 2018: 185, 193-4
10 Jarman, Current Archaeology (352)
11 Jarman, Current Archaeology (352)
12 Jarman, Current Archaeology (352)
Jarman, C. (2021). River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads. HarperCollins. https://harpercollins.co.uk/products/river-kings-the-vikings-from-scandinavia-to-the-silk-roads-cat-jarman?variant=39329217445966
Jarman, C. (2019). Resolving Repton. Current Archaeology (352). https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/resolving-repton.htm
Jarman, C., Biddle, M., Higham, T., & Bronk Ramsey, C. (2018). The Viking Great Army in England: New dates from the Repton charnel. Antiquity, 92(361), 183-199. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.196
Pagan, H. (1986). The coins from the mass-burial, in M. Biddle, B. Kjølbye-Biddle, J.P. Northover & H. Pagan, Coins of the Anglo-Saxon period from Repton, Derbyshire: 1. A parcel of pennies from a mass-burial associated with the Viking wintering at Repton in 873–4, in M. Blackburn (Ed.) Anglo-Saxon monetary history. Studies in memory of Michael Dolley: 115–19. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
Biddle, M., & Kjølbye-Biddle, B. (1992). Repton and the Vikings. Antiquity, 66(250), 36-51. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00081023
Thank you to everyone that has ever been part of Team Repton and all other projects in the Great Heathen Hunt. Thanks also to Dr. Cat Jarman for helping make this article far better than it was originally.