Stokesay Castle – the 17th-century gatehouse and 13th-century south tower to the left


the south tower

Situated just south of Craven Arms, Shropshire, Stokesay Castle is an English Heritage classic with grandiose flag to prove it! A rare survival of a medieval fortified manor, I have seen it many times from the train but never had an opportunity before this week to visit it.

Despite a closed A49 involving a short but slow Church Stretton bypass en route south and a far longer detour heading back north, I went with three of the kids on a Saturday morning and had a wholly positive visitor experience.

We were exploring what is ostensibly a simple two-phase construction: a late 13th-century fortified manor house of a wealthy wool merchant – Laurence of  Ludlow – with surviving early 17th-century gatehouse with carvings from Genesis and wooden fittings within the solar including a remarkable fireplace.


Stokesay Castle from the churchyard to the north-north-west

There is little point in replicating the guidebook but some key features cannot be ignored. The 13th-century hall with its cruck-built roof and amazing wooden staircase on its northern side is unbelievable.

The north tower has surviving tiled floors and wall paintings. The solar was converted into a private chamber with panelled walls and ceiling in the mid-17th century.

The south tower is the defensive and symbolic core of the castle, if the hall had been the residence’s social locus. It is a weird oblong shape designed to make it appear like a fortified gatehouse akin to those built by Edward I encircling North Wales. It is accessed via a stone stair at first-floor level, making it a defensible stronghold in its own right.


Stokesay Castle from the churchyard, looking south

The original residence had a curtain wall, now largely lost. The moat, now dry (and perhaps always so?) ran around it and enhanced the defence and display of the architecture. Now, one can walk around it.


post-medieval farm buildings south-east of the residence


The EH flag proudly flies

The residence was situated as part of a designed landscape which can be partly made out in the form of ponds and water courses; I presume the post-medieval farm overlies ancillary buildings of earlier date. The castle’s barns and stables had been all pulled down during the English Civil War to provide a field of fire if required from the inner defences.


View west towards Stoke Wood over the pond

A further important dimension to the castle is the adjacent church, the subject of another blog.


the north tower from below

The Heritage Experience

With £1 for the day car park with attendants, toilets, EH shop and tea shop, this site has all the facilities. There was also a special stall for kids and entertainers in medieval garb. The structure is small and modest compared with the grandiose scale of Edwardian castles, and the staircases are easy to navigate. Hence, it is a perfect site to visit on a family day out. With visiting bats at night and nesting swallows, it is not simply a tranquil heritage location but a site of great beauty and biodiversity.


View of the south tower from the moat

Limitations to this experience are the insistence on audio-wands, which I despise and won’t use (and no-one can who is simultaneously trying to move at the pace of, and communicate with, small children whilst navigating the rooms and up and down tight spiral staircases). For me, fixed heritage boards should still have a place in the visitor experience.

IMG_9430IMG_9442Another limitation is the inability to fully appreciate the castle’s wider landscape; neither the guidebook nor the signs (I don’t know about the audio-wands), give a sense of how the residence related to the church and immediate environs, let alone the wider landscape. I will next time acquire an OS map and explore the local footpaths to better gain a sense of the castle from nearby Stoke Wood and other surroundings. I will also check out the prehistoric earthworks known as Norton Camp to the east.IMG_9443


17th-century carvings on the gatehouse


The stairs from the hall


The hall roof


view of the hall from the stairs


staircase from the hall to the south tower


Chimneys on the south tower


fireplace detail


wood panelling in the solar


Gatehouse carvings

Archaeodeath Dimensions

I was fascinated to find a single memorial bench within the grounds, replicating patterns I’ve found elsewhere at Cadw and English Heritage sites regarding the careful management of present-day commemoration and the focus upon memorial benches as an acceptable, functional media for exhibiting memories, as discussed here for Criccieth Castle.


memorial bench within the courtyard against the inner wall of the gatehouse

There is a wider archaeodeath point about Stokesay: the site is almost a curse because it is such a blessing. Examples of well-preserved, almost miraculously so, buildings seduce the visitor into imagining that the past is locatable in discrete, guarded and conserved patches. You go to Stokesay to experience the 13th and 17th centuries without the passage of time and the touch of death. This might create the sense that these centuries are not present in the landscape elsewhere and eternal in this locale. The timelessness, the deathlessness, and the beauty are all, of course, allusions, and to my mind they are insidious. This is particularly dangerous at a time of loosening planning restrictions and reducing funding for heritage including museums; let’s not pretend that just because Stokesay is so eerily well-preserved, that we can ‘afford’ to lose sites and buildings deemed of lesser quality.

The final and key archaeodeath dimension is the medieval church and its post-medieval memorials both within and in the churchyard. I will discuss these next.



This is my Day of Archaeology 2015 blog entry. I think it constitutes an archaeorant, but it isn’t that bad really.

This is my first attempt at writing for the Day of Archaeology and it will be a very personal response.

About Me: Being Prof. Archaeodeath

I am Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester, UK and I love my job. I research the archaeology of death and burial, archaeologies of remembrance and commemoration, the Middle Ages as well as sometimes modern and contemporary archaeologies, public archaeology and the history of archaeology.

