Citations session Williams Klevnäs_2
Alison presenting my paper in Stockholm: thanks Ali!

From Pilsen to Stockholm

I co-organised a session at the 2013 EAA conference in Pilsen, Czech Republic, on ‘Chains of Citiation – Recontextualisation in the Viking Age’ and subsequently a follow-up session at the Nordic TAG conference in Stockholm in April 2014 on ‘Material Citations in the Viking Age‘. Together, the sessions explored different dimensions of citation within and between media and material cultures in the Viking world, focusing on artefacts and mortuary practices in particular. For both conference sessions, I am grateful for the hard work and support of my co-organiser, Dr Nanoushka Myrberg Burstrom.

Hogback stone: Lastingham, North Yorkshire

Sadly I couldn’t attend the conference session in Stockholm due to family illnesses and I relied very much on Nanoushka to handle the organisation in my absence. Also, I relied in the generosity and expertise of Alison Klevnäs to present my paper in my absence. My talk was about Citations in Stone, exploring an interpretation of the tenth-century hogback stones from northern England.

Reflecting on the Sessions

I must confess that I was very depressed about not being able to present at Stockholm, catch up with my many Scandinavian pals, and contribute to another session on archaeology and memory at the conference.

This feeling was only accentuated by a realisation that the theme of our two sessions was not going to work as an edited book. The individual papers all had merit but Nanni and I agreed that the theme was too broad to be the basis for a coherent and original output. All too often, archaeologists and other academics organise a session and mindlessly wish to produce an ‘output’ from the event. However, this is not always the best, or most practical course of action. In this instance, we stand by our decision not to rush into publication and the success of the sessions should not be judged on this basis.


Mortuary Citations: Death and Memory in the Viking World

However, I am pleased to say that, following some rethinking, I have decided to move forward and create a new publication project that draws upon, but is distinct from, the two conference sessions at Pilsen and Stockholm. This is not going to be a proceedings: the theme is different. Hence only some of the speakers at the two events were invited to participate. Furthermore, a number of other scholars have been invited to contribute who did not attend or present at either session.

Provisionally entitled ‘Mortuary Citations: Death and Memory in the  Viking World’, I have narrowed the theme to look specifically at citational strategies of mortuary practice and commemoration in the Viking world.

Very quickly I received support and approval to pull together the papers as a special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology for publication in 2016. I am not yet contracted to do this, and so EJA may change their mind, or the papers may not cohere sufficiently. Still, this is our current plan of work and I have gathered together an exciting range of specialists in the archaeology of death and memory to contribute to this collection.

Viking boat-graves at Skamby, Sweden


Graves and funerary monuments have provided some of the richest data and most popularly recognised images of the Viking Age. Whether it concerns furnished graves from Ireland or picture-stones from Gotland, evidence of mortuary practice and commemoration continues to be a focus of academic debate and popular engagement  with ‘the Vikings’ in Scandinavia and areas affected by the Viking diaspora between the eighth to the eleventh centuries AD. Informed by fresh discoveries, new methodologies and novel theoretical perspectives, mortuary practices and mortuary commemoration shed light on life and death at a time of socio-political and religious transformation and the intersection between Norse and native communities, as well as clashes and accommodations between religions and worldviews.

Tenth-century cross replica – inspired by monuments at Neston, Cheshire

This collection tackles the mortuary practices of the Viking Age from this new perspective. Drawing upon recent theoretical approaches to memory, personhood and materiality in prehistoric, early historic and late historic mortuary archaeological research, the specific focus of this collection is mortuary citation: defined here as practices, images, materialities, architectonics, monumentalities and spatialities that create mnemonic references to other things, places, peoples and times. Moreover, the aim is to incorporate, but move beyond, studies in the archaeology of remembrance focused on either ‘the past in the past’ (e.g. Thäte 2007), or ‘the biography of things’ (e.g. Hall 2012), to consider the reuse of monuments and artefacts alongside the representations, materialities and spatialities deployed in Viking-Age funerals to cite other places and times.

Picture 130
A rune-stone and me, Ostergotland

This approach aims to critique the theoretically disengaged nature of many existing traditions of studying Viking-Age death-ways and also to challenge treating burials and monuments as fixed, singular and sealed contexts and things.

