Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

New Thoughts on Hogbacks


Perhaps the three most famous of hogbacks, in the church at Brompton, North Yorkshire

In January 2015 I took the opportunity to visit Brompton church and its famous bear-guarded hogback stones. These recumbent stone monuments are usually dated to the 10th/early 11th centuries and hence are often regarded as ‘Viking colonial’ grave-covers or tombs.

IMG_20160707_190254On the 7th of July, I went back, this time to the Methodist church hall in the village of Brompton, near Northallerton, N. Yorkshire, to talk about hogbacks. I entitled my talk:

“New Thoughts on Hogbacks”

I was proud to address the Brompton Heritage Group about their striking early medieval monuments and their importance including the splendid church warden, Doreen Newcombe, organiser Unity Stack, and I got to meet a familiar face from my alma mater the University of Reading;, retired archaeological illustrator Margaret Matthews.

The church hall was packed with around 60 people. I presented them my views on how hogbacks worked as early medieval technologies of remembrance: material media for constructing senses of identity and place through social memory. I addressed specifically,

Together, the talk provided an overview of how far my thinking on these monuments has developed over recent years in thinking about hogbacks’ mnemonic agency.

I’ve done quite a few talks about hogbacks at public venues, as discussed before on this blog here. I’ve decided this one was my last-but-one. I’ll come back to the topic once again, but not for now I simly felt privileged to talk at the spiritual home of hogbacks to the community of Brompton about their very special stones.


The Coastal Archaeology of Health and Safety

DSC07120This is a serious topic: the material culture of health and safety. People are killed and injured along Britain’s coastlines every year. Signs serve a real function in reminding people of both hidden and apparent dangers along the coast.

I’ve discussed this theme before at castle sites. Focusing on Cadw sites, as here and here, I explored how such signs are themselves part of the history of heritage sites and landscapes. In particular, they promote the institution responsible and their duty of care, as well as warn visitors/walkers of real dangers. They are a ubiquitous element of our landscapes.

DSC07125Recently I walked along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path from Whitesands Bay to St David’s Head. The weather was perfect and the views out to sea and along the coast were spectacular. Then I came across a particularly terrifying warning sign. A black triangular, within which a black cliff with falling rubble and head-first falling figure are depicted against a yellow background. Faintly funny, but also disturbing and fear-inspiring. This sign worked for me more than any other I’ve yet seen.

A further feature is the emphatic five pins securing this warning sign to the post, securing it against all weather and for all to see as they walk within inches of near-vertical drops to the sea below. I like the older pins that have secured predecessors to this warning notice: traces of a succession of warnings…

How long do these signs last and how will they be recorded as enduring dimensions of walker’s experience and the coastline landscape?


A 20th-century Trilithon: The Megalithic Memorial at Marros (IWM 6898)

DSC06476We all know that the Bluestones found at Stonehenge came from Pembrokeshire. How many people know that one of the most striking First World War memorials inspired by prehistoric megalithic monuments is from Carmarthenshire? Here I present the megalithic memorial from Marros.


DSC06553By mason Thomas Harries and unveiled in around 1920, this memorial commemorates the small community on Carmarthenshire’s south-west coast between Pendine and Amroth: Marros. It commemorates 16 from the parish that served, 2 of whom died in the 1914-18 conflict.

The memorial has a classic location, placed at a T-junction beside the medieval church and churchyard, between the road south into the settlement and the W-E coast road between Pendine and Amroth.

DSC06501The monument’s focus is a trilithon, set high up on a four-post megalithic platform, approached up four steps from the north. On this northern (road-side) are three plaques. On the lintel stone, a bronze plaque states:

THE GREAT WAR/ 1914-18

On the uprights, two same-sized ‘portrait’ bronze plaques contain the names of those who served (left) preceded by


and died (right) with


Wreaths are lain at the right-hand (western) upright and a planter on the left. Two further planters to the south. Across the road to the north is a common space with a bench. Together, this roadside community possesses a distinct, prehistory-inspired memorial focus.DSC06499

It is certainly the most striking megalithic war memorial I have encountered and it is not only the form of the memorial that derives from prehistory. It is said that distinctive memorial’s stone was taken from Marros Mountain to the north, from an ‘ancient earthwork’. It might be the case that a prehistoric or medieval monument of some form was mobilised to create this 20th-century trilithon. Rather than a generic allusion to ‘the past’, the materiality and form of the cenotaph work together to make a distinctive statement linking memory and place.








