Grave Robbing in Viking Age Scandinavia
There is widespread archaeological evidence – matching later medieval saga literature which contains stylised portrays of such practices – of Viking Age grave re-opening in Scandinavia. Moreover, this evidence is being increasingly given serious scholarly attention. Once seen as simply ‘looting’, there are now a range of interpretations of this practice, identified for famous high-status barrow-burials like the Oseberg ship through to a range of more modest burial assemblages. In addition to looting for treasure, this grave disturbance might be the result of a range of practices, some perhaps socially prescribed by the immediate kin of the dead person, others centuries later and sanctioned by groups during that time to either make specific claims to that place, over the dead, and over their former possessions. To my mind, the examination and careful selection of damaged artefacts from cremation pyres finds close parallel in the immediate post-burial re-examination of furnished inhumation graves, providing a firm foundation for examining these practices in social terms.
As such, disturbing graves and grave re-openings need to be considered an active engagement with the identities of the dead as created during funerals and/or as perceived by subsequent generations of medieval people. Accidental disturbance during new activities on the site (including digging new graves) can sometimes form a context for the evidence. When deliberate intervention can be demonstrated, ‘looting’ remains one motive. Still, we have to consider other explanations to these practices when uncovered by archaeologists across Scandinavia and Continental Europe, as well as in the British Isles and when the grave openings can be dated to within the Middle Ages.
The dispersal of the ‘pollution’ of death and the dead is one motive for re-entering graves. The retrieval of items of mnemonic value and social significance for the living is another. Engagement with the bones of the dead, if only to disperse most and select some for retrieval, including necromantic magic, is a further possibility. To disperse the fame of the deceased and disrupt the claims of their descendants might be another. These are some among a range of possible motives to be considered.
We should also never forget that engagements with old graves, as later sagas show clearly, was both physical intervention and a journey into the imagined world of the draugr – the mound-dweller – and his (or her) subterranean home. Entering these realms is portrayed as an heroic and dangerous act, to face the curse and animated presence of the dead. It was a practice of not only breaking soil, removing stones and breaking into chambers and coffins. Instead, it was about entering into the fearful supernatural world and tackling physically as well as spiritually with the dead.
Imagination also comes in on a more practical level: previous interventions, oral histories and personal recollections of the funerary ceremonies, and invented narratives surrounding ancient monuments might create and embellish what is perceived as being contained a burial mound beyond all measure. Therefore the motive is not defined by what is uncovered, but by what is imagined and what this imagination considers might be rewarded by grave re-opening.
One recent discussion of these practices can be found in the latest Norwegian Archaeological Review by Sweden-based archaeologist Alison Klevnas and reading Alison’s paper submitted to my special journal issue on death and memory in the Viking world is inspiration for this blog.
Floki: joker, warrior and artisan
In this context, I was delighted to see some grave-robbing appearing briefly but integral to the narrative in Episode 7, Season 2 of the History Channel’s ‘Vikings’, not only because it foregrounds this practice and promotes its popular appreciation, but also because it presents a specific and fascinating interpretation of the practice.
Floki the ship-builder and joker is a dark and mysterious character. This Loki-obsessed individual clearly has multiple mental disorders and a passion for both craft and extreme violence. His pagan faith becomes increasingly central in season 2, yet his dialogues with the gods have been kept obscure in the first two seasons of the show beyond revelling in the slaughter of Christians, whining on at Aethelstan’s about his Christian past and suspected Christian tendencies, getting into a frenzy at human sacrifices, and generally waffling on about the ‘dark’ gods and the deeds of Loki at every opportunity. His real religious practices are his work, however, his art and his craft; ships, weather-vanes, and the like. This combination creates a powerful and engaging character of the warrior-artisan, loyal to the lord but whose motives and deeds are somewhat shrouded in supernatural motivations. Floki is a loyal side-kick and key to Ragnar’s raiding success, but also an ambivalent anti-hero.
Floki Gets Married!
We see a slight departure from this situation in Episode 7, season 2 where, following a human sacrifice and during a thunder storm, he expresses his wish to produce a child with Helga, and their marriage is agreed. Sorry all eligible Loki-obsessed maidens out there, Floki is now ‘taken’.