The collection’s aim is to re-engage with Viking-Age mortuary practice and commemoration relationally and contextually, situated within a web of mnemonic citational relationships to other contemporary and past material cultures and spaces. Exploring the connections between bodies, materials, texts, art, monuments, spaces and landscapes implicated in mortuary disposal methods and monumentalities in terms of cultural choices, biographical linkages and technological sequences. Instead we can explore the networks by which memory was worked and reworked through the interplay of materialities and spatialities created through the mortuary arena (see also Back Danielsson 2007; Jones 2007; Williams 2006; Williams et al. 2010). Furthermore, this approach not only sheds new light on the specific form, decoration, materialities and biographies of specific materials, artefacts, monuments and spaces employed in the commemoration of the dead during the Viking Age, it helps to understand how mortuary assemblages operated together and in relation to each other in unfolding traditions of memory work.

From the investigation of skeuomorphism, scalar transformations (miniaturisation, gigantism), the mnemonic power of assemblages of artefacts and monuments, and the citational power of images, materials and landscapes, this approach offers new views and insights into the death rituals of the creolising and syncretistic death rituals of Fennoscandia, the British Isles and North Atlantic during the Viking diaspora.

Shield-bosses from a Viking-Age ship-cremation burial from western Norway (Bergen Museum)

Key Questions for Contributors

To move forward research on Viking-Age mortuary practice and mortuary commemoration, each article of the collection will address one or more of the following inter-related research questions:

  1. How did Viking-Age grave assemblages (material cultures, substances, plants as well as human and animal bodies) commemorate the dead through mortuary citation, including (e.g. Goldhahn and Østigård 2008; Nordeide 2011; Williams 2004; 2007; Williams 2014:
    1. The reuse of things with biographies through acts of assemblage creation around and in the grave (Back Danielsson 2010; Williams 2001)
    2. being subject to parallel tempos of translation and transformation during the mortuary process (Williams 2013)
    3. creating citations between mortuary settings (Price 2010; Williams 2014)
    4. setting up citational fields through scalar and skeuomorphic transformations (Back Danielsson 2007; Williams forthcoming)
    5. through invocations of other technologies and environments (e.g. Jennbert 2006; Goldhahn and Østigård 2008)?
  2. How were below- and above-ground mortuary containers, layers, surfaces, structures, architectures and monuments important in the Viking-Age mortuary citation through their mediation of display and closure (e.g. masking practices [Back Danielsson 2007; 2010] and containing and commemorating the dead (e.g. Andrén 1993; 2007; Høilund Nielsen 2009; Ljungkvist 2008; Williams 2013; 2014; Wessman and Williams forthcoming).
  3. How were mortuary citations key to understanding the locations and spatial settings of Viking-Age cemeteries in relation to settlements, fields, tracks, maritime routes, ancient monuments and other dimensions of natural and human-made topography (Gansum and Østigård 2004; Hållans Stenholm 2006; Thäte 2007; Williams et al. 2010; Andreeff 2012)?
  4. How did constructive acts and practices, including assemblage-formation, burial accumulation and monumental augmentation) interact with acts of dissolution/integration of multiple successive burial episodes into single locales (see Wessman 2010) and deliberate destruction (including grave-robbing: e.g. Klevnäs 2007; Bill and Daly 2012) in Viking-Age mortuary citation?

Selected Relevant Sources

Andrén, A. 1993. Doors to other worlds: Scandinavian death rituals in Gotlandic perspectives, Journal of European Archaeology 1, 33-56.

Andrén, A. 2007. Behind Heathendom: archaeological studies of Old Norse religion, Scottish Archaeological Journal,27:2: 105–138

Andreeff, A. 2012. Archaeological excavations of picture stone sites. In M. H. Karnell (ed.) Gotland’s Picture Stones. Bearers of an Enigmatic Legacy, Reports from the Friends of the Historical Museum Association Volume 84, Visby: Gotlands Museum, pp. 129-44.

