A Viking Age family reunion

It is believed that this group may represent a Viking population who had settled in Oxford for some years.

The skeletons of two relatives who died over 1,000 years ago on opposite sides of the North Sea have been reunited for the first time in a new exhibition, called The Raid, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

image: Troels Donnerborg Nationalmuseet

The discovery of their kinship was made by a team from the University of Copenhagen during their project mapping the DNA of the Viking world (see CA 369). Through sequencing the DNA of 442 individuals from Viking Age sites across Europe and Greenland, the team was able not only to find population-level genetic flow, but was also able to identify any genetic-relatedness between individuals. While many of those identified as kin were found either within the same burial site or within the same region, one pair particularly jumped out. A man who was buried in Oxford appears to have been a second-degree relative (that is, either a half-brother, nephew/uncle, or grandson/grandfather) of a man found buried more than 500km away in the cemetery of Galgedil near Otterup on the Danish island of Funen.

Attesting to the violence of the period, both men appear to have been murdered. The man buried at Galgedil was tall, and seems to have been in his 50s when he died. Along with skeletal lesions possibly caused by arthritis and tuberculosis, he had a puncture lesion on the left side of his pelvis that is consistent with a stab wound that occurred at or around his time of death. The cemetery in which he was buried was dated as a whole to c.AD 800-1050.

At Oxford, the relative of the Galgedil man was found in a mass burial pit in the grounds of St John’s College in 2008. All of the 35 skeletons exhumed from this grave were found to have extensive perimortem injuries with few defensive wounds and, apart from two teenagers, they were all adult men who appear to have been taller than average. Specifically, the man in question seems to have been stabbed several times in the head and back. It is believed that this group may represent a Viking population who had settled in Oxford for some years and may have been the victims of the St Brice’s Day Massacre, which saw the slaughter of many Danes on 13 November 1002 on the orders of Æthelred II.