Oxygen and Strontium Isotope Research Results from Boneyard

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The skull of Boneyard trauma victim S1018

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S1018, one of the individuals buried on Boneyard who died a traumatic death and was included in the isotope analysis project

Following the presentation on our Sedgeford trauma victims at the Current Archaeology Live 2016 conference, a question was asked by Julian Richards: “Were they the local Saxons or Vikings?”

This was in the light of recent publications on the ‘Dorset Vikings’ (also presented at the conference), where surprise oxygen and strontium isotope research findings from victims in the mass grave showed them to be Vikings from the far northern regions of Scandinavia rather than Saxons local to the West Country.

The reply was that we could be reasonably sure they were local Saxons by virtue of their respectful Christian burial, unlike the heathen Vikings found in Dorset, whose deaths and burial was completely the opposite. But, only science could prove that fact and as a charity we did not have the funds to do the necessary tests for proof. We ended the day with nearly £1000 (plus gift-aid) crowd-funded in cash collected at the conference to do it.

Haraldhur taking samples for isotope analysis at the Old Village Hall

Haraldhur taking samples for isotope analysis at the Old Village Hall

Julian Richards put us in touch with Dr Janet Montgomery at Durham University, one of the country’s leading experts in isotope research. She was very supportive and agreed a generous ‘materials only’ fee for ten samples to be tested for a dissertation by one of her enthusiastic post graduate students. This is about one third of the usually expected fee. She sent a real Icelandic Viking, Haraldhur Haraldsson, to assess, remove, test and interpret the tooth samples for us. This was done at the May gathering of the HR team in 2016 where Haraldhur was able to stay with us for a few days and work in the Old Village Hall. The dissertation earned him a first and he is now a fan of SHARP with hopes of doing more research with us in the future.

At the Current Archaeology Live17 conference time was allocated to reveal the results and thank the Current Archaeology funders for their generosity on behalf of SHARP. Probably one of the longest times ever taken to answer a post presentation audience question!

In short, all ten samples gave successful results. Considering the state of the Saxon teeth, that was a relief since costs are the same even if no answers are forthcoming. The Oxygen and Strontium results combined to exclude cold far northern countries, northern and western Britain. All the samples were closely similar and represent childhood in the east of England on land overlying chalk bedrock consistent with North West Norfolk. As the ten samples included two controls from lower, therefore earlier, levels and two from areas of Boneyard considered a later phase, it is reasonable to conclude the cemetery as a whole represents a stable long term residency from the area.

BACKGROUND THOUGHTS AND RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

There are two uncertainties from the results and they will need more research. Specific dating from the conflict incident individuals is very important. The general Boneyard dates we use are random across the site and pottery can be used only indirectly for a ‘latest date’ probability. Local Saxon disagreements are always in the equation but during the period 750 to 800AD the Mercians are possible perpetrators and they can have similar isotope results. By 800AD it is the Viking Norsemen but they will have very different childhood results and after 850AD the Danes who, again, may have similar results as parts of Denmark are very close, geographically, to north-west Norfolk. There is also the possibility that they are from further afield in the south-east, having come to assist in response to the need for local defence.

DATING

A time that leans on or away from 800AD is the only support we can expect from the imprecise readings of Radiocarbon dating from this time zone. Durham University does not do C14 testing and so this could not be included in the agreed package. We do have contacts and other possibilities but the testing is expensive in comparison to what we have achieved with this new isotope research. We will need at least four tests as the violence may be one big starting point and possibly two more following or the pattern reversed. Each component is potentially in a different time zone with different perpetrators rather than a continual saga. This has significance in the way the Sedgeford locals reacted afterwards, as seen in the archaeology, and how soon. Science will never be accurate to the year but collectively the evidence can narrow down the possibilities.

DNA

We are also excited about a possible inclusion in DNA research for a wide migration study to be done in 2017. These same individuals could then have another dimension added to assess their kinship and diversity.

A chance to show we may not be digging in the dirt but digging for clues we still are!

Ray Baldry, SHARP Human Remains Team

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