I’ve been pondering the question: how do we interpret and display the grisly and disturbing evidence of the deliberate killing of unarmed human beings in the archaeological record outside of battlefield contexts? When can we regard these as ‘human sacrifices’ and how do we tackle this in public contexts such as museum displays?
Last year, when I visited the Manx Museum in Douglas, I found such a striking example of the challenges mortuary archaeology faces in identifying and displaying ‘human sacrifice’. Indeed it relates to one of the most tenacious examples of early medieval human killing found during excavations because of its funerary context.
On display were the funerary remains of a series of prominent and well-known Viking graves excavated on Man by Philip Kermode at Knock y Doonee, Andreas, and by Gerhard Bersu and subsequently published by Sir David Wilson at Balladoole, Arbory (discussed here); Ballateare, Jurby and Cronk Mooar, also in Jurby parish. Other finds come from Maughold, Balladoyne, German and . David Griffiths, writing in 2010, describes these and other furnished graves of the 9th/early 10th centuries as ‘one of our best archaeological insights into pagan beliefs and traditions of the Vikings’ (Griffiths 2010: 72).
The Ballateare Mound
Dug in 1946, Ballateare was a Viking Age (early/mid-10th century?) burial monument. It comprised of a turf mound, 12m in diameter, covering the grave of the encoffined weapon burial of an young adult male individual. This individual was interred with a sword, spear, ring-pin and knife situated in the chest area (suspended around the neck?). The spear may have been snapped along its shaft to fit it in the grave. Likewise the sword lay in several fragments, suggesting it had been broken for inclusion and then placed back inside its scabbard.
Rather than old and battle-damaged items, the weapons might have been specifically broken. Why? The breaking spear alone might be explained away as a practical act to facilitate its inclusion in the grave. Another explanation for all items might be to prevent them attracting grave-robbers. They could also have been ‘ritually killed’, perhaps to ‘dedicate them’ to the gods or to effectively accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Whatever the motivation, they are one of a series of indications that public acts of violent punctuated the burial sequence and inflicted upon things, beasts and at least one person.
Upon the coffin was another item bearing evidence of violence: a shield boss with sword-marks on it. In the light of the spear and sword, might this be further deliberate ritual damage rather than evidence of conflict?
Likewise, two spears were added during the graves above the coffin. Why? Were they placed carefully as dedicatory acts by mourners? Or had they been used in acts of violence during the funeral?
A further violent act revealed itself near the top of the mound. A badly preserved skeleton was recovered. The body had been lain in a prone position (face down) and it was determined to be a woman aged 20-30 with her hands above her head, possibly indicating that rigor mortis had set in at time of death (Wilson 2008: 32). No artefacts accompanied her body. She had received, and may have died from, a vicious blade wound to her skull.
After this, the cremated remains of animals – sheep, dog, ox and sheep – were added to the top of the mound. These cannot be seen as anything other than further indications that the funeral had involved slaughter and (presumably) feasting.
Other acts of cutting and breaking were integral to the actions that went into the funeral. The breaking of the turfs that comprised the mound – perhaps brought as Bersu suggested from different locations to articulate the relationship between the dead person, his family and the land they owned/claimed, was an act of severance as well as translation.
Finally, a wooden post erected to mark the turf mound and ending the archaeologically visible dimensions of the funeral that was far more than a single event, but a complex public stage.
Interpreting the Violence
Viking archaeologists and historians are fixated by Ballateare. They draw the evidence of this skull with a blade wound into every broader account of religion, burial and slave-ownership straddling the Viking world. Early medieval elites owned slaves, had concubines and killed them at important funerals: here’s the evidence from Ballateare…
This sequence of evidence has frequently promoted striking parallels to the tenth-century account of Ibn Fadlan who described a female slave’s rape and killing as part of the elaborate cremation ceremonies at the funeral of a Rus chieftain on the River Volga.
Even recent accounts of Viking Age burial on Man accept this as evidence of human sacrifice. David Wilson raised this idea in his 1966 report (Bersu and Wilson 1966) and subsequently in his synthesis of the Manx evidence (Wilson 2008: 28-36) as ‘a rite familiar to – but rarely found in – the Viking world, and otherwise unknown in the British Isles’. Subsequently ‘the unceremonious nature of the disposal of the woman’s body, without a coffin and in a condition of rigor mortis, demonstrates how little she was regarded in death’ (Wilson 2008: 33). Recently, Viking burial expert Leszek Gardeła has written:
Other ritual acts that took place at Ballateare were both puzzling and violent. When the mound was excavated, one of the first things archaeologists found in its upper levels was the body of an adult woman aged between 20-30 at death. Her arms were raised and the back of her skull had been sliced off by something sharp, probably a sword. This suggests that that she may have been sacrificed. Medieval textual sources mention ritual executions as accompanying Viking funerals, and there is more evidence of such killings from a number of archaeological sites in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. It’s quite possible that this is also what happened at Ballateare, and that the woman, perhaps one of the dead man’s slaves, was killed to accompany her master into the afterlife.
Likewise, Carroll et al. (2014: 127) have recently distilled this down to ‘likely provide grisly evidence of slave-sacrifice’ and that she died by the sword whilst ‘kneeling down’ (I’m unsure what evidence there is for the latter suggestion).
However, David Griffiths (2010: 83) has rightly been cautious about the widespread desire to wallow in the gore of this narrative. The injury might not have been perimortem but immediately post-mortem and he briefly (and to my mind) rightly frames some alternative suggestions regarding the significance of opening the skull as a means of releasing evil spirits, madness or internal pressure, or to allow the soul to depart.
