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The extent of Viking settlement in Britain

1 December 2016

Chart showing estimated number of Danish Viking settlers

Research involving the Institute's Jane Kershaw draws into question the findings of a recent study regarding the extent of Viking settlement in Britain.

Last year, the People of the British Isles (PoBI) project claimed to reveal the extent of first millennium AD human migrations into Britain. Combining large-scale, local DNA sampling with innovative data analysis, the project generated a survey of the genetic structure of Britain in unprecedented detail.

One of the most popularly-cited results was the striking claim that the Danish Vikings, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxons, made only a modest demographic impact on modern British genetic diversity. This key finding appeared to settle one of the longest-standing questions in early medieval archaeology: the extent of Viking settlement in Britain.

In a debate paper, published in the current issue of Antiquity (December 2016), Jane and co-author Ellen C. Royrvik highlight issues with two aspects of the study which seriously undermine its key findings:

  • the failure to recognise that the Danes and Anglo-Saxons originated from the same geographic area, and are thus impossible to distinguish genetically, and
  • the fact that the study’s estimated date of Anglo-Saxon ‘admixture’ (interbreeding with the native population) post-dates the Anglo-Saxon migrations by 400 years, and sits squarely within the period of Viking activity in Britain.

The authors offer alternative interpretations, to suggest that the genetic legacy of Danish Vikings in Britain might well be substantial. Drawing on new artefactual and linguistic evidence they argue for a significant Danish Viking presence in England, comprising not just warriors, but entire family groups.

They have also employed a new quantitative approach to illustrate absolute numbers of migrants using two different starting points (population proportion and Viking metalwork items). This is, to their knowledge, the first time that total numbers of Viking settlers in England have been scientifically estimated.

Ellen C. Royrvik is a geneticist while Jane Kershaw is a Viking-Age archaeologist and are thus in a unique position to comment on the method employed in the POBI study.