The three dozen skeletons found under the Kendrew Quad in St John’s were Danes slaughtered in an act of ethnic cleansing, Oxford researchers have discovered.
Builders found between 34 and 38 young male bodies while digging the foundations of the new quad back in March 2008.
Carbon dating suggested the men died between 960 and 1020 AD, and initially it was thought that they were Saxons executed as criminals.
“They were lying over a prehistoric ditch,” said project leader Sean Wallis, “and buried under a late medieval building, so we thought they had to be somewhere in between.”
But now Wallis, who works for the Thames Valley Archaeological Service, believes he can pinpoint the killings to 1008 years ago to the day.
On November 13 1002, King Aethelred the Unready ordered the holocaust of every Dane in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how the Danes in Oxford were rounded up into a church which was then razed to the ground as part of the St Brice’s Day Massacre.
“It was an awful decision,” commented Robin McGhee, reading History at St Anne’s. “Basically Aethelred was one of the worst kings in British history and didn’t know what he was doing. The Danes invaded Saxon England a few years later.”
The bodies in the Kendrew Quad are an exact match for the Danes, Wallis explained: “There were puncture wounds, sword cuts, and various other wounds.
“Some of them were decapitated, and others were almost decapitated. They were all charred.”
“The Vikings are well known for raping and pillaging, but they were primarily traders. These men could well have been merchants in Oxford, although there is a chance that they were the bodyguards of the daughter of the King of Denmark.”
Forensic science students from Oxford and Cherwell Valley College will continue to study the remains, and Wallis hopes to publish his findings in the near future.
Meanwhile, the reaction from St John’s students has been mixed.
“It’s really very creepy,” said second-year physicist Jane Saldanha. “I don’t think I’m going to get a good night’s sleep in college for a while. I’ll certainly think twice about heading across the Kendrew Quad in future.”
However, Classics graduate student Matt Hosty put a brave face on things.
“It doesn’t trouble me at all,” he said. “Our college has a fine tradition of sanctifying its foundations with blood sacrifice, and I’m reassured that the Kendrew Quad is built on such a fine tradition.”