I do a lot of desk-based/library-based research as well as independent fieldwork and small-scale survey and excavation projects. I’m also Honorary Editor of the Royal Archaeological Institute’s Archaeological Journal which is a big job in itself. You can read about me here.

As Professor of Archaeology, I don’t just research. I am an HE academic who spends a lot of time teaching undergraduate students the history and theory of archaeology, medieval archaeology (including Anglo-Saxon and Viking archaeology), mortuary archaeology and the like. I am also programme leader for, and teach on, our Masters degrees in archaeology and heritage (MA Archaeology of Death and Memory; MA Archaeology and Heritage Practice; MRes Archaeology). Finally, I supervise a range of postgraduate research students. Oh yes, and I also write a blog: Archaeodeath. I have quite a few ongoing research projects, very few of which I cover here.

My Day of Annual Leave

Well, I was enjoying a day of well-earned annual leave today. Yes, even academics get to sometimes have days off! So you would think that means I have nothing to tell you about my profession? You might think that, but think again! By telling you what I did on a day off, you will gain an insight into the complex blurring of personal and professional life of a university academic and also gain a sense of some lessons in how much academic archaeologists spend dedicating hard work to projects that take a very long time to reach fruition.

Ok, so my day of annual leave began by being awoke by my twin girls (aged 2 and a half) at 4.30 am and whilst awake and they had gone back to sleep, I thought I might as well do something, so I did work from 4.30 to 5.30am when I went back to bed for an hour. After the morning routine, I went to a nearby park to take kids to swings and slides and pester ducks, then I took one kid to a birthday party and then entertain the rest of the kids at another park. That was just the morning, I then spent the afternoon watching ‘Monsters University’ and then took the kids to yet another park. Ah, the lovely warm Welsh rain!

Everyone had a great day as did I. Relaxing? Not very. Exhausting. A bit. Fun, on the whole yes.

My Day of Work

However, a professor’s work never stops! In between the official annual leave, between 4.30am to 11pm, I had to find some time to do pressing archaeology work relating to my students and projects from home via phone, email and the glorious world wide web as follows:

  1. I dealt with a major administrative screw-up via email affecting one of my postgraduate students at a time when many of my university colleagues aren’t available to answer emails. I thus saved a student and the student’s family a massive pile of mental torture and stress. Lesson: prioritising students and supporting them can regularly involves academic archaeologists going far beyond the call of duty and during their annual leave. This was an issue that couldn’t wait.
  2. I am co-editing a very important collection on archaeologies of cremation in past and present societies with contributions from across Europe and North America. I am doing this with two superb fellow archaeologists:, one in the US, one in Finland – Jessica Cerezo-Roman (Harvard) and Anna Wessman (Helsinki). Today, we had sad news. We found out and responded to the news that the project has been declined by our publisher at the final hurdle, having passed successfully through, and been revised significantly in response to, two stages of peer-review. They have their reasons, but we still think we have a cracking project and we are now looking for a new academic publisher who knows a good project when they see it and won’t waste our time. The sooner we do this the better, hence I’m dealing with it during my annual leave. Lesson: don’t count your books until they’ve hatched and anticipate being messed about by publishers, authors, and almost every human and material agent during the academic publication process!
  3. I have spent the last few years editing another really exciting new book, this one on early medieval stone monuments, exploring new perspectives and directions in the study of carved and inscribed stones of the 5th to 11th centuries AD (including ‘Early Christian’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Viking’ monuments). Today, I spent several hours reading through the final proofs of the book. You can pre-order it here. Frustratingly, the deadline for revisions of only 4 days away and the proofs need wrapping up pronto. Unhelpfully, it seems I’m alone in the task and have to complete it during my annual leave to ensure the book isn’t delayed. Lesson: think very carefully before you embark on an edited book (or any archaeological project come to that) and consider just how much extra work it will involve than you imagine. Then treble this time to identify a realistic workload for the task. Then treble it again to account for the possibility that the collaboration might take up more time than had you done it all on your own. Then consider whether you might be better off doing it on your own and then seriously entertain doing it on your own or not at all. Archaeologists who haven’t edited don’t have no clue how much work is involved!
  4. I wrote a blog post about the popular History Channel show ‘Vikings’, reflecting on aspects of the show’s portrayal of death, burial and commemoration in the Viking Age. I am really passionate about exploring the intersections between my subject and its popular consumption. I teaching the Vikings and I study them. So I am happy to spend an hour of my evening during my annual leave writing a blog about it because it is fun. I’m not sure how many people care to read what I write, but that’s not really the point, it is important as a way of thinking through my own research questions and communicating ideas to my students and wider audiences. Read it here.
  5. IMG_20150724_120806

    Encountered the cremated dead today

    While out in the park with the kids (as mentioned above), I did actually see some material traces that pertain to my research. As well as exploring cremation practices in the later prehistory and early historic periods, I’m also fascinated by the memorials to the cremated dead in our landscape today. In one Welsh park I visited, around the biggest tree, I encountered a lovely spread of fresh ‘cremains’ or ‘ashes': the cremulated (crushed) ashes retrieved from a modern crematorium. Every example I encounter I document since I am writing articles on the choices for location made by modern-day people for ash-scattering. This has implications for understanding death and society today and in the human past. Lesson: archaeologists find data everywhere!

