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Vengeance on the Vikings

Mass burials in England attest to a turbulent time, and perhaps a notorious medieval massacre


Tuesday, October 01, 2013



On November 13, A.D. 1002, Æthelred Unræd, ruler of the English kingdom of Wessex, “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England,” according to a royal charter. This drastic step was not taken on a whim, but was the product of 200 years of Anglo-Saxon frustration and fear. Vikings, who had long plagued the Isles with raids and wars, had taken over the north and begun settling there. Concerns were growing that they had designs on Æthelred’s southern realm as well.


Æthelred’s order led to what is known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, named for the saint’s feast day on which it fell. The event has long been cloaked in mystery and misinformation. Archaeology, so far, has had little to offer in the matter of what actually happened and how many people died that day, but two mass burials recently unearthed are beginning to expose this turbulent period around the end of the first millennium. Could they be the first archaeological evidence of the massacre? Or might they offer a glimpse into some other aspect of the conflict between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings? Archaeologists are examining a trail of clues, including historical sources, wound patterns, and isotopic analysis of teeth, to put what was no doubt a violent series of deaths into perspective.


The Vikings of popular imagination were raiders and pillagers in longboats and (mythical) horned helmets, but the term “Viking” also refers to the farming, trading, crafting, exploring Scandinavian culture from which these raiders came. The Vikings that attacked and settled England and France were, for the most part, from or identified with Denmark. (The Norwegians went north and west, and the Swedes east, though there was a lot of movement of people among the Viking territories.) Viking raids in England began in the late eighth century A.D. and led to the fall of England’s northern kingdoms. Many of the Danish settlers were warriors granted land as a reward for success in battle. The only Anglo-Saxon holdout was Wessex, a powerful and wealthy kingdom that controlled most of the south of the island. An 878 treaty established the boundaries of Wessex and the Danish-controlled area, known as the Danelaw.


There is much discussion among historians about the nature of the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. Many of the new settlers had once been warriors, but they eventually brought along their families. The Danes farmed, traded, and even intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population, and their cultural influence can be seen in language, place names, and surnames that persist in England today. Some historians argue that there weren’t all that many Danish settlers and that they assimilated many local traditions and beliefs. But there was likely some tension and resentment between the Danish settlers and the Anglo-Saxons (who, ironically, were also descended from continental invaders).



Burial Pit, ca. 960-1020, St. John's College, Oxford

Ancient Tattoos

Body art has been a meaningful form of expression throughout the ages


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

tattoos-package-imageThe practice of adorning the body with images and symbols has become nearly ubiquitous in our time, and the reasons for getting a tattoo are enormously varied and highly personal. It was no less so in antiquity as can be seen in this survey of body art that spans thousands of years and an array of cultures—each a unique demonstration of the ways in which peoples across the globe chose to express themselves.

Life on the Inside

Open for only six weeks toward the end of the Civil War, Camp Lawton preserves a record of wartime prison life


Sunday, November 10, 2013



Camp Lawton had been on the mind of John Derden, a professor emeritus of history at East Georgia College, for decades, ever since he visited Magnolia Springs State Park in 1973. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources had turned the springs, which produce seven million gallons of crystal-clear water a day, into a state park in 1939. Some 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, Magnolia Springs is also the location of Camp Lawton, a surprisingly undisturbed Civil War site, where Confederate forces, for a brief time, imprisoned Union enlisted men.


“When I made that first visit, I saw a tablet in the park about the camp,” Derden recalls. He discovered that some rudimentary archaeological surveys—a few shovel tests over the years—had essentially turned up no remains from the nineteenth century. Only some of the surrounding earthworks, where manned munitions had been mounted and aimed menacingly toward the prison population, still stood. Derden, like pretty much everyone else, assumed no significant remains were left to help advance any chronicle of the camp and its inhabitants.


Nonetheless convinced of a worthy narrative, Derden plugged away at putting one together, relying on other sources, such as diaries and letters from the time, including the drawings and accounts of Private Robert Knox Sneden, a Union prisoner in the camp. Derden’s research revealed that Camp Lawton, a functioning prison for only six weeks, would end up being burned to the ground at the hands of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864 as the Civil War drew toward its end. The prison had held upwards of 10,000 individuals on more than 42 acres fortified by an imposing pine-log stockade. Of those 10,000 Union prisoners, more than 700 died during their brief time at Camp Lawton. The survivors were evacuated in a hasty nighttime maneuver just one month before Sherman swept through the region. After these events, the camp was pretty much forgotten.


Derden’s scholarship resulted in a completed manuscript, The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton. As it was about sent to the publisher in 2010, in an interesting twist, Derden and other historians, archaeologists, Civil War buffs, and locals were stunned to learn that Kevin Chapman, a graduate student at nearby Georgia Southern University, just 40 minutes down the road from the site, not only had discovered intriguing Civil War–era artifacts, but also had successfully located pieces of the prison’s burned stockade wall. As news hit The New York Times, CNN, and other national outlets, Derden had just enough time to tuck a final chapter into his book. Excavation of the site then cranked into full gear, led by Lance Greene, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern, with Derden serving as an ad hoc adviser and expert. Archaeological evidence can now be brought to bear on nuances of daily subsistence in a community that existed for a mere month and a half in the fall of 1864. “This might be the last chance to look at a debate that still rages,” says Greene. “Who was to blame for dying prisoners? Were Confederates trying to starve them out?” Looking for answers to these questions is just a piece of the effort. The archaeologists are also searching for clues as to whether life was better or worse, depending on which side of the stockade wall a person found himself.



Online Exclusive:
Camp Lawton's Stockade and Forgotten Population
A Civil War POW Camp in Watercolor





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