Maybe you pictured Viking raiders numbering in the dozens or hundreds, making a beachhead in the middle of the night to do lightning-fast strikes onto English soil, taking riches and women and then stealing away back to Scandinavia.
While that was true of many Vikings, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a huge army encampment on English soil in Lincolnshire in the 9th century that was established to conquer England. The camp, set up for the winter of 872 to 873, was home to thousands of Vikings, says a press release on the Sheffield University website.
This army was known as the Great Heathen Army in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865. Previous Viking invasions were hit and run, but this one was meant to conquer the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This army remained in England for 10 years, conquering all the kingdoms except Wessex. In 871, Alfred the Great of Essex paid the Vikings to leave. In 875, the Vikings attacked Wessex, but King Alfred defeated the Great Heathen Army.
Vikings Heading for Land by Frank Dicksee, 1873 (Public Domain)
The Torksey Camp
The Viking camp was on the banks of the River Trent in Torksey and was a strategic and defensive outpost in the winter for part of the military campaign. Researchers from the universities of Sheffield and York did the studies which determined that Viking warriors, women and children by the thousands lived in tents on the site. Researchers determined the Vikings repaired ships, played games, melted loot of gold and silver to use in trade, and manufactured things they needed.
The size and location of the camp had been debated for years, but the new research located it precisely and revealed it was at least 55 hectares (135 acres). That is bigger than even some cities of the time, including York, the press release states.
An image from the Museum of Yorkshire virtual reality experience showing Viking ships under repair. ( University of Sheffield )
The press release quotes chief researcher Professor Dawn Hadley of the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology as saying:
‘The Vikings’ camp at Torksey was much more than just a handful of hardy warriors – this was a huge base, larger than most contemporary towns, complete with traders, families, feasting, and entertainment. From what has been found at the site, we know they were repairing their boats there and melting down looted gold and silver to make ingots – or bars of metal they used to trade. Metal detectorists have also found more than 300 lead game pieces, suggesting the Vikings, including, women and children, were spending a lot of time playing games to pass the time, waiting for spring and the start of their next offensive.’
A Viking sword from the same 10-year Viking campaign to conquer England but from a different site. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Metal detectorists and archaeologists have found more than 300 coins and more than 50 pieces of chopped up silver, including brooch fragments and ingots. They have also found rare hack-gold or chopped up gold. Among the coins are 100 Arabic silver coins that researchers assume came to the site from Viking trade routes.
Other artifacts include 300 gaming pieces, spindle whorls, fishing weights, needles and iron tools.
Researchers at the University of York have developed a virtual reality show to give some perspective on what life was like in the Viking army camp. The scenes in the show are based on actual objects that archaeologists and metal detectorists have found at the camp in Torksey. The shows opens today (May 19, 2017) at Yorkshire Museum.
Professor Julian Richards of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York said: “These extraordinary images offer a fascinating snap shot of life at a time of great upheaval in Britain.
“The Vikings had previously often raided exposed coastal monasteries and returned to Scandinavia in winter, but in the later ninth century they came in larger numbers, and decided to stay. This sent a very clear message that they now planned not only to loot and raid – but to control and conquer.”
Top image: Artist’s impression of a Viking camp. ( Vance Kovaks )
By Mark Miller