The south English county of Dorset is noted for being home to Thomas Hardy, the famed writer who used bucolic descriptions of the region in many of his novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native.
It’s also the site of a mass burial ground for dozens of Viking mercenaries, decapitated en masse and placed in shallow graves a millennia ago.
The burial site features the bodies of 54 men who were decapitated and their heads piled to one side. It was discovered in 2009.
Carbon dating and isotope tests revealed the bodies were Scandinavian and dated from the 11th century, according to the BBC.
This coincides with the period in which Vikings were constantly attacking Anglo-Saxons on the English south coast. It is believed the men were captured during an attempted raid into the area.
The skeletons are all of males, with almost all aged from their late teens to around 25 years old, with a handful of older individuals.
Evidence shows they were killed at the same time with a large, very sharp weapon such as a sword.
Indicative of the dangers of medieval warfare, it appears they were not cleanly killed, as many suffered multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls, according to the BBC.
They had no obvious battle wounds and were most likely captives. More bodies than heads were recovered, suggesting that a couple of the heads – possibly that of high-ranking individuals – were put on stakes to warn future invaders.
Britt Baillie, a University of Cambridge professor, said she believes the killings could have taken place during the reign of Aethelred the Unready (whose appellation would indicate the lack of a competent palace public relations staff).
Following a series of Viking attacks, the English monarch ordered all Danish men in England to be killed on Nov. 13, 1002, the feast day of St. Brice.
The killings became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.
Dorset wasn’t the only place Vikings were put to the sword.
Remains have been found in Oxford and it is thought that massacres also took place in London, Bristol and Gloucester, according to the BBC.
However, Baillie said in some respects the killings at Ridgeway Hill were unique.
“Unlike the frenzied mob attack that took place at Oxford, all the men were murdered methodically and beheaded in an unusual fashion from the front,” according to the BBC.
The Cambridge academic said she believed the skeletons belonged to a group of Viking killers who modeled themselves on a legendary group of mercenaries.
They were the Jomsvikings, founded by Harald Bluetooth and based at Jomsborg on the Baltic coast.
The Jomsvikings became known throughout the medieval world for their strict military codes, which included not showing fear and never running away in the face of the enemy unless completely outnumbered.
This could have led to the men being beheaded from the front, rather than being killed as they tried to escape.
(Above: A researcher sifts through the Viking bones found at the Ridgeway Hill site in Dorset, England, in 2009.)