Back Danielsson, I.-M. 2007. Masking Moments. The Transition of Bodies and Beings in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Stockholm: Stockholm University

Back Danielsson, I-M.2010. Sense and sensibility: masking practices in Late Iron Age boat-graves. In Fredrik Fahlander and Anna Kjellström (eds.) Making Sense of Things: Archaeologies of Sensory Perception, Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 53. Stockholm: University of Stockholm, pp. 121-40

Bill, J. and Daly, A. 2012. The plundering of the ship graves from Oseberg and Gokstad: an example of power politics? Antiquity,86, 808-24

Gansum, T. & Østigård, T. 2004. The ritual stratigraphy of monuments that matter. In European Journal of Archaeology, 7(1), pp. 61-79

Goldhahn, J. & Østigård, T. 2008. Smith and death – cremations in furnaces in Bronze and Iron Age Scandinavia. In K. Childis, J. Lund & C. Prescott (eds) Facets of Archaeology: Essays in Honour of Lotte Hedeager on her 60th Birthday, OAS 10. Oslo: Oslo Academic Press, pp.215-242.

Hållans Stenholm, A-M. 2006. Past memories: spatial returning as ritualized remembrance, In A. Andrén, K. Jennbert and C. Raudvere (eds) Old Norse Religion in long-term perspectives: Origins, changes and interactions, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, pp. 341-345.

Høilund Nielsen, K. 2009. Rituals to free the spirit – or what the cremation pyre told, in D. Sayer and H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, pp. 81-103.

Hall, M. A. 2012. Survival and significance: some concluding remarks on reuse as an aspect of cultural biography, B. Jervis and A. Kyle (eds) Make Do and Mend TAG 2010 Conference Session Proceedings, 115-122 Oxford: Brit. Archaeol. Res. Rep. Int. Ser. 2408

Jennbert, K. 2006. The heroized dead: people, animals and materiality in Scandinavian death rituals, A.D. 200-1000. In Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert and Catharina Raudvere (eds.).Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions Lund: Nordic Academic Press, pp. 135-40

Jones, A. 2007. Memory and Material Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Klevnäs, A.2007. Robbing the dead at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, Archaeological Review from Cambridge 22(1): 24-42

Ljungkvist, J.2008. Valsgärde: development and change on a burial ground over 1,300 years. In Valsgärde studies: the place and its people, past and present, S. Norr (ed.) Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, pp. 13-56.

Nordeide, S. W. 2011. Death in abundance – quickly! The Oseberg ship burial in Norway, Acta Archaeologica 82: 7-15

Price, N. 2008. Dying and the dead: Viking Age mortuary behaviour, in S. Brink with N. Price (eds) The Viking World, London: Routledge, pp. 257-73.

Price, N. 2010. Passing into poetry: Viking-Age mortuary drama and the origins of Norse mythology, Medieval Archaeology 54, pp. 123-156

Svanberg, F. 2003. Death Rituals in South-East Scandinavia AD 800-1000, decolonizing the Viking Age 2, Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International

Thäte, E. 2007. Monuments and minds: monument re-use in Scandinavia in the second half of the first millennium AD. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia Series in 4° No. 27. Lund: University of Lund

Wessman, A. 2010. Death, Destruction and Commemoration: Tracing Ritual Activities in Finnish Late Iron Age cemeteries (AD 550-1150). ISKOS 18. Helsinki: The Finnish Antiquarian Society

Wessman, A. & Williams, H. in prep. 2015. Building for the cremated dead, in J. I. Cerezo-Román, A. Wessman & H. Williams (eds) (in prep 2015) Archaeologies of Cremation: Death and Fire in Europe’s Past

Williams, H.  2001. Death, memory and time: a consideration of mortuary practices at Sutton Hoo, in C. Humphrey & W. Ormrod (eds.) Time in the Middle Ages.  Woodbridge:  Boydell & Brewer.  pp. 35-71.

Williams, H. 2006. Death & memory in early medieval Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Williams, H. 2007. The emotive force of early medieval mortuary practices, Archaeological Review from Cambridge. 22(1): 107-23.

Williams, H. 2013. Death, memory and material culture: catalytic commemoration and the cremated dead. In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial. Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 195-208.

Williams, H. in prep. 2014. Memory through monuments: movement and temporality in Skamby’s boat graves.

Williams, H., Rundkvist, M. & Danielsson, A. 2010. The landscape of a Swedish boat-grave cemetery. In Landscapes,2010:1, pp. 1-24