Last Wednesday, I presented a public lecture at the Grosvenor Museum, the first of three Lunchtime Lectures. In the first half of my paper, I reviewed the complex variability of mortuary practices and their evolving place in the landscapes of late first millennium AD Scandinavia as well as areas of Norse colonisation in the British Isles, as discussed in an earlier post. The second half of my paper concerned a particular theme in Viking Age mortuary practice; violence.  I outlined new research that sheds light on the importance of violence in Viking Age death and memory in at least three discrete ways.

A proto-Viking war-grave? The Salme boat-burials.

Burials of the Slain

A series of recent excavations have revealed striking evidence of violence in Viking Age society. In Estonia, the discovery of two boat-graves on Saaremaa island in the Baltic Sea has revealed two late Vendel-period (8th century) unique finds. Salme 1 contained 7 burials and no signs of how they died; they might have been executed in battle or else died at sea due to disease, starvation or cold. They received a mass burial close to the shoreline. Excavators even postulate whether the small craft they were placed in could have had a short sail. If so, were the bodies placed randomly, or situated to imply the positions in which the crew would have sat when the boat was under sail.

Salme 2 shows more evidence of being a war grave; 2 skeletons were on the west side of the hull, while a mass grave of 33 adult males were stacked four deep amidships. Weapons were deliberately ‘killed’ and animals sacrificed. 5 bodies show signs of being killed by sword-strokes; arrowheads were also found embedded in some bodies.

Although pre-dating the  Viking Age proper, these finds, awaiting further analysis, have been identified as proto-Viking marauders who fell in battle, although it is unclear whether this group were a part of a victorious larger force or the entire contingent of a raiding party defeated by locals but afforded a ‘respectful’ funeral.

The Weymouth Relief Road burial pit – Oxford Archaeology website.

Evidence that Viking raids could fail is revealed starkly in the excavations by Oxford Archaeology at the Weymouth Relief Road burial pit. This has been widely, if provisionally, interpreted as a boat-load of young men, caught, rounded up, stripped and slaughtered, decapitated and buried on a prominent ridge-top location comparable to the location of other later Anglo-Saxon execution sites and deviant burials.

Burials from Oxford, dating to the late 10th century, either executed raiders or part of the AD 1002 genocide of Danes in the West Saxon kingdom. Source; BBC news website

More sinister than this is the burial from St John’s College, Oxford excavated by Thames Valley Archaeological Services. Subsequent stable isotope study of the 37 bodies of young men and two children who showed signs of violent death. Their bodies had been stripped and burnt prior to burial. Their radiocarbon dates suggest they may have been tenth-century Viking raiders or victims of the  AD 1002 St Brice’s day massacre of Danes in King Aethelraed’s beleagured kingdom.

Killing at the  Funeral

I had begun the first half of the lecture with the tenth-century account of Ibn Fadlan, so it was already clear from this source and from extensive archaeological evidence that funerals involved animal sacrifice, perhaps as much for the drama and ritual performance of killing and the sociality of shared consumption as much as creating companions and guides to the next world. The role of human sacrifice in Viking mortuary practice has long dominated and polarised scholars. Currently, human sacrifice is back en vogue among scholars. A recent study by Norwegian archaeologists has proposed that slaves were grave-gifts, combining evidence from ancient mt DNA, stable isotopes and the decapitation (or at least absent skulls) in multiple burials from the cemetery of Flakstad in northern Norway. The argument goes that because the diets between those interred were different, and they don’t appear closely related, they must be sacrificed slaves interred with their masters and mistresses. The argumentation doesn’t fully hold water, but it is an intriguing suggestion that Ibn Fadlan and other, famous instances of multiple burials from the Viking world, might contain among them further instances of human sacrifice.

Ibn Fadlan
A cartoon version of the scene recorded by tenth-century traveller Ibn Fadlan at the funeral of a Rus chieftain on the River Volga. Animals are sacrificed and a slave girl raped and killed.

Killing the Dead

The third kind of violence is the use of funerals as a form of political violence, asserting identities and claims over the landscape and the living through the manipulation of the dead. The location of isolated graves and cemeteries in the Norse colonies has long been seen as a strategy of land-claiming and asserting a colonial identity. I discussed the interpretation of the Balladoole boat-grave from the Isle of Man as a potentially striking example. Here, a Viking male weapon grave in a boat was placed right over an early Christian long-cist cemetery, slighting the earlier graves. Was this continuity of place or a deliberate and aggressive symbolic performance of legitimacy and succession in the landscape, simultaneously asserting a new identity on the landscape and dispersing the memories of those whose graves were robbed and/or overlain? Of course, the sequence of ritual performances at Repton, Derbyshire, can be regarded as an aggressive pagan take-over of a Christian royal cult centre, subsequently transformed anew into a Christian cult-centre.

In Scandinavia, Daly and Bill have recently argued in the journal Antiquity that the Gokstad and Oseberg ship-graves were plundered in the third quarter of the tenth-century, possibly by Harald Bluetooth or his cronies to disperse the memories and power of the dead in lands they aspired to control and exploit. Did they regard the dead as still active and animated, if not fully living, within their graves? Did the control of power over and among the living rely on the successful control of the dead. When this wasn’t possible, was the  ‘grave-robbing’ at Gokstad and Oseberg a means of ‘killing the dead’?

My second Grosvenor Lunchtime Lecture is this coming Wednesday at 1pm.