I might add further possibilities: she might have died elsewhere in unfortunate circumstances and as a ‘bad death’ been far later added to this ‘fearful’ mound. She might even be a murder victim interred in a location so as to conceal her place of disposal. It is important to point out that there are many differences from Ibn Fadlan’s account, including the fact that this female did not accompany ‘her master’ at all, nor was she killed in a comparable manner to the slave-girl on the Volga. Given the inherent violence of early medieval societies, shouldn’t it at least receive consideration that this was not a sacrificed slave, but perhaps a slave or family member killed in a feud and consigned with honour into the pre-existing mound of a venerated male ancestor?
My aim here is not to dismiss the arguments of Wilson and Gardeła. I still think human sacrifice is a possible explanation for this woman’s demise. If so, it remains exceptional for these islands. However, I prefer to celebrate Griffiths’ caution. I say this for no other reason than I am suspicious of too much deference to perpetuating the same interpretations of ‘human sacrifice’ without careful airing of alternative possibilities. Also, it is so seductive for archaeologists to apply interpretations from historical sources to single archaeological sites and in a circular fashion draw both seamlessly as mutually supporting evidence for broader narratives regarding Norse paganism, mortuary ritual, slavery and sacrifice.
There are other ways to sidetrack whether this woman was killed and whether this killing was ‘sacrificial’. I have discussed the mnemonic significance of violence as an integral part of the mortuary sequence in my book Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain here (Williams 2006). I was less interested in the question of whether this particular woman was a human sacrifice and more interested in the sequence of creation and closure involved in the funeral, and the violence can be seen as punctuating every stage, whether it involved damaging and fragmenting inanimate things and/or living things. This was part of a discussion of how memories are created through monument-building and the transformatory and depositional practices connected to them.
Another perspective is to regard it as one permutation of what Neil Price (2008) has termed ‘bodylore’: the theatrical nature of Viking Age funerals in which killing may have re-enacted stories about the gods and heroes to honour the dead. For Price’s perspective to be effective, we needn’t have this specific woman as a sacrifice in an identical fashion to the description of Ibn Fadlan. Instead, the entire funeral is instead a sacrificial process involving connections between the living, the dead, and the supernatural by consigning the dead to a journey into the afterlife.
Displaying the Evidence
When displayed in the museum, ignoring this possible gruesome evidence of the killing of an adult female would be problematic and challenging in itself. But how to display it at all?
First off, it unsurprisingly gets centre stage. It is seemingly vicious, famous and encapsulates the narrative of pagan raiders settling on the Isle. In the text panel, the woman’s fate and status as a human sacrifice takes precedent over the treatment of her male ‘companion’ for the afterlife.
The choice was made to display a reconstruction of the grave with artefacts in position. Only the teeth of the skeleton in the grave survived. Above it, suspended on perspex, is the skull of the woman with her blade-wound facing the viewer.
Contextualising this are photographs of the excavation and also a striking small model (similar to the one created for the boat-grave at Balladoole close by) showing the mound as if it were freshly composed, but with every feature in the burial sequence depicted in section. This cut-away reconstruction articulates the sequence of the funeral more tangibly than the artefacts themselves but inevitably adds further speculations and adds details otherwise not depicted; the female’s body was in a horrific posture: hands above her head. Whether moved from elsewhere or killed on the spot, this must have been an unforgettable dimension to the funerary obsequies.
This grave is an important find deserving of its place in the Manx Museum’s gallery, but it is also fully contextualised with accounts of other graves (Peel’s ‘pagan lady’ and Balladoole) as well as the Kirk Michael, Ballaquayle and Glenfaba silver hoards. There are also reconstructions of Viking boats, a ‘Viking’ and his horse, and numerous Viking Age inscribed and sculpted stones including Gaut’s cross. In this regard, the museum challenges the valorisation and myopic obsession with the woman’s killing within the burial sequence itself, or in terms of the broader narrative of Man in the Viking Age. In this way, the display works better than the account of Ballateare in many books and articles!
Still, this modest yet alluring and uncanny display only slowly sinks in. It perhaps isn’t overly gaudy and it is not tasteless. The flipside is: I wonder how many visitors fully realise the complex and bloody ceremonies it implies? I wonder what the visitor surveys show?
Museums under constant demands to update and revitalise themselves. This is an example of the many exciting and dynamic displays in existence that will fascinate, intrigue and disturb in equal measure. Hopefully, as with all good displays, it will make visitors think and seek out further information and reflect on what really happened during the Ballateare funeral. Is this really a pagan Viking funerary sacrifice of a slave woman?
Bersu, G. and Wilson, D. M. 1966. Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 1.
Carroll, J., Harrison, S. H. and Williams, G. (eds) 2014. The Vikings in Britain and Ireland, London: Thames and Hudson.
Gardeła, L. and Larrington, C. (eds) 2014. Viking Myths and Rituals on the Isle of Man, Nottingham: Centre for the Study of the Viking Age.
Griffiths, D. 2010. Vikings of the Irish Sea, Stroud: The History Press.
Price, N. 2008. Bodylore and the archaeology of embedded religion: dramatic license in the funerals of the Vikings. In D.M. Whitley and K. Hays-Gilpin (eds) Faith in the past: theorizing ancient religion, 143-65, Walnut Creek: Left Coat.
Williams, H. 2006. Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, D.M. 2008. The Vikings in the Isle of Man, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.