Paralleling the marriage of Aethelwulf and Edith in Wessex, Floki and Helga’s getting hitched gives us a glimpse into a pagan Viking wedding. I have honestly very little clue about the history and folklore of Scandinavian marriage and so I’m intrigued as to where the story writers went for their ideas for this one. Any further advice welcome.
The ceremony takes place on the shore, with bride arriving on a strange purpose-built raft, and the bride and groom dress in white and there are plenty of flowers and garlands. A female religious specialist, whose identity and role are obscure (perhaps simply a relative of Helga’s), presides over the short ceremony.
Floki Digs up Dad!
Anyway, the dimension that interests me is that the preparations for the marriage involved re-opening at least one grave. Ahead of the happy day, we see Floki all alone, accessing a grave beneath a shallow pile of stones at surface level beside a stream within woodland. He removes the stones and reveals a skull and arm bones; evidently he knows exactly where to look to the precise centimetre and doesn’t even need tools to dig into the superficial grave: clever Floki!
He carefully and respectfully removes the stones and when the skull is revealed he touches and strokes the skull and whispers ‘hey Papa’. We therefore learn that this is Daddy’s grave.
The location beside a stream in woodland is not implausible for a cemetery. However, Floki might have really hated his Dad and didn’t want to afford him with cremation or a decent burial. He might have been a cursed individual not even worthy of a memorial stone or cairn. Perhaps he was of low status deserving only of a modest burial. This is all unlikely because Floki is demonstrably of the elite class and his father was buried with at least a sword, and that was the most singly highly prized item a male could receive in death in early Viking Age Scandinavia. So his modest funerary context demands another explanation. Here are two:
- Floki’s father was a smith and/or ship-builder, a mysterious character living on the edges of Viking society and yet powerful and clever. If so, his stream-side interment without a notable monument, and yet with a sword of significance and worthy of passing on down the generations, might reflect this powerful but dangerous character. Such an isolated burial location finds archaeological evidence in certain smith’s graves from northern Europe.
- The makers of ‘Vikings’ have put millions into reconstructing costumes, equipment, ships and halls and hiring hordes of extras to be all beardy/braided and Norse. Yet despite this attention to detail, I have already noted their inability to tackle funerary monuments and cemetery spaces. This is either because they had no clue how to reconstruct an early Viking Age funerary monument, or (more likely I suspect) interventions below ground and large-scale earthmoving was the one thing that no permission could come from landowners and local authorities on location filming.
Personally, I suspect option 2 was behind the decision, but I think the landscape context of Floki’s dad’s grave can be readily explained away in relation to option 1 if one wanted to pretend the counter-monumental burial was deliberate!
Of course the position of the sword is unlikely and it was implausibly unrusted and without scabbard. Yet it is depicted good to go! If so, Floki’s dad must have died literally hours before, or else the spot as miraculous preservational properties.
Let’s suspend our disbelief regarding the details; they are not the real point, it is the scenario and motivations that are key.
The aim for this grave re-opening becomes clear when we see Helga and Floki’s wedding ceremony. Floki wanted his wedding to be independent of his fealty to Rangar and so accessing his own dad’s sword might have been a way of re-accessing the blessings of the dead rather than trust his current family (if any) and friends.
Floki, we are told by the mistress of ceremonies, has to give his father’s sword to his wife for her to hold it in custody for her unborn son. Meanwhile, he receives from her a sword (presumably from his new wife Helga’s father) to hold as new protector of her womb….They exchange the rings balanced over the tips of each sword as they exchange them. I’ve no idea if this is made-up, or has some later medieval precedent. Please let me know if you know!
So this scene is far from incidental, it is a striking and fascinating moment of insight into one attempt to reconstruction Viking Age marriage ceremonies. In particular, it foregrounds the importance of selected items of material culture – in this case swords – as what van Houts calls ‘pegs of memory’, socially enmeshing families and connecting them down the generations from the dead to the living to unborn future generations.
Is this a plausible scenario that might explain Viking Age grave-robbing? I’ll leave you to decide…