Memorial moth







Hen Caerwys 2016


Early days of this season investigating the Iron Age/Romano-British stone enclosure

Yesterday I made a second visit to the 2016 season of excavations in the beautiful Flintshire woodland at Hen Caerwys. I’ve regularly visited previous seasons of work on this deserted medieval settlement: a collaboration between Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust and Cadw. You can catch up on all the work with previous seasons via the CPAT website here and my previous posts here and here.

This year has formally involved the University of Chester in the project led by Dr Caroline Pudney. Work has continued on two areas. First, there is the main exccavation on what seems to be a possible Iron Age/Romano-British enclosure. Second, there is a very deep intervention exploring a possible early modern kiln.

There doesn’t seem to have been a blog diary or Twitter feed about the dig, so I cannot say I’m up-to-date regarding the discoveries and interpretations. Still, well done to all on 3 weeks of hard work in a Flintshire woodland.


The kiln under excavation

Commemorating Restoration on Penycloddiau


View from Penycloddiau’s northwards, over the mutlivallate section of the hillfort along the spine of the hill

21st-century plaques commemorate prehistory, but also our acts of modern conservation and restoration.

11 months ago, for the first time I visited  Penycloddiau hillfort – the largest hillfort in Wales – as discussed here. Yesterday, I went back again with my twins and boy and explored the hillfort and its stupendous views of NE Wales and NW England.


Descending from the hill with Moel Arthur in the distance

This time, we took the main path up the spine of the hill to the summit, situated just inside the northern extent of the hillfort. Previously, we had stopped short of the summit and didn’t see the reconstructed Bronze Age cairn.


Resting on the walk up the hill

After exploring the summit, we then briefly visited the early stages of this year’s University of Liverpool archaeology field school. We watched the students who were very busy opening up the site. We received a very warm welcome from everyone, including a brief chat with the epic Dr Rachel Pope.


The hillfort ramparts on the eastern side, looking south. You can see the University of Liverpool excavations in the middle-distance

This is the project’s 5th field season and it is way too early to report on their discoveries this year. I’m keen to go back in a couple of weeks and see the results of their labours investigating house platforms and the ramparts on the hillfort’s eastern side. They hope to characterise and date the hillfort, which is likely to date back to the Late Bronze Age (early first millennium BC).


The hill’s summit from the ramparts


Testing the durability of a way marker


Commemorating the Bronze Age

My own recent fieldwork has been investigating the Pillar of Eliseg, where our work on Project Eliseg has conclusively demonstrated that the ninth-century cross was raised over a pre-existing multi-phased kerbed cairn of Bronze Age date.IMG_20160721_115726

The reconstructed cairn on top of Penycloddiau was a similar monument: a low stone cairn with a kerb, most likely dating to the middle to late second millennium BC.


On Penycloddiau we encountered modern cairns: way markers for the Offa’s Dyke path and a modern cairn within the Bronze Age monument on the summit. What was striking is that the Pennyclodiau prehistoric cairn is that it is recognised for its Bronze Age origins. This is in stark contrast to the mound beneath the Pillar of Eliseg that remains unrecognised in the heritage interpretation of that Cadw site.


More than being recognised, it has its own plaque between the prehistoric monument and the modern cairn built on the summit. This plaque is both explanation and commemoration: recognising the restoration of the monument in 2010. This is another piece of contemporary archaeology of memory: memorialisation the act of restoration for all walkers to encounter and recognise.

Yet, of course, this displays a parallel to the Pillar of Eliseg. When the fragment of the cross-shaft was raised and set in its original base on top of the mound in the late 18th century, it was reinscribed by Trevor Lloyd. The plaque on Penycloddiau is a 21st-century version of the same practice: commemorating restoration.



Viking Death and Memory: The EJA Special Issue

IMG_20160719_130028How can archaeology reveal the complex, shifting and interleaving strategies by which Viking-Age communities commemorated their dead? The last 10 years have seen a new injection of approaches to Viking-Age mortuary and commemorative practices, and my latest publication project seeks to draw and develop these in new approaches in a high-profile publication venue: the European Journal of Archaeology whose Editor, Dr Robin Skeates, generously allowed space for a special issue.

