Today at lunchtime I gave the first of my three ‘Grosvenor Lunchtime Lectures’. Every year, the Dept. of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester arranges three autumn and three spring-time public lectures on Wednesday lunchtimes at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum on popular themes. I opted to present three linked lectures this autumn on the theme of Vikings, Death and Memory. My first lecture was entitled ‘Death and the Vikings’. I even had Viking re-enactors turn up and show of their arts and crafts in the form of the lovely Carla Phillips from Travellers through Time. She has promised to come back with even more stuff to show the audience of my future talks.
I started off, perhaps predictably, with a brief discussion of how the tenth-century account of Arab ambassador Ibn Fadlan – who witnessed the funeral of a Rus chieftain on the Volga – has influenced how we think about Viking-Age mortuary practices in terms of dramaturgical performance. I cited and discussed here the work of Professor Neil Price. I talked about how the funeral was prolonged and considerable investment went into the provision of a ship, the killing of animals, the consumption of food and drink, and there was also the violent multiple sexual assaults and subsequent killing of a drunken slave-girl. I also used this to introduce the shock and difference of Viking-Age funerals, that challenge our cosy sense of familiarity and also challenge us to tackle, rather than accept, popular stereotypes about death in the past.
I introduced what, from a British perspective are some of the most wealthy and famous Viking graves, including the rich ship-burials from Gokstad and Oseberg, and other boat-graves from Valsgarde and Vendel in Sweden, Kaupang in Norway and elsewhere. I also discussed wealthy chamber-graves from Birka and I explored how these were complex and varied and sat at the top of an spectrum of mortuary variability in terms of grave structures and grave-goods.
Briefly, I discussed my friend and colleague Martin Rundkvist‘s work with me in digging a Viking-age boat-grave at Skamby, Östergötland. Martin has conducted a metal-detecting survey on the surrounding fields in 2003. We dug there for one season and excavation the smallest boat-grave out of ten on a modest but distinctive ridge. We revealed a poorly preserved yet interesting assemblage, including 23 amber gaming pieces within the traces of a small vessel: a first for the province.
We have published three research papers on this site. First, there was a short note by Martin, Ole Stilborg and myself in the Swedish journal Fornvännen about the copper-alloy metal casting relating to an Iron Age settlement beneath the boat-grave. This was an interesting and distinctive discovery in its own right, regardless of the later boat-grave we found covering this settlement. Second, Martin and I published the principal fieldwork report in the journal Medieval Archaeology. The third paper was led by me, looking at the landscape context of the Skamby boat-grave cemetery from three connected scales, and this was published in the journal Landscapes. The archive report is available online here main excavation report
I then introduced the fact that cremation, in many areas, was the dominant rite, and how varied these remains could be. I discussed examples of both lavish cremation burials and very modest ones. I discussed my interpretation, published in the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, that some grave-goods with Viking-Age cremation graves in Scandinavia can be considered as ‘catalytic’ commemorative artefacts, not objects of memory themselves, but artefacts that facilitated understandings of death as transformation.
Death in the Landscape
I then briefly discussed how Viking-period cemeteries would have been prominent landmarks within the worked and traversed landscapes of Norse people across Scandinavia, close to and along routes to and from, contemporary settlements. This links back to my discussions in the journal Landscapes mentioned above. I focused on Valsgarde as an example and talked about the work of John Ljungkvist looking at the chronology of this site, famous for its rich Vendel and Viking boat-graves.
In concluding my discussion of Scandinavian mortuary practices in the later first millennium AD, I emphasised the local and regional variability of Viking-Age mortuary practice, drawing upon, among others, the work of Fredrik Svanberg, whose books on this subject are key.
Viking Death Abroad
The end of the first half of my lecture focused on the evidence for Norse burials in the British Isles, using examples from Scotland, including Scar, Sanday, and Westness, both Orkney burial sites. I also talked about the Ardnamurchan boat-grave excavated by my former student (briefly) Dr Oliver Harris and his compatriots who run the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project.
This was the end of the first half of my talk, a rapid storm through traditional fayre of Viking burial archaeology, including lots of rich sites. It is for another blog to tell you about the second half….