I won’t claim this is a typical day, or an exceptional one. It is a classic example of the complex interplay between teaching, research and administration that infects annual leave in academia. Being an academic archaeologist involves a lot of fun and interesting work, a lot of hard work, a lot of pitfalls and having your time wasted for you by a lot of unreliable people within and outside the profession.

Being a specialist in death and society means that even a trip to the park during annual leave can bring me face-to-face with my research! The archaeology of death is engaging and fascinating because it is about both past and the present and about everything from ancient tombs and skeletons to memorial benches and ashes. Good mortuary archaeology is where you find it!

Here is my fifth and final archaeodeath blog about Season 2 of the History Channel show Vikings. I write this post listening to my just-acquired ‘Vikings – Music from the TV Series‘ CD to get me in the mood.

Having covered grave-robbing, the significance of skulls, ritual killing and cremation practices, I now turn to two scenes that embody far more personal dimensions of death and mourning in the Viking Age. These scenes are by far the most important for me as an archaeologist, because they are the most frustrating, tantalising and ephemeral. These scenes are not based on any specific historical or archaeological evidence I think, and they leave no material trace. Yet simultaneously, they relate to the Scandinavian landscape in a deeply significant way.

Ragnar mourns

Ragnar mourns Gyda

Mourning Gyda

To counterbalance the more grandiose and public funerals in Season 2, there is one instance of private mourning in Episode 1. Ragnar is away when is daughter, Gyda, dies aged 12 of the plague and is cremated together with others on the beach at Kattegat. I discussed this in a previous blog entry here.

Upon his return, we see Ragnar mourning on the beach, presumably close to, or at the site where, Gyda was burned. He sits on the beach alone with a small fire, looking out to sea. It is unclear if he has conducted some kind of ceremony in relation to the fire, and I like the allusion without needing to dwell specifically on what rituals took place. It is an intriguing question: what rituals took place conducted by those who miss the funerals of loved ones. He is looking into the other world, with Gyda listening to him, articulated by the blurred lense.

Whether intended or not, this scene entertains rituals and mourning for which there is little historical and archaeological trace and the converse to the grandiose late Viking-Age rune-stones, the fraction of which mourn men who died abroad gain a lot of scholarly attention. How a Viking leader might mourn the loss of a daughter at home whilst away, works on multiple levels in terms of entertainment and as critique on scholarly priorities.

aslaug infanticide

Aslaug retrieves Ivar from the location which is presumably a regularly used site for exposing infants.


There is considerable debate regarding the extent that later saga literature and a disproportionate number of male graves from some cemeteries can be used as evidence that female infanticide was widely practised in first millennium AD Scandinavia. Some have even used this evidence to bolster arguments explaining the Viking Age: a dearth of women prompting young men to raid to acquire women and/or wealth to buy bridewealth.

Here, we have disability and a male child as the focus of a near-infanticide: the birth of Boneless in Episode 8. Ragnar takes the child to the riverside where ribbons are tried to trees, perhaps to imply a traditional site where infants are abandoned and offerings left. He raised his axe to kill him but cannot follow through and leaves the baby to its fate. Fortunately, Aslaug arrives and retrieves the disabled child, whom they then decide to name ‘Ivar the Boneless’. Can’t wait to see how he turns out but I can guess! The point is, this scene touches on the cruelty and the care involved in societies that do abandon infants with disabilities and other conditions. It leaves the viewer to reflect on the horror of these practices, but also the emotional and powerful motives and attitudes of those facing such practices.


Summing up my thoughts about Season 2, I reiterate my positive comments in my previous blog about Season 1: the variety of scales and natures of mortuary and commemorative practice shown is a clear and key dimension. The attention to private and personal spaces of mourning, and to infanticide, underpin the continued attempts to depict a rich multi-layered vision of early Viking Age society, its customs and beliefs.

cremation 5

Light my fire!

One of my pet archaeology subjects is cremation in past and present societies. For instance, my 2008 book chapter entitled ‘Towards an Archaeology of Cremation’ has just been republished in the second edition of The Analysis of Burned Human Remains as discussed here. Likewise, in 2013 I contributed to the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial on the subject of early medieval cremation practices. Therefore, it is with enthusiasm that I write a third post about Vikings Season 2 with a focus on my favourite bit of the entire season: BURNT VIKINGS! My aim here is to consider, not the ‘accuracy’ of the portrayals of funerary procedures, but what themes they evoke in reflecting on the significance of cremation in past societies.

cremation 1

Cremation over water in ‘Vikings’

In Episode 9 of Season 2, following defeat in battle by the combined forces of Northumbria and Wessex, the Northmen dispose of their own dead back at their riverside camp. Those that survive had all run away from the battle, so presumably the West Saxons gave them permission to come back and carry off their own dead from the field of slaughter. Unlikely I grant you for the early ninth century. Or perhaps those cremated are the injured who got away from the battle but died subsequently? Either way, let’s suspend disbelief and revel in the cremation spectacle for the war dead rather than myopic details.

The Vikings series has portrayed funerals involving a range of practices as well as at a range of scales and locales, but the association with water provides a linking theme in every case. It is not only cremation that is associated with water: beach-funerals occur in Season 1 and almost every death and every funeral is within spitting distance of the water’s edge. I have discussed the funerals in Season 1 of Vikings here. The watery context of mortuary practice is reflected in Season 2, since Floki re-opens his father’s grave beside a stream.

