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Repton Viking camp is larger, older than realized

Posted: 26 Nov 2017 08:55 PM PST

Archaeologists have unearthed weapons fragments, artifacts and the remains of workshops from a 9th century Viking camp next to St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire. The University of Bristol team discovered the objects in the garden of the Vicarage adjacent to the church and were able to date by them precisely to the winter of 873-4, thanks to the application of cutting edge technology to retest bones from a mass grave found a few feet from the new dig site in the 1980s.

Archaeologists had long suspected that there might be a Viking camp there because it’s in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Great Army “moved from Lindsey to Repton and there took winter quarters” in 873. They relieved the King of Mercia, Burghred, of his heavy crown and took his kingdom. They let him keep his head, at least; he was simply expelled from Mercia. A location on the River Trent seemed likely. River access is probably one the main reasons they moved to Repton and set up a camp for the winter in the first place; the presence of a large and wealthy monastery on the banks of the Trent that contained the tombs and mortal remains of several Mercian kings was another good incentive.

In 1975, archaeologists excavating near the church on the banks of the Trent for the Viking camp site referred to in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought they’d found what they had been seeking. They unearthed the remains of a medieval D-shaped enclosure built after the monastery. Dig co-leaders Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle thought the enclosure and artifacts indicated this was indeed the Repton Viking Camp. The only problem was finding hard evidence of it. For a Viking camp, it was uncharacteristically tiny at about 1.5 hectares in surface area. Other Great Army camps are far larger, like the one at Torksey which is 26 hectares in area.

Additional archaeological explorations of the site in the 1980s made another major discovery: a mound containing a mass charnel grave with the remains of more than 300 people. Researchers believed them to be Vikings killed in battle, but radiocarbon testing dated the remains in the 7th or 8th centuries, so at least a century too early to be part of the Great Army.

In pursuit of fresh information regarding the size of the camp, University of Bristol doctoral candidate Cat Jarman and Professor Mark Horton of the University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology picked a location on the west side of the enclosure and just outside of the boundary to see if there were other structures or other evidence of Viking occupation.

Geophysics, including ground penetrating radar, revealed structures including paths and possible temporary buildings.

Excavations showed these to be gravel platforms that may have held ephemeral timber structures or tents with deposits including fragments of Saxon millstones and a cross fragment from the monastery.

Associated were broken pieces of weaponry, including fragments of a battle-axes and arrows, and evidence for metal working. Also found were substantial numbers of nails, two of which had roves, the particular feature of Viking ship nails, as well as several lead gaming pieces. These are of a type that has been found in large numbers at the camp in Torksey and appear to be specifically connected to the early Viking armies.

Cat Jarman … said: “Our dig shows there was a lot more to the Viking Camp at Repton than what we may have thought in the past. It covered a much larger area than was once presumed – at least the area of the earlier monastery – and we are now starting to understand the wide range of activities that toonok place in these camps.”

As significant as they are, artifacts and structural remains alone could not provide archaeologist with the date evidence they needed. It was the bones from the charnel mound, found a few yards north of the most recent excavation, that stepped up to the plate. It’s not the 1980s anymore, and radiocarbon dating technology is more advanced and precise today than it was then. It also requires far smaller samples. We also have stable isotope analysis now which allows researchers to determine from levels of certain isotopes in the teeth where a person was born and raised, what kind of food he or she ate and more.

Jarman's latest and greatest radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis results found that not only are the bones 9th century, but they died in the winter of 873-4, just when The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Vikings set up camp in Repton. They also found a direct connection between the remains of the workshop and the charnel mound.

The remains were placed in a deliberately damaged Saxon building along with Viking weapons and artefacts.

The building also contained evidence of use as a workshop by the Vikings before it was converted into a charnel house.

The Bristol team located a path linking their workshop area and the charnel house, further strengthening the link between the two.

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