Tuesday 19 March 2013

PhD project Q & A

What happened at Repton in the 9th century?

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an historical document written down some time between 900 and 1200 AD, the Viking Great Army travelled to Repton and overwintered there in 873-874AD. At the time Repton was an important site in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, with a church and a double-house monastery dating back to the 7th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that when the Vikings arrived in Repton, they also conquered Mercia, drove King Burgred across the sea, and placed a puppet king under their control on the throne.

When was the site excavated, and what was uncovered around the church?

Martin Biddle at Repton in 1974. Image copyright: University of York Department of Archaeology / Estate of P.A. Rahtz
The area around St Wystan's church was excavated by Martin Biddle and  Birthe KjĂžlbye-Biddle between 1974 and 1993. They discovered a high number of burials belonging to cemeteries from periods from the earliest use of the church, and right through to the 16th century. But they also discovered a vast ditch, which ran from two sides of the church and down to where the river Trent used to run. This created a D-shaped enclosure, with the church as a gate house. Inside and nearby this, they discovered several graves with typical Scandinavian grave goods, including an iron sword and a Thor's hammer pendant. One of these graves also contained coins dating to the mid 870s.

What was found in the vicarage garden?

Next to the church, in the vicarage garden, there a low mound was found to contain the bones of at least 264 people inside the remains of an older stone building.  The skeletons were all disarticulated  (jumbled up), and there was evidence that they may once have been stacked neatly inside the room , a practice known as a charnel burial.  Around 80% of those buried there were men, and many where substantially larger in stature than average men from that period.  Among the bones the excavators found a number of artefacts, including coins dating to the period 872-874. The mound had been built up on top of this, by means of a stone cairn covered with earth. Outside the mound, by the south west corner, there was a pit containing the skeletons of four young people and a sheep's jaw. Later, in the 10th century, new burials were cut into the top of the mound, at the same time as burials continued around the church.  However the mound burials were different; stone coffins were more common, and some contained artefacts with similarities to Scandinavian types.    

What are you trying to find out?

I am trying to find out who the people buried at Repton were; what their social and cultural identities may have been. Martin Biddle has argued that the skeletons in the charnel belonged to the Viking army, but others have suggested they were the remains of the local Anglo-Saxon population, or even a combination of the two. I am going to investigate these people's geographical origins, and also look for similarities and differences in diet between the charnel burials and the cemeteries on the mound and around the church.

…..and how exactly are you going to do that?

My main method is going to be isotope analyses of tooth enamel and bone collagen.  When the enamel of  our permanent teeth form during childhood, they take up elements like strontium from the food we eat.  Isotopes of strontium get into the food chain through soils, which in turn are affected by the underlying geology in an area. Because different geographical areas have different geology, this also affects the strontium isotopes that find their way into human tooth enamel. In a similar way we can study oxygen isotopes from the water we consume; this varies geographically too in relation to different latitudes and altitudes. The  specific oxygen and strontium isotope ratios from the area where a person grew up remain more or less unaltered in  tooth enamel even after thousands of years in the ground.
In a similar way, our bones take up chemical signatures from the types of food we eat. Collagen in human and animal bone preserves isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen relating directly to the protein sources in a person's diet. Someone who has eaten mainly seafood will therefore have a very different isotope signal from a vegetarian. As bone collagen is constantly changing and renewing, the isotope ratios we can analyse from a femur (thigh bone) for example, relate to the last 7-10 years of his or her life. Our diets are often closely linked to our identities, and are affected by our geographical locations, status or wealth, and our cultural and social practices and norms. By combining the evidence for geographical backgrounds and differences in diets I hope to untangle the identities of the people from Viking age Repton.

When will you have the results? 

The project started in October 2012, and is due to be finished in 2015. 

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