I’m writing up for publication some of my reflections on the fascinating and varied scenes of funerals in Seasons 1-4 of the popular television drama series Vikings for publication. While many ideas for the funerals are derived from later saga literature and some contemporary written sources, the varied archaeological evidence from cemeteries and graves found across Scandinavia from the 7th-11th centuries have had manifold influences on the portrayed funerals.
Seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4 part 1 have depicted varied dimensions of mortuary practice. These include cremations on land and water, furnished and unfurnished inhumation graves. These have involved individual and mass funerals, funerary processions, human sacrifice, grave-robbing, infanticide and private (anti-funeral) burials. Throughout are the ever-present media of fire and water in the disposal of the dead and archaeological influences are evident but rarely specific.
However, it is only in Episode 6 of Season 4 that we encounter a grave for the first time. Ok, in Season 2 we do encounter Floki doing a spot of grave-robbing to access his father’s sword and encounter his father’s skull, but there are no monumental features whatosever. What is particularly interesting is that we can pinpoint very precisely here where the archaeological evidence comes from.
At the beginning of the episode, the camera looks along a hillside with rough stones of old field walls. There are no other funerary features, only one in isolation but for a small pile of rocks to the right (foreground) which might be left-over stones from the creation of the stone setting.
To be fair, reconstructing a late Iron Age monumental cemetery landscape is a challenge, especially without large-scale earth moving and all manner of costs and permissions required. Still, it is odd to me that while CGI is deployed to reconstruct views of Kattegat (and indeed in this very scene for Hedeby itself!) the idea of a ‘grave-field’ so common to the southern and central Scandinavian landscapes eludes depiction in the series. For me, this is a major failing and omission from the show’s portrayal of Viking Age mortuary practice.
Anyway, we focus here on the single grave feature. Lagertha (Earl Ingstad) is shown simultaneously alone but on public view at the grave, below the fortified hilltop citadel of ‘Hedeby’ over which she now presides as Earl. The dead are shown buried far outside the area of habitation.
She has lit a fire on the downslope side of a boat-shaped stone setting. A shovel is stuck into the earth on the upslope side of the stone setting, implying the grave is perhaps freshly composed or she might be returning after some days duration to dig into the monument. Inside the stone setting, orientated along the contour, she sits in a striking red dress, with a wooden bowl and a brush of heather. Within, and around the small fire, the earth is nearly black, likely implying that this is the site of cremation.
She adds soil, soot or ash from the pyre/grave to the bowl which containing liquid (?blood) before wafting a torch from the fire over the grave. Is she quitening the spirits of the potentially unquiet dead, the man she has just murdered on their wedding day?
As the camera pans, it is evident she is isolated but not alone, her shield maidens guard her and observe, and there are others involved in quotidian activities seemingly. Sheep pass by them.
Guthrum and Erlendur approach and she explains why she killed Karl. She completes the ritual informally, talking to Guthrum, while Erlendur looks ambivalently at the arrangement of the grave, indicating either his upset at the circumstances of Kalf’s death and/or disapproval of the funerary arrangements.
What is effective here is the dynamic mix of ritual and quotidian, formal and informal, personal and public, portrayed in the ritual conducted. Of course we are left unclear how this fits into a broader ritual process, but by focusing on this stage of the funeral, rather than the ubiquitous pyre-lighting, we gain a different sense of death and commemoration to those found elsewhere in the series and most other depictions of funerary practice in historical dramas. The emphasis is placed on post-cremation ceremonies, which might have lasted for a long time at key anniversaries after the burning of the dead.
Therefore, it is somewhat bizarre and contradictory that Erlendur asks whether it is Kalf’s grave. He must surely know, unless he is oblivious to what has just transpired in the storyline and in the environs of Hedeby!
Now oval and boat-shaped stone settings of this kind are widespread over large parts of southern Scandinavia but they are not ubiquitous. Perhaps the most famous site associated with such features is a Merovingian (Vendel-period – late 6th-early 8th-century) and Viking period cemetery from northern Jutland: Lindholm Høje, near Aalborg. I’ve never visited this site myself, but it is well-known in the international burial literature on early medieval (late Iron Age) Scandinavia. Its fame derives from its size and its high level of preservation: the cemetery was protected from later damage by windblown sand.
The site was excavated in the 1950s by Oscar Marseen of Aalborg Historiske Museum and Thorkilm Ramskou of the Nationalmuseet. Karen Høilund Nielsen’s 2009 analysis of the site provides the basis for my interpretation here. Here, we have a range of stone settings, including boat-shaped features, overlaying cremation pyres and deposits.In total, there were around 40 inhumation graves, 581 cremation ‘patches’, of which 339 were connected to stone enclosures. There were also 11 urned cremation burials.
Høilund Nielsen interprets the traces of cremation patches as evidence of both pyres and graves: the pyre had been on this spot but subject to post-conflagration manipulation and tidying, including sweeping and the extraction and circulation of the cremains. The ship-settings provided the most positive evidence of pyres on the sites, with burnt patches reaching high temperatures. There were indications of burned boats on some of these deposits identified from clench-nails.
130 ship-shaped features were recorded at Lindholm Høje, and there is an indication that male-gendered artefacts are associated with triangular and ship-shaped settings, while rectangles, circles and overals were associated with females. However, there were rich female-gendered assemblages found with ship settings too.
The relatively ephemeral nature of these settings is evident. The lack of monumentality in the depiction of Kalf’s grave is therefore accurate: there is evidence that settings were removed soon after the funeral and there are clear stratigraphic relationships between overlapping settings.
A further connection to the Vikings representation of Kalf’s grave are the 31 burials where secondary fires were identified on top of the cremation patch or on top of a layer of soil covering the patch. Sometimes these were found associated with a pot. The fires consisted of one or two logs, and were found associated with 7th-century graves.
It seems to me that this archaeological evidence is the precise inspiration for the depiction of the grave of Earl Kalf: an ephemeral monument linked closely to a complex multi-staged funerary process of preparing, burning and consigning the dead to a modest-sized but symbolically charged stone-setting that, in turn, would serve as a focus for subsequent ritual practices.
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, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp. 81-103.