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Repton & #thegreatheathenarmy: #thegreatvikingholiday Part 2

Still buzzing after our visit to Norway, we packed the car on a Friday afternoon in late June. This time, as well as our tents and living history equipment, we also packed two very excited children.

They've always loved going away to re-create history at the weekend (they've been doing it since birth), but this trip was going to be very special.

In 865, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us, a large host of Vikings landed at Thanet in Kent.

So far, The Viking Age in Britain & Ireland had been characterised largely by raiding. The traditional view is that they were opportunistic and savage hit-and-run raids for slaves and treasure, but historians like Dr Clare Downham have suggested they may have been a bit more organised, targeting high-ranking churchmen and holy relics for ransom as well (see her article in "The Conversation" here).

However, now the Viking Age entered a new phase. Coming from bases in Ireland and the Continent, this Great Army was to move all over Britain from Pictland to Wessex, toppling kings and ultimately settling. Exactly what was going on isn't clear: the traditional view that they were installing locally-born 'puppet kings' might be a bit simplistic, and after reading Professor Guy Halsall's Worlds of Arthur and Warfare and Society there is a very real possibility that, in some cases, the Great Army might have been invited by nobles of the various kingdoms to take out their rivals.

Whatever the case, The Great Army spent the next 8 years making war on the Kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex establishing a base at Torksey in 873 before moving up the River Trent to Repton 874 where they forced Mercia's King Burgred into exile and set up camp at the Royal Mausoleum at St. Wystan's.

Between 1974-1988 the land around the churchyard was excavated and a number of Viking Age Burials and evidence of earthworks were uncovered, a rare instance of archaeology seeming to confirm a historical event. This was thrown in to doubt in the 1990s, when Carbon 14 Isotope Dating seemed to suggest some the bones from Repton were 200 years too early!

Recently the site has undergone new excavations, and the Carbon Dating has been re-examined by Dr Cat Jarman - more of that later! - so, after the mother of all digressions, we'd been invited to the village of Repton for a day of Living History and Archaeology organised by the Repton Village History Group!

Repton is now a quiet Derbyshire Village, and it was quite hard to imagine the bustling camp of the Great Army as we set up our encampment on the Mitre Field.

The Living History Camp featured members from several re-enactment societies coming together like a viking super-group! There were displays featuring all kinds of craft activities including cooking, textiles, and wood, bone & antler working; talks on viking burials and viking-age beliefs, weapon displays and that was just us.

In addition the Local History Group had organised have-a-go archaeology & a range of other activities for people of all ages. Dr Cat Jarman had even come up from Bristol with some finds from the recent excavations - I've no doubt she inspired some of the next generation of archaeologist that afternoon. Sadly, it was too busy for me to get any photos!

At four o'clock I headed down to St Wystan's where Cat gave a talk on her recent publication. I'll put a few links below, and try to summarise it here. Some of the human remains from Repton had been Carbon 14 Dated to around 600-700, but one of these burials also contained coins minted around the time the Great Army was in Repton.

Something was clearly amiss, so Cat looked at the Carbon 14 Isotope Dating again. She already knew that Carbon from the sea sits around longer than it does on land, so if an animal or a person eats more sea animals like fish, it might make them appear older using Carbon 14 Dating. Cat was able to look at other Isotopes, like Carbon 13, and discovered the 'older' remains had a higher proportion of fish in their diet. When she adjusted the Carbon 14 Tests accordingly, all the dates were consistent with a date around the time of the Great Army!

This is over-simplified, but I'll post links below if you want to get more detail.

Cat came back to the camp after the Talk and we all had a good blether. Particularly excited to meet her (apart from me, obviously!) was my eldest daughter, who couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted to be a Scientist or an Archaeologist when she grew up.

Her mind was blown when she found out Cat was both, as a Bio-archaeologist. As well as being frighteningly clever, Cat was also very generous with her time and lovely to speak to, a fantastic role model for both my kids!

Whilst I'd been off gallivanting, our chefs had been preparing a feast. Tables were gathered

in the loose horse-shoe of our encampment, benches were brought and places were set with drinking vessels, bowls and trenchers.

The meal was served, and there was so much good stuff it's hard to remember it all, but there was beef, salmon, chicken, all kinds of dried foods, cheeses, bread, stew, and even some fabulous puddings. We feasted like kings: Tapas meets Al Fresco served Viking Style!

Once all the courses were out of the way we all sang a big happy birthday to one of our number, who seemed delighted with his obligatory Viking-themed present: a reproduction Early Medieval Spade! (he was less happy when he was told he now had dig a massive ditch to defend us from angry Mercians)

The rest of the evening passed very pleasantly with the kids all playing nicely until twilight, whilst a group of people from different re-enactment groups, all of different ages and backgrounds chatted enthusiastically about their shared passion for Viking Age History and Archaeology.

We'd leave Repton the next day, but for some of us #thegreatvikingholiday Part 2 was only just beginning, so stay tuned for our journey to the Isle of Man :)

Further Information

  • Dr Jarman's Paper on the C14 Dates for Repton is Open Access and can be here

  • A superb Talk on her work at Repton was delivered as part of the University of Nottingham's Vikings In the East Midlands Project here

  • Before Repton, there was Torksey! Read Current Archaeology's article here

  • To read the Prof Dawn Hadleys' & Prof Julian D. Richards' Final Reports for Torksey, they're Open Access from the Univ. of York here

  • And if getting your head around Carbon Dating is making your brain hurt, check out Dr Cloe Duckworth's excellent video on her @ArchaeoDuck Channel here

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