Hair, Skopintull, fig 4

Hair from the tenth-century cremation grave Skopintull, Adelso, Uppland, Sweden: Lund and Arwill-Nordbladh discuss the significance of the cutting of hair in the mortuary ritual

The background is that, in 2013 and 2014, I co-organised two conference sessions (outlined here) which led to an original collection of articles (outlined here) on the theme of ‘Mortuary Citations: Death and Memory in the Viking World’. After much hard work and revisions, these are now published in volume 19(3) of the European Journal of Archaeology.

Sadly, we lost some good articles along the way, both those presented at the conference sessions and those submitted but unsuccessful at navigating peer-review. Still, the 7 articles in the special issue bring together different perspectives and approaches to how mortuary practices and commemorative monuments operated as engines of memory for Viking-Age societies in Scandinavia, the British Isles and the North Atlantic.

The article abstracts and content speak for themselves, so I present only a brief summary here. I provide an Introduction and my own case study is my ‘Hogback Mark II’ article exploring the meshwork of citations between hogbacks and other media and materials circulating in the late Viking Age.

Julie Lund and Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh write a rich combination of perspectives from Danish and Swedish evidence looking at the intersections between depositional practices, hall-building and funerary monuments in and around elite central places.


Late Iron Age burial mounds in Uppland, Sweden

Mark Hall investigates gaming pieces deployed in elite mortuary practices across the Viking world as a strategy for quoting life in the mortuary arena.

Meanwhile, Alison Klevnas considers grave-robbing as a mnemonic practice, allowing for the retrieval of famed artefacts.

Marianne Hem Eriksen then questions whether mortuary citations between houses and bodies reveal the interweaving of  households and buildings.

Fig 3.1 20150326Finally, Ing-Marie Back Danielsson advocates non-representational theories might be fruitfully applied to explore mortuary citations in the Viking Age, and she illustrates this through a discussion of rune stones from central Sweden and the human and non-human agents that work together through the memorials.

This special issue is a logical extension of last year’s edited book exploring largely Viking Age stone monuments: Early Medieval Stone Monuments. I sincerely hope these studies inspire new directions for future investigation that challenge the empiricist and culture-historical traditions of Viking-Age burial analysis and the study of carved stone monuments.

Early Anglo-Saxon Cremation (Again)

newark bird lid 2The significance of cremation practices in early Anglo-Saxon England was originally the topic of my 2000 doctoral thesis from the University of Reading.

I subsequently wrote up expanded versions of the ideas from the thesis into a series of book chapters and journal articles between 2001 and 2007.

More recently, I’ve returned and development aspects of this work to write:

  1. a synthesis and discussion of early Anglo-Saxon mortuary practice in 2011, as part of the Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology:
  2. a joint-authored article about the mnemonic significance of the decoration of cinerary urns with Ruth Nugent in 2012, downloadable here.
  3. broader discussion of cremation and materials and artefacts involved in ‘catalytic commemoration’ across early medieval Europe for the 2013 Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial;
  4. discussing the treatment of pots in both early Anglo-Saxon cremation and inhumation graves in the 2014 book on the archaeology of cremation edited by Ian Kuijt, Colin Quinn and Gabriel Cooney: Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context.

spong urn wth combI’m now delighted to have an update of my arguments published bilingually in Polish and English in the journal Analecta Archaeological Ressoviensia. In volume 10 of the journal, dedicated to articles on the theme Rituals in the Past, I explore the significance of hair grooming implements interred with the early Anglo-Saxon cremated dead as a mnemonic practice of rebuilding the body from ashes.

Developing on my earlier work, I combine a review of my previous arguments with a discussion of how these have been received and revised by other authors. I next combine a self-critique identifying limitations and problems with my earlier interpretations, and  present evidence from newer excavated sites, including the work by Nina Crummy, Guy Grainger, Catherine Hills, Catriona Gibson, Kevin Leahy, Sam Lucy, Jackie McKinley, Ian Riddler and  Kirsty Squires.

The article finally presents a refined interpretation of the variability in cremation practices found across southern and eastern England in the fifth and early sixth centuries AD. I emphasise the variability, as well as the common themes, in the deployment of antler combs and toilet implements to transform and commemorate the cremated dead. Read the article here.

I am especially grateful to the editor, Leszek Gardela, for the translation of the article into Polish, the third language of my home town of Wrexham (after English and Welsh)!

