Around 800 years ago, 10 people were laid to rest in a cemetery on the Italian island of Sicily. Three were women, two were children. But it was the male skeletons that caught the attention of local archaeologists who uncovered the bones earlier this year. They were far larger than the bones of “normal” Sicilians, with what one archaeologist called a “massive” build.
These hulking skeletons are believed to have been the descendants of Vikings who colonized northern France and, later, southern Italy and Sicily.
A new paper published in the journal Science in Poland describes how a team of researchers uncovered the skeletons—and how the Norse seafarers made it all the way to Sicily.
Throughout the 8th and 9th century, Vikings began traveling south from Scandinavia to raid the monasteries and towns of what is today France. By 911, they were so present, and ferocious, that the French king was forced to cede part of northern France to them. Some Vikings settled there permanently, eventually becoming known as the Normans—Norse men—of Normandy. Later, the same Viking spirit saw them traveling throughout the continent, on expeditions to the United Kingdom and southern Italy.
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“In the second half of the 11th century,” lead researcher Sławomir Moździoch explained in a statement, “[Sicily] was recaptured from the Arabs by a Norman nobleman, Roger de Hauteville.”
It’s believed that these skeletons were the descendants of de Hauteville and his crew. Though no artifacts were found around the bones, Moździoch says, “Some of the dead buried in the cemetery were undoubtedly members of the elites or the clergy, as the form of some of the graves indicates.”
The graveyard is close to the ruins of a church, which researchers believe may also have been built by Norman conquerors. This was fortified and built on a hill, for better vantage in times of war, while the architecture is a far more Western European style than is usual for the region, Moździoch said.
Sicily has a checkered history. It’s been variously conquered by, and taken from, the Germanic Vandal tribe, Muslim Byzantine forces, the Normans and Vikings, and the Spanish kings. But it’s perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of the Sicilian mafia, the organized crime syndicate known for their ruthlessness. How many of its members have Viking blood running through their veins, however, is a question for the ages.