In Season 1 there were two principal cremation ceremonies, both associating fiery transformation with water. First there was the ship-cremation over water in the funeral of Earl Harald. Next we are shown the mass-cremation of plague victims on the beach at Kattegat. Season 2 contains just this one cremation, and it incorporates elements of both Season 1 cremation ceremonies: it is both a mass-cremation and over-water.

cremation 3

Torch bearers make their way through the crowds at the riverside

Disappointingly, we learn nothing regarding why some people are burned and others are buried unburned and the significance of the link between fire and water. We also see nothing of the preparations for the funerals; the collection and preparation of bodies, their dressing and positioning. We only see a brief glimpse of the proceedings in the show, but enough to give us a sense of the rituals involved. Silent in defeat, there is no singing, no dancing, no sacrifices of humans or animals and most tragic of all, no over-indulgence in sexual intercourse and alcoholic beverages. Ibn Fadlan would have been disappointed indeed! Instead, we have a beautiful, striking and memorial drama of silence and stillness over calm estuarine waters.

Four mass cremations take place on water, each set adrift on rafts into the river. We see the scene while three are already alight and a fourth is being floated out from the shoreline. We see Ragnar and his warriors standing in silence while torch bearers pass through them to the shore. We see the final raft pushed out between the boats. Most odd of all, the warriors do not stay to watch, they walk away as soon as all four are in position. Therefore, these are very ‘un-Viking’ funerals: peaceful, quiet and respectful. Getting their asses kicked actually brings a bit of calm to the Northmen’s obsequies.

cremation 2Now, this is an important scene for many archaeodeath reasons. Here are two.

First, it reveals much about disposal and archaeological visibility. We pretend we have traces of all the major disposal methods in use in the Viking period, but of course cremation-over-water and the scattering of ashes over water are likely to have been part of a panoply of variations in disposal methods available to Viking Age populations. Such practices are extremely unlikely to leave unambiguous archaeological traces. How many funerals in the Early Middle Ages culminated in archaeologically invisible disposal practices? Anne-Sofie Graslund is among many archaeologists to have raised this very issue; it is easy to be seduced by furnished inhumations, rich burial mounds and the like when many funerals of both lower status persons and elite individuals might receive elaborate funerals could leave little trace. In other words, it reminds us that dramatic funerals involving considerable investment in time, labour and material resources like these can lead to no physical memorial and locus of deposition. If only we knew how common these kinds of funerals took place amidst maritime communities.

Second, it brings forth the drama of funerals as discussed by Neil Price, but here with a different emphasis. Here, the visual spectacle of cremation in relation to water foregrounds liquid as context and medium of remembrance, whether the cremation takes place beside it and over it. Here, water is not merely backdrop, it is an essential element in the cremation process relating to movement, transformation, stages of performance linking audiences and performances, and the significance of watery immersion. In this Season 2 cremation, the dead move out over water as they burn, thus staging the departing from the living of the cadaver through fire, horizontal navigation and vertical descent simultaneously. The elemental interactions between fire and water (and other liquids) need far greater attention for Viking Age mortuary practice. In this regard, this series provides rich inspiration, even if the historical accuracy of the funerals portrayed are inevitably unclear.

cremation 4

Kattegat after the cremations




Views over the Herefordshire countryside from Arthur’s Stone. The legendary hero picked a good spot for a bit of giant slaying…

Today I had a multiple-purpose outing into the landscape of Herefordshire – one of the parts of England I am least familiar with. I was taking a day out of my annual leave for three purposes: (i) to see a superb dig investigating some fascinating Neolithic monuments and halls, (ii) have an archaeo-scheming lunch (with beer) with archaeologists from either side of the border about a potential new project and (iii) visit a Neolithic chambered tomb: Arthur’s Stone.

I used the train journey between Wrexham and Leominster to read through parts of the second proofs of my forthcoming edited book on early medieval stone monuments. At the station I was picked up by one of my partner-in-archaeo-scheming, CPAT Director Paul Belford in his Mazda MX-5 convertible. We then zoomed through the Herefordshire countryside in search of Dorstone Hill, site of Manchester University/Herefordshire Archaeology excavations directed by Professor Julian Thomas and Dr Keith Ray. In classic archaeological style, we didn’t use as sat-nav or OS landranger maps, we used topography and directions from our other co-conspirator Keith Ray (mainly by landmarks such as bridges and pubs) to navigate our way!


Soil sampling the possible floor surfaces of the hall built on the hill-top and later capped by a Neolithic tomb


In the fourth week of excavations in their fifth season, this view shows the Manchester University’s excavations of a Neolithic tomb/monument built over a monumental timber hall that had been burnt to end its life. A fabulous instance of memory-making through fiery transformation?

We found the dig site on top of Dorstone Hill where we zoomed into the field dramatically in Mazda-style, exited in a nonchalant fashion and proceeded to explore the excavations. In addition to Keith and Julian, we met various celebrity archaeologists young and old working with a team of students and volunteers to investigate this phenomenal site. My brief visit coincided with a visit from English Heritage inspector Bill Klemperer and we got a tour of the dig plus the immediate surroundings, including earthworks nearby.

