In the summer of 2009, in the relatively quiet coastal town of Weymouth in Dorset, England, a construction crew accidentally uncovered an ancient burial site. Archaeologists and scholars quickly turned the area into a historical dig, and studied the remains of 54 humans who were buried there. They found it was a mass grave of headless Vikings, and one of the most important historic discoveries made in the last century. It was more than just archeological evidence of Vikings to them: it was a revelation to the political and social climate at the time.
Æthelred the Unready, the English king during the time of the deaths, was clashing with the Sweyn, the king of Denmark. He was tired of Viking raiders pillaging his English coastal towns, and had ordered the slaughter of all the Danish men who lived in England at the time. It resulted in the infamous St Brice’s Day massacre in 1002 AD, where an untold amount of Danes were slaughtered.
Some of them legally lived in England at the time, and a few were even Danish nobility. Though the Vikings found in Dorset were most likely mercenaries rather than settled townsfolk, it was clear that they met an untimely and bloody end - one they fearlessly faced head-on.
When the pit of skeletal remains was fully unearthed, it was quickly discovered most of their heads were placed on one side of the pit. The rest of their bodies were heaped on top of each other in a tangle of torsos and dismembered extremities. According to archaeological evidence, they died in what seemed to be a bloody execution in front of an audience or crowd.
The corpses bore weapon marks on their skulls, jaws, and necks, which indicated their heads were lopped off with swords or other edged weapons. And judging from the cuts, it looked like the executioners hacked into their prisoners' necks multiple times before they succeeded in beheading them. It’s possible that was because they had difficulty beheading the Vikings, or perhaps they enjoyed their task a little too much.
Of the 54 bodies found in the execution pit, only 51 heads were recovered. The three "missing" heads were theorized to be taken as trophies, or posted up on pikes to ward off any future attacks. Additionally, most of the bodies that were discovered were young men ages 18 to 25.
However, a handful were a little older than that, which could indicate they were the leaders of the 50-man raid group. Interestingly, the remains of a Viking helmet, axe, and jawbone were found a few miles from the execution pit. Some speculated that this jawbone might have been one of the missing heads from the Dorset Vikings.
When the site was first discovered, no one was sure who was in that pit, and every conceivable explanation was up for grabs. However, carbon dating and other isotope tests were performed on a number of the bones. They discovered the bones were from men, and that most were in their late teens to mid-twenties.
It was also discovered they came from colder regions, and were voracious meat eaters. In fact, they found out they all came from various regions in Scandinavia, and matched similar readings from skeletons that came from Norway and Sweden. In other words, the bones told scientists they were Viking mercenaries who lived and died around 1000 AD.
The teeth on all of the skulls were found to have unusual markings. It appears they were filed as a sort of status symbol - the equivalent of a war tattoo for Vikings. It corroborated with stories about the Jomsvikings - Scandinavian warriors whose tolerance for pain, and lust for blood was legendary. Or, at the very least, they emulated the Jomsvikings. In essence, they painfully filed their teeth with parallel scores to show off their warrior status. Many had two or even three scores, while some had only one.
As further proof, these Vikings were gruesomely beheaded from the front, which was also part of the Jomsviking legend. In one such tale, a captured Jomsviking was adamant about being cut down while facing his executioner:
I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.