Vikings Season 3: Walking with the Dead

Ragnar funeral22

Scholars of ‘the Vikings’ anticipate, and sometimes find stark archaeological evidence for, the drama and spectacle of movement in mortuary ritual. Perhaps most famously we have whole or fragments of boats deployed in funerals and boats under sail depicted on Gotlandic picture stones. These and other images of horse-riding reveal conveyance in life, travel to the grave and maybe also aspirations to afterlife journeys converging in the commemoration of the dead. I’ve published on the geographies of Viking funerals twice, in 2010 and 2014 and a brief summary of my thoughts are presented here.

Ragnar funeral21
One criticism that might be levelled at the mortuary rituals portrayed in Seasons 1 and 2 of the popular History Channel drama ‘Vikings’ is that they are too static. Funerals happen at places, rather than between places. For while the funerals in the series attempt to convey pre-Christian cultic and ceremonial elements, and they also portray the range of material cultures and ritual practices associated with the grave or pyre, movement is relatively restricted. Certainly Lord Harald’s cremation involves the boat on water being set alight whilst it moves out into the fjord. Yet before cremation, Harald’s body doesn’t travel far. In Season 2, pyres are lit on still waters, having been pushed out from the bank where mourners have gathered. Yet with these and other instances of funerals portrayed: the bodies seem to have been moved only a short distance from their place of death to their location of disposal.

Ragnar funeral25
The fake funeral of Ragnar at the end of Season 3 is an opportunity for the makers to remedy this, unquestionably unintended, portrayal of static funerals. For those working on and thinking about funerals in the Viking world, this is an interesting and important portrayal, for while much of what is shown is speculation on the part of the producers of the show, it does spark our thinking about themes and issues central to understanding death in the Viking World. Ragnar’s funerals makes an attempt to envision the procession of a royal corpse in a pagan funeral from place of death to place of disposal. In fact, it is two processions in one: Ragnar’s body is transported for Christian burial within Paris, but in so doing, his body is honoured in ‘pagan’ fashion up to the coffin’s hand-over at the gates of the city, after which the coffin-bearers join a Christian procession led by the bishop through the city and into the cathedral.

Ragnar funeral27
The pagan funeral is a host of warriors, led by drummers. The procession therefore has a steady pace and rhythm.

Ahead of them are a group of dancing wolf-headressed men, at least three of whom are clasping staffs of different kinds. One is evidently a rattle of sorts. Another is akin to a multi-armed cross with rings and perhaps hair draped from it. This is perhaps an attempt to render the famous procession scene of three figures with differently shaped weapons/implements revealed on a Gotlandic picture stone from Stora Hammar, combined with the dancing headressed warriors known from Vendel-period pressbleche designs?

Then there are the four coffin-bearers with their load, and ahead of them, making way for the oncoming corpse are a pair of twirling performers. I’m not certain of the precise inspiration for these characters, but I like the way serve to proceed and clear the way for the coffin, perhaps warding off evil spirits on the path?

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Music, singing, chanting and dancing are envisaged as key elements of the funerary procession. Neither solemn nor jubilant, the impression I received is one of structured chaos: frenzied mourning with weapons and musical instruments as integral to the display.

The feeling one gets is one of an alien tempo and multi-sensory experience, even if the procession itself is organised in a steady, ordered fashion. One might speculate further about the intended status of the body during the procession. Is the corpse in transit between worlds, neither inert matter nor living person? Is the conveyance an important stage in the body’s transformation to the realm of the dead?

Is the sound and movement, fire and dancing, all about creating a clamour to attract the gods, or other spiritual forces, whose job is to guide the dead onwards? It appears that cadaver in its coffin, at the head of the procession is surrounded by ritual specialists who create a zone separate from this world and thus preparing its destination…

Ragnar funeral26

The coffin, its decorated surfaces provided a focus for personal and tactile interactions before the procession, as discussed here. During the procession this same container takes on a new striking presence as the focus  of the entourage. While the funeral itself is not a cremation, I liked the added touch of four torches affixed to the coffin, making the journey one which might readily end in the torches being used to light the pyre. Bonus points for whoever thought that one up! Fire moves with the body and protects it from all sides?

Ragnar funeral31

The funerary party stop at the gates of Paris, and they are subsequently replaced by the bishop’s retinue through the city and into the cathedral. Here, the same coffin is adopted as a Christian receptacle for the body. In doing so, Ragnar’s funeral procession articulates his personal (supposed) conversion from paganism to Christianity. Perhaps deliberately entwined in this scene too is show’s recurring theme of parallels between the pagan and Christian worlds which thread through Seasons 1-3.