The features being uncovered date to the early Neolithic period (early to middle 4th millennium BC), although precise dates have yet to be secured for the sequence of two halls replaced by two long-cairns. Headlines were made two years ago with the report that Professor Thomas and his team uncovered these fabulous remains on a stupendous ridge-top with extensive views west and east over Herefordshire. Read about discoveries up to 2013 here.

Unfortunately the project has no website, no blog, no Twitter or open Facebook presence for the public to learn about the latest findings from 2014 and 2015. This is a dig that is all about memory work through the media of fire and stone, so it is of great interest to me. I guess I can only look forward to reading more about it in due course when the latest discoveries become publicly available.

Next up, was a pub lunch involving steak burger and fries. There was beer, Speckled Hen. There were also wasps. Schemes were concocted, plans were hatched, dark impenetrable dialogue was uttered about things that once were, and things that might be. Secret plots. So again, no public dimension to report.


Arthur’s Stone; surrounded by one of the most hilariously undulated fences in English Heritage history


The heritage board usefully shows the original orientation of the Neolithic monument and situates the site in relation to other Neolithic finds on the ridge and the Dore valley. Demarcating the dangerous folkloric element, the story of Arthur’s Stone is in a white box bottom-right

Then, a brief visit to another Neolithic site; the unexcavated and rather buggered-up chambered tomb known as Arthur’s Stone. Before it was the place where Arthur slew a giant (i.e. sometime before the 13th century when the tale is first recorded for this monument), it had been a chambered tomb accessed by a right-angled passage from its side. It has a 25-tonne capstone and 9 upright stones survive creating the chamber. This is a fabulous and early instance of an Arthurian association with a megalithic tomb and I am frustrated about how little is mentioned about this monument exists in the standard online resources.

I then headed back to Leominster via Mazda and via Arriva Wales to Wrexham, aware that I had visited a long-standing English Heritage monument and a major research excavation, neither of which have any adequate web presence and certainly not the virtual profile they deserve.


Arthur’s Stone with its right-angled passage

Incidentally, en route back I had 35 minutes to kill in Shrewsbury (pronounced Shrews-bury). Shrewsbury railway station is a formidable Victorian nightmare of a structure built in 1848. I marvelled at its horrors and purchased a Still Vimto for £1 from the adjacent newsagents. I walked around a shopping centre and found shops with nothing I wanted to buy. I also paid my respects at the war memorial on platform 3 to the staff of the LNWR/GWR joint railway in the First World War and an additional plaque beneath commemorating a hymn’s composition and reflecting Shrewsbury’s Welsh dimensions as an historic border town. A fundamental contrast between the kinds of memory work revealed in the Manchester excavations and Arthur’s Stone? Well, at least the war memorial has a vaguely decent online presence via the Imperial War Museum inventory here.


Shrewsbury railway station


Platform 3 memorials – a very different media of memory to that encountered in Herefordshire

Aethelstan receives crucifixion for apostasy...

Aethelstan receives crucifixion for apostasy…


As recent entries should make clear, I’m getting myself through Season 2 of the History Channel ‘Vikings’ series.  It is of great interest to me as a mortuary archaeologist of the first millennium AD societies. The series is the latest worldwide popular 21st-century portrayal of Scandinavia and the Viking diaspora in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Therefore this series needs to be taken seriously by academics as a way of tackling and debating the use of legendary, historical and archaeological evidence relating to life and death in this important period of European history.

See my earlier blog entries for other dimensions of the ‘Vikings’ series. As well as reviewing seasons 1 and 2 in general terms together here, I previously went on to review in more detail the mortuary archaeological dimensions of Vikings Season 1. I have also recently written posts about Floki’s reopening of a grave in Season 2 here and the importance of bones in Season 2 here.


Bishop Swithun is as tough as any Viking!

Compared with Season 1, this second series seems on first impressions to contain far fewer attempts at displaying overtly archaeological and historical scenarios and death rituals. However, on reflection, I think there are just as many as in Season 1, but they are less formulaic set-pieces and more seamlessly woven into the storyline. Hence, there remain numerous fascinating archaeodeath moments and legend-inspired grisly deaths worthy of our attention. This blog seeks to review the portrayal of sacrificial killings within Vikings Season 2.

A Quartet of Sacrificial Killings

Swithun – It Never Rains But it Pours!

First up, we learn how raiding pagan Northmen kill a West Saxon bishop in the opening years of the 9th century. In their (of course fictional) attack on Winchester, they defeat the warriors defending the minster (whose naff tactic is to simply run at the Vikings in a disorganised manner). Torstein then butchers hiding men, women and children, while Bishop Swithun is captured by Floki after refusing to hide at Aethelstan’s bequest.

Incidentally, yes, there was a real Bishop (later Saint) Swithun of Winchester he died AD 862 over a generation later. Please note: the historical Swithun wasn’t killed by anyone, he died old of natural causes. For those confused, I am discussing a TV show, not an account of historical events! Mark the difference, some people easily get confused.

Anyway, Swithun is tied up to a column in the church and arrows are fired at him by Horik, his son Erlendur and Floki. This starkly displays Horik and his son and his jeering cronies as vile bullies. It also displays just how fervent Floki’s heathen faith – and hatred of Christians – really is.

