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By Ian Sample, Science editor
DNA tests on ancient bones show men were related and died following violent incidents
The skeletons of two Viking age men who were related but died on opposite sides of the North Sea are to be reunited in an exhibition in Copenhagen this month.
DNA tests on the ancient bones suggest the men were either half-brothers or a nephew and an uncle, according to Prof Eske Willerslev, a Danish evolutionary geneticist based at the University of Cambridge. Both of the Norsemen died following violent incidents.
The skeleton of the first man, a farmer in his 50s, was excavated in 2005 near the town of Otterup in central Denmark. Analysis of the bones found that he was 6ft, had arthritis in most of his joints, and signs of inflammation potentially indicative of tuberculosis.
But further markings on the bones – in particular, a violent lesion on the left of his pelvis – are believed to have come from a stab wound that may have proved fatal. “The wound from that blow may have cost him his life because it did not heal,” said Jesper Hansen, chief curator at Odense City Museums. The wound has led researchers to suspect the man took part in the kinds of raids that made the Vikings notorious.
The second skeleton was unearthed in 2008 under the quadrangle at St John’s College, Oxford. There, archaeologists found the remains of at least 35 young men aged 16 to 25. The men are thought to have been slaughtered in the St Brice’s Day massacre more than 1,000 years ago when – on hearing of a Danish plot to assassinate him – the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready ordered the extermination of all Danes in England.
On the day of the massacre, the Danes in Oxford sought refuge in St Frideswide’s church, now Christ Church Cathedral, but were pursued by townsfolk who set fire to the building.
On examining the bones, archaeologists found evidence of extreme violence at the mass grave. The man’s skull shows traces of at least nine strike or puncture points caused by a sword or another sharp object, and it appears he was speared several times in the back. “He died of massive injuries from several types of weapons,” said Lasse Sørensen, head of research at the National Museum of Denmark. Carbon dating suggests the bodies were buried between AD960 and AD1020.
The Viking age spanned from AD793 to AD1066 when Norsemen indulged in raids, conquests and trading across Europe and reached as far as Newfoundland in Canada. Having established their genetic relationship, the pair of skeletons are to go on display as part of an exhibition called Togtet meaning The Raid at the National Museum of Denmark.
This article was originally published on June 9th, 2021 on The Guardian.