The ‘dead’ Ragnar, however, is not resurrected for Salvation, but

Ragnar funeral35

Vikings Season 3: Touching and Talking with the Dead

Ragnar funeral11

In a previous post, I explored the fake funeral of Ragnar Lothbrok that serves as the apogee of Vikings Season 3. Once the coffin was made and Ragnar’s ‘corpse’ placed within, the wooden container was raised to be held within the king’s tent ahead of the funeral.

Touching and Talking to the Coffin

The lying in state of Ragnar’s coffin sets up a powerful dynamic. Three key characters speak to the coffin, touching it with their hands, they heads, revealing their feelings towards Ragnar believing him to be dead. Lagertha, Rollo and Floki each speak to Ragnar in term. First, Lagertha touches the coffin as if it were her former-husband’s body, whispering to it with her ear touching its side.
Ragnar funeral13

Ragnar funeral14

Then we have Rollo, Ragnar’s brother, sitting and leaning the back of his head against it, again acting as if it were a living body.

Ragnar funeral15

Finally, we have Floki himself, expressing his anger against the clinker-built ‘boat’ of his own making, talking to it of his love and jealousy but stopping short of confessing he had slayed Aethelstan himself.

Ragnar funeral17

This section of Episode 10 of Vikings Season 3 really gets one thinking about the mnemonic and social power of coffins as staging interactions between the living and the dead in terms of visual and tactile dialogues. The making of the coffin and installing the body in the coffin were key stages. Subsequently, the handling and engagement with the coffin might have been important funerary stages too, as the coffin is a focus of prayer, contemplation and conversation with the dead.

These points, inspired by the portrayal of Ragnar’s funeral, certainly chimes with my recent argument published in the book Early Medieval Stone Monuments, that tombs and coffins with architectonic dimensions were intended to set up the allusion of spaces within which the dead are perceived to reside. The idea of the tomb as residence is replete in later Norse literature and thus, it is plausible that these dialogues with the dead reflect in some fashion widespread practices across Early Medieval Europe within Christian and pagan mortuary practices.

Vikings Season 3: Making and Moving Ragnar’s Coffin

Ragnar coffin2
The History Channel series “Vikings” is an unprecedented success in historical drama for the Early Middle Ages, informed loosely by the sagas. It makes  a series of active attempts to reconstruct cultural practices and environments from the Viking Age to provide both setting and story line. Archaeology, therefore, both directly and indirectly, has a pivotal place in the show. Here I want to discuss the portrayal of early medieval mortuary practices in Season 3.


Previously, I have blogged about the portrayal of mortuary practice in the first season here, in which I explored:

  • sacrifice and judicial killing
  • burial whilst raiding
  • mass-cremation,
  • elite boat-funeral

I then explored a series of mortuary themes in Vikings Season 2 as follows:

Together, Seasons 1 and 2 provide the viewer with a rich and varied spectrum of interactions between the living, the dead and the supernatural. While I have focused on practices and material culture for disposing of and honouring the dead, a key dimension of these series, perpetuated through Season 3, is the personal perception of the supernatural – gods and the dead – within the lives of the living characters.

Vikings Season 3

The enduring influence of the dead on the living can be found in Season 3. This is especially true in the interactions between a dead Aethelstan and a  living Ragnar: cross-faith mortuary interaction.

Still, it remains the case that Season 3 has far less mortuary and commemorative practices. I couldn’t spot any scene in the first 9 episodes worthy of Archaeodeath comment, which contrasts starkly with Seasons 1 and 2 where mortuary, commemorative and sacrificial rituals abound. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the viewers are expected to be ‘bedded in’ to appreciating the kind of crazy stuff the Norse got up to. Also, much of the action takes place in Wessex, Mercia or Frankia.

It is only in the final Episode 10 that we encounter a mortuary practice of sorts and when it comes around, it is a crucial one for the story line.

Ragnar funeral2Fake Mortuary Practice: Ragnar’s Funeral

Episode 10 is called ‘The Dead’. Here, we have portrayed a story adapted from the tale that Hastein, son of Ragnar and brother of Bjorn Ironside, pretended to request Christian sacraments and burial in order to capture the Italian town of Luni.