Swithun has balls of iron and dies a martyr’s death in this story. Still, Aethelstan intervenes and kills the bishop himself by slitting his throat to save him from further suffering. This scene is of course loosely inspired by the story of King Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia’s execution by the Danes on the orders of Ivar the Boneless.

Crucifixion – Good! Out of the Door, One Cross Each

Second up, in Episode 4, we witness how the West Saxons punished captured apostates among the raiding Northmen. The second ritual killing is an aborted one: the turncoat religious rentamouth Aethelstan’s crucifixion.

crucifixion 7

I’m Aethelstan and so’s my wife!

Let’s be clear that this is historically absurd and makes limited sense even as regards the storyline. There is plenty of evidence the West Saxons were just as cruel in their executions of criminals as anyone else in the early medieval world. Hanging, beheading, mutilations and trials by fire were all a la carte. However, nailing apostates to crosses, wearing crowns of thorns and loin cloths and spearing their sides, thus explicitly emulating Christ’s crucifixion, was certainly not on the agenda.

I keep wanting to imagine this was Aethelstan’s vision of his own inner sufferings but no, this is part of the story. We must add to this the ridiculous rabble-rousing bishop who commits an even more heinous crime than subjugating a human being – pagan, Christian or otherwise – to crucifixion. Yes, I refer to the infuriating evil of pronouncing apostate as ‘apo-state’. This is second only to calling Shrewsbury ‘Shrovesbury’ and medicine ‘med-sun’. Thankfully the king is on hand to save Aethelstan and prevent the script descending into oblivion and posh pronunciations.

I guess the crucifixion is an attempt to show the inherent barbarism within both early medieval paganism and Christianity and is a forerunner to King Ecbert seeking Aethelstan’s council over the correct treatment of women accused of adultery. What is valid – indeed the only element that might be – is the hilltop open-air location for a criminal execution, something explored in detail in the work of Andrew Reynolds and demonstrable through numerous excavated Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries.

Don’t Lose Your Head!

So far we’ve had one killing of a Christian by pagans, one killing (attempted) by Christians on an apostate. Next we have pagan-on-pagan ritual killing. This is the sacrifice of a prisoner following the defeat of Jarl Borg and his forces and the liberation of Kattegat. Presumably a captured warrior of Borg’s, he is freed of his bonds ‘because he will want to die well’ as Rollo puts it (mirroring the execution of Season 1). Rollo prepares his axe, saying: ‘in the presence of the gods and in their honour, I offer this sacrifice’.

sacrifice 3

The sacrificial altar – inverted tree stump placed upon another tree stump

The sacrifice takes place beside an altar composed of an upside-down tree stump (reminiscent of the East Anglian Bronze Age monument: Seahenge) surmounted by deer antlers and candles and with some bone amulets suspended from its extremities. Close by is a post with a carved bearded head upon it – perhaps the icon of Odin. These are set within a timber circle of short stumps, seemingly not earth-fast, upon each of which is an open brazier. A further stump, in front of the altar, is utilised for the beheading of the victim. The impression is of a temporary ritual setting, readily created within minutes and disassembled afterwards. This is worthy of note in itself.

Before Rollo can wield his axe against the (again) stoical victim, Ragnar wants his son Bjorn to be the executioner, presumably as a test to bolster his martial manhood. Afterwards, there are further rituals implied. Bjorn has his blood smeared on his face and Floki rushes to smear the human blood on himself in some kind of religious frenzy.This is juxtaposed with the holy mass of King Ecgerth and his sons. and the parallels Aethelstan perceives with his witnessing of the human sacrifice at Uppsala.

This execution is interesting because it blurs between sacrificial and judicial execution and in this regard is plausible, as well as the settlement context and temporary spatial arrangement of the execution space.

sacrifice 1

The execution to Odin


The blood-eagling of Jarl Borg is the grisly climax of Episode 7, a sinister and dark brooding episode of scheming interactions in halls and bed chambers and Ragnar posing with a pet eagle. I discuss further the relationship of Jarl Borg with skulls here.

approaching the execution platform

Jarl Borg approaches the execution stage


The octagonal execution stage

Jarl Borg is executed by Ragnar in a night-time ritual of cruel brutality. Mirroring the skull he himself holds (see below), skulls on stakes line his night-time torch-lit path to the execution stage. Again this is interesting, as this octagonal platform seems to be especially created for this one purpose and yet is superficial in construction.

Once upon the stage, Jarl Borg places his wife’s skull on a stump and willingly hold his arms up, his wrists held between deer antlers set on posts, to be sacrificed to the gods. Blood from the cutting open of his back spatters over his wife’s skull.

Ragnar as executioner dresses in a sacrificial all-white tunic as he cuts open Borg’s back, breaks his rib cage with axes and pulls out his lungs. Ragnar and Borg both see into the other world during the preformance, an eagle (Rangar’s eagle) hanging there mid-air besides the ceremony. The same eagle had appeared in a dream to Jarl Borg hovering over his bed. Perhaps the eagle is the spirit of Ragnar and/or Borg, or a messenger from the gods. Either way, Borg meets his doom, just as the Seer had predicted. Borg becomes an eagle. He also secures entry to Valhalla by not showing pain, he even smiles at the eagle as he dies.

