A massive 1,100-year-old graveyard leads to a surprising new view of the Nordic legacy in Britain
St. Wystan’s church in Repton. In 873-874, a Viking army is believed to have entrenched in the garden. Right, Viking burial mounds in Heath Wood
Cat Jarman led me through a dense tangle of forest called Heath Wood. We were in Derbyshire, close to the very heart of England. There was no path, and the forest floor was overgrown with bracken and bush. It was easy to lose your footing and even easier to lose your way. Jarman, a fit, cheery woman in her late 30s, plunged jauntily on as I tried to keep up. “See all these lumps and bumps?” she asked as we broke into a small clearing. She pointed to an array of 59 small, rounded hillocks, many two or so feet high and four or five feet in diameter. Humans, not nature, had clearly put these things here, and they gave off a spooky, supernatural energy.
“We are literally walking across a Viking cemetery—the only known Scandinavian cremation cemetery in the whole country,” says Jarman, an archaeologist, whose new book, River Kings, takes a fresh look at who the Vikings really were and what exactly they were up to here. She flashes me a broad smile. “It’s very good, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is good—simple, powerful and mysterious. For a ceremonial burial place, the Vikings picked a surprisingly unceremonial spot. The overgrown forest shrouds these tombs in anonymity. There is no visible sign of a Viking settlement nearby, just an expanse of open fields and beyond that, a hamlet with a church, school and a few houses. The Vikings used rivers to get around, but it’s an awfully long hike from here to where the River Trent flows today. Which raises a big question, says Jarman. “Why have you got these Scandinavian cremation mounds here in the middle of nowhere?”
Newly analyzed lake sediments provided more information about the climate in the East Settlement where Vikings lived in Greenland. (Image credit: Tobias Schneider)
Scientists may have found an important factor behind why the Norse mysteriously abandoned their largest settlement on Greenland. And it wasn't cold weather, as some had long thought.
Rather, drought might have played a major role in the abandonment of the Eastern Settlement of Vikings around 1450, new research suggests.
"We conclude that increasingly dry conditions played a more important role in undermining the viability of the Eastern Settlement than minor temperature changes," a team of scientists – many of whom are based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst – wrote in an article published online March 23 in the journal Science Advances.
"Drier climate would have notably reduced grass production, which was essential for livestock overwintering, and this drying trend is concurrent with a Norse diet shift" toward seafood, the team wrote.
About 1,000 years ago, Vikings settled on the southern tip of Greenland, where they thrived for centuries despite sunless winters and punishing conditions. But these Norse peoples of Greenland eventually vanished in the 15th century, leaving behind bones, ruins, and a tantalizing unsolved mystery about the events that led up to the collapse of their remote society.
Scientists have often pointed to the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling that coincides with the disappearance of the far-flung Greenlandic Norse, as a likely explanation for the abandonment of the so-called Eastern Settlement that supported some 2,000 Vikings at its peak.