We find the seer’s prophecy coming true that only the dead will capture Paris. The newly baptised Ragnor Lothbrok is dying in his tent from wounds sustained during the attack on Paris. He feigns his own funeral in order to gain ‘Christian burial’ within Paris.

Once bursting out of his coffin within the cathedral, slays the bishop, takes Princess Gisla captive and retreats and forces the guards to open the gates. Bjorn Ironside then lets in the Vikings who successfully raid the city before leaving for Scandinavia.

In his ‘fake funeral’, we have 5 stages of particular interest to me as a mortuary archaeologist, regardless of whether they might be predicated on any particular historical or archaeological data or not (and I think not).

Making Ragnar’s Coffin

Helga asks Floki what he is doing, he replies: “Ragnar asked me to build him one last boat”. Therefore, the coffin is prepared by a loyal friend and retainer and defines an ongoing obligation between the ship-builder Floki and his lord. The sincerity, design and maritime dimensions of the coffin are key. What Floki makes is not a boat in exact terms, but a boat-like, or sleigh-like structure. In this sense, it is important to remember that craftsmen were versatile and made bespoke items, but applied their skills between media and structures. It also alerts us to the social obligations inherent in coffin-making across cultures.

The ‘boat’ made by Floki seems unique to me, so I’m not sure where the inspiration comes from. It might be in part inspired by 10th/11th-century ‘hogback stones‘ from northern England and southern Scotland: recumbent stone monuments thought to resemble houses or boats.

The coffin might be seen to be inspired by different elements of the Oseberg ship, but it is far more humble and doesn’t resemble any single feature from this famous well-preserved boat-burial. The resemblance is fleeting, so I’m guessing a late folkloric inspiration if any at all for this ‘coffin-boat’.

Regardless of the sources that inspired the coffin, it is the fact that it is made as Floki’s last gift to Ragnar that is key: the coffin is a vehicle for transportation but a means of commemorating social bonds.Ragnar funeral4

Installing Ragnar in his Coffin

The second stage of the funeral is Ragnar ‘dying’ and being placed within his coffin. We don’t see the washing or dressing of his body: he is not publicly handled by anyone. This makes the likelihood of this being a funeral that would have convinced his co-Vikings inconceivable. Instead, he is placed dirty and clothed into his elaborately carved boat-like coffin with coped lid in the same fashion as he lived.

While hardly representing practices conducted in the Viking Age or anywhere else, the key point here is the interaction between Ragnar’s ‘corpse’ and his son Bjorn. Contrasting with any believable funerary practice but powerful in defining the succession, Bjorn is afforded exclusive control and access to the ‘corpse’ of his father. This at least serves to articulate the strong bond – one of love and inheritance – between father and son. While the precise detail might be queried, the public performance of familial relationships in death is unquestionably key to understanding many dimensions of Viking-Age funerals.Ragnar funeral6

The coffin’s materiality and ornamentation are key media for this interaction. The coffin is carved with diamond patterns along its sides and a series of panels with comparable form along its lid. We are not told whether such a structure is ‘typical’ and, indeed, we find no parallel in earlier scenes. One could argue that it could be a complete invention: all the Franks need to know is that his body is being transported for burial and they would be none the wiser whether his mode of conveyance was typical or not. Still, the narrative of the story is that the Vikings themselves believe Ragnar to be dead, hence the funeral must be following some existing tradition known to them.Ragnar funeral7

Once installed, the lid is slid into place and the view lingers over Bjorn’s hand touching the lid. The coffin proves to be a locus of mourning, and its visual and haptic qualities are equally important. Bjorn’s touching of the coffin is to subsequently be replicated by other mourners (see subsequent blog).

Then two burly Vikings lift the coffin into place for lying in state within Ragnar’s tent, surrounded by innumerable candles. This might seem a prosaic act, but it can also be considered an act of honour and obligation. It also serves to offer kinetic proof of the presence of a corpse hidden from view within the coffin. The weight of the ‘cadaver’ is witness to Ragnar’s apparent death.

Once elevated, this allows the coffin to be a focus of private visits by those closest to the king without them knowing he is still alive. It is a nice touch, but implausible that the cadaver wouldn’t be accessible in a more direct way in early medieval funerals. Still, as I have argued in my own writings about early medieval funerals, covering the body was as important as its display in the staged experience of mortuary performance.

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In future posts, we’ll follow Ragnar’s funeral through 3 further stages of interest to me.


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