Obviously blood-eagling is a legendary execution method with no historical or archaeological correlate, and its portrayal as a sacral rite for those who most angered the gods is intriguing. The victim must endure in silence in order to enter Valhalla, Ragnar tells us from his bath tub. It is truly implausible and again we are presented with a stoical victim who does not plead or beg forgiveness let alone display pain.

Concluding Thoughts

What do we make of all this so far? The crucifixion and blood-eagling are vivid, memorable but ludicrous, but have a powerful place in a fictional portrayal of the early Viking Age mashed up from later legends. The killing of a bishop in his own church has a vague historical foundation and context. The sacrificing of a prisoner to thank the gods for victory is eminently logical and straightforward by comparison.

I have an ethical problem with the message given out from this show about victims of execution. While I appreciate it is attempting to show the bravery of past individuals facing death and hoping to be rewarded with either Heaven or Valhalla, I wonder if this gives a true impression of the horror of the acts perpetrated upon these individuals and the cruel suffering involved.

I have an archaeological concern too inspired by these killings. It makes me wonder whether there are any discernible archaeological signatures to distinguish between a ‘sacrificial killing’ and a ‘criminal execution': both involve axes or swords cleaving necks…

skull covered in blood

Splattered with Jarl Borg’s blood, his wife’s skull watches her former husband’s gruesome execution

The History Channel ‘Vikings’ show is full of mortuary archaeology of various kinds. Season 2 especially sees the bones of the dead coming centre-stage in both pagan and Christian worlds, and at their intersection.

Everywhere in Scandinavia, animal bones are portrayed as suspended, and especially in association with the houses of Floki the ship-builder and most abundantly in the Seer’s house. Bones are presumably amulets of protection and media for divination…

Human bones find a more specific set of associations as repositories of memory and identity, trophies of war and materials of mourning. We see encountering the bones of a dead relative as a key stage in the grave reopening by Floki in Episode 7 of Season 2, discussed here. In what other ways do we find human remains handled and engaged with? I discuss three ways here.

skull in battle2

Kissing the wife before battle – perhaps Rollo should have gained a sense that his partner was a little unhinged at this point?

Borg’s First Wife – Skulls as Drawing One’s Own Conclusion

In Season 2, skulls follow Jarl Borg. One of the principal bad-guys of season 2, this cunning yet melancholy leader still mourns his first wife who died drinking his own poisoned chalice at their wedding feast. Her skull appears first in Episode 1, when he kisses it after taking magic mushrooms with Rollo as part of the ritualised preparations before battle with Ragnar and King Horik. The skull motivates and affirms his deeds in battle.

The skull doesn’t constitute an element of the subsequent story of Borg after he is dismissed as a raiding ally by Ragnar and Horik and his vengeful invasion of Kattegat and then defeat and repelling with the aid of Largertha’s forces. We might imagine the skull followed Borg to Kattegat and back but it didn’t forewarn him of his failures.

skull in og7

Jarl Borg and his first wife’s skull

In Episode 6, we encounter a clearly deranged Jarl Borg back in his homeland of Gotaland. Rollo is visiting to invite Borg to rejoin an alliance with Ragnar and King Horik to raid westward. Borg walks in with his first wife’s skull beneath a cloth and places it on the table between him and Rollo ahead of their discussion. He states that she ‘continues to advise’ him on important decisions. He consults the skull on what to do, kissing it and breathing in deeply, as he had done in Episode 1. Subsequently, he announces to Rollo that his wife advised him to return to Kattegat!

skull in og11

Rollo drinks mead from the skull of Jarl Borg’s first wife

To seal the agreement, witnessed by Jarl Borg’s second wife Torvi who dispenses the mead (and to her evident displeasure), Rollo and Borg drink in turn from the skull! When Borg says ‘my wife will join us’ in the drinking, you are supposed to imagine he means Torvi but then realise he means his first wife herself! He treats his second (and living) wife like a servant, he treats his dead wife like a wife.

Crazy sods! I’m guessing the Weland myth is the inspiration here, but it is loose and unspecific.

skull in og13

The skull comes to Kattegat and is silent. It fails to warn him of (and thus actively instigates) Borg own doom

The skull moves with Borg from now on, tied to, and tying him to, his fate. The skull makes a more prominent journey to Kattegat by ship with Torvi, Borg and Rollo. The skull is carried by Torvi and when Borg tells Rollo that he hopes he wasn’t lying, Torvi cuttingly remarks ‘why don’t you ask her?’, looking at the skull. Nicely done!

skull in og14

Borg wakes into a dream, looking at his wife’s skull for guidance

The skull is an intermediary between this world and the next, not only through Borg’s handling and kissing of it. At Kattegat, it is by his bedside: he is framed between wives living and dead. Thus, it next appears in Jarl Borg’s dream, warning or preparing him for his execution. Is the skull speaking to Borg? This doesn’t prevent his capture by Rollo, Torstein and Floki who burst in upon an already awake and ready Borg, but Borg is prepared for this by the dream.

skull in p[rison

The skull sits on the zoomorphically carved pyramidal stone used to shackle Jarl Borg in his prison

The skull then appears again as a gift from Horik to the imprisoned Borg while he awaits his execution in Episode 7. Borg hides it when Bjorn comes in to visit him and later he grabs it as soon as unshackled and upon his exit from the prison. No longer in hiding, at this point the skull is positioned to face him, sitting on top of the shackling post.

