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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kattegat after the cremations