He then carries it out into the torch-lit night and up onto the platform where he is executed by Ragnar by the legendary ‘blood-eagle’. Before the execution begins, Jarl Borg places the skull down on a tree stump on the execution platform to witness his own death. When Ragnar cuts his back open, his blood splatters over it. Thus, the skull’s advice leads to, accompanies him to, and witnesses, Borg’s death. By handling it, Borg is drawing his own conclusion!

Jarl Borg places his first wife's skull so as to watch his own execution

Jarl Borg places his first wife’s skull so as to watch his own execution

Battlefield & Execution to Hall: Displaying Skulls

Will Borg’s skull become a trophy or memento of its own? Ragnar’s hall in Kattegat gets redecorated sometime in the middle of Season 2. Seemingly when he returns from his third raid on England and regains his lands from Jarl Borg, Ragnar decides to give his hall a cranial make-over.

hall skulls

The redecorated hall with cow and human skulls back-lit above the main doorway


Ragnar on his third expedition with head under arm

Episode 10 skulls

Skulls throughout the hall in the feast in Episode 10

We don’t learn whose skull these are, but we can imagine that they are battle trophies. Ragnar carries a West Saxon warrior’s fresly decapitated head beneath his arm to intimidate and interrogate prisoners after his first battle in Wessex. Moreover, there is a human sacrifice by beheading of one of  Borg’s men following his defeat and Ragnar’s return to Kattegat. It might be surmised that the skulls on display are those of West Saxon and Geatish warriors. The skulls watch over the preparations for Borg’s execution and appears twice during the entry of King Horik into Ragnar’s hall. Are the internally facing skulls foretelling the fates of those whom they look over?

approaching the execution platform2

Skulls framing the approach to the execution platform

Finally, the skulls are made to perform in a sacrifice execution by the legendary ‘blood-eagle’. Skulls line Jarl Borg’s path to his place of execution, making the head-hunting nature of Ragnar a growing dimension of his personality as a warrior and earl, later to be enhanced further in Season 3.

Bones of the Saint

As portrayed in the Vikings series, bones were clearly an integral part of pagan Viking society. Yet where did Ragnar get inspired to take up his head-hunting ways? Is it portrayed as a timeless practice of pagan Nordic relgion? Au contraire, it seems to be an adaptation of a Christian habit. In Episode 3, Ragnar and Horik’s forces attack Winchester which appears to be a church within a small farm, defended by 30 warriors with  no  discernibleskill or tactics. Once inside, Aethelstan directs them to where the relics of St Birinius will be interred beneath the altar. The Northmen themselves apparently wouldn’t have guessed as to the location of the treasures despite having ransacked churches in Lindisfarne and Hexham in Season 1.

Ragnar with bones

Aethelstan and Ragnar discuss bones

Floki with bones

Floki handles relics

Here we encounter the skull of St Birinius. It is thrown to Ragnar who enquires of Aethelstan as to what a saint is. Aethelstan explains that bones of saints can exert benediction. In the background, Floki handles Birinius’s rib-cage with suspicion and disdain…

Later, Floki goads Aethelstan by giving him a Bible and the hand of St Birinius to test his faith. Floki clearly sees no power in these bones, which is odd given their attention in his homeland. The Bible stays with Aethelstan but the fate of the hand is disappointingly left unclear; surely if he had kept it with him it might have saved him from a near-crucifixion! Aethelstan’s failure to honour Birinius nearly lead him to his own grisly doom. Stupid boy!

Floki meets his dad

Floki meets his dad

Concluding Thoughts

This leads us back to Floki’s grave reopening in Episode 7 as discussed here. Were human remains this widely displayed and handled in the Viking world?

How human remains were displayed and circulated in both Viking Age Scandinavia and areas affected by the Viking diaspora is open to question. It is difficult to know what kinds of evidence we need to confirm just how common human remains were. Still, my feeling is that they were widely but only in specific contexts.

We know from Anglo-Scandinavian England and Viking Age Ireland that skulls were taken during executions/after death and displayed in specific settlement contexts and upon execution sites. However, the nature of archaeological evidence is unlikely to reveal the full extent of these practices of handling and displaying the dead. Were skulls and other human bones used beyond the cult of saints for divination and other magical rites? Were they kept as mementos of loved ones? Were they really displayed in halls as trophies? Were skulls really ever used as grisly drinking cups to seal alliances? I don’t know! I doubt it in most cases. Still, I certainly think that cremated human remains were curated and distributed in many contexts, both within the grave and in other environments and contexts. Presumably some unburned human remains could also be curated and receive subsequent uses and reuses?

It is not the accuracy of ‘Vikings’ that interests me here. Skulls are an easy and simple way to foreground impending death and the sinister violence and fatalist components of Viking society for the storyline. Yet more than this, what is fascinating about the portrayal of human remains in Vikings is how handling and displaying bones might have been key dimensions of the social lives of the Viking Age elite. We see both comparisons and contrasts between pagan and Christian worlds played out explicitly and in this regard; both value bones. Bones are portrayed as active presences in social life but only for certain people and certain contexts. Most strikingly with Jarl Borg, skulls doom the living, sealing their fate. In ‘Vikings’, skulls can be powerful and skulls can be dangerous.


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