The spectacle and horror of burning buildings is a source of fear and dread for most people the world over, just as it is a thrill for pyromaniacs. Both the vivid drama and the terror of utter destruction created by the accidental or deliberate conflagration of dwellings is visceral and memorable. Unsurprisingly, hall burning is a repeated trope of medieval Scandinavian sagas. Perhaps the most famous is the culmination of Njal’s Saga (or the saga of Burnt Njal) where the hall of Njal is surrounded and all inside are burned alive.
The archaeological record suggests that deliberate burning of halls was a genuine and dreadful occasional facet of early medieval life. Indeed, multiple archaeological excavations from the mid-/late first millennium AD show that there was an early medieval reality to burning enemies’ halls. One might cite the 7th-century palace site of Yeavering (Ad Gefrin) which Hope-Taylor’s excavations showed were subject to two systematic burning episodes. Likewise, firing halls took place at the early medieval central place of Uppakra, Sweden, where buildings also contained human bodies that were never retrieved.
Why burn halls if not the result of an accident? Perhaps it was an act of revenge or resistance? Was it a symbol of the utter victory of the burners over the burned? The hall was the axis mundi of the early medieval world; the locus of ritual and social life for a king and his retinue. They were 3D archives of the occupiers’ prestige and history. Thus, the lord’s familes’ power and identity was invested in the structure. Hence, whether the bodies of occupiers were burned too or not, the building’s destruction marked the utter annihilation of the occupiers’ power and person. Setting fire to the hall was thus simultaneously indisciminant as well as strategic, and a working of forgetting through a memorable act.
In the light of Marianne Hem Eriksen’s recent discussion of halls in the European Journal of Archaeology, we might also have to think of early medieval hall burning as a destruction of a structure with a personality of its own. The hall was a named ‘person’ with a life-history. Bearing its own famed identity, just as Heorot (Hrothgar’s hall) is doomed to burn with the end of his people, its burning could have marked a social and political end of things. It was the death of a setting and substance of memorialisation that might have endured many decades, if not centuries.
Given this, I’m surprised not to find any artist’s impressions of medieval hall-burnings. My archaeological friends have struggled to suggest examples to me.
So when we get to the end of Season 2 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I’m thinking from an Archaeodeath perspective how burning building (a barn, not a hall) marks a key position in a post-apocalyptic drama, but also how it sheds light on the dramatic nature of early medival hall burning.
In Season 2, we find a conflagration as a culmination to the series when walkers overrun the farm, and as Carl and Rick escape by setting fire to it and escaping from the room. In TWD, the burning hall is the focus of the farm’s decimation.
Moreover, from an archaeoedeath view, TWD gives us a direct and powerful sense of the memorable spectacle of such literary and archaeological hall burnings must have had for the medieval body and mind. We see the stages of the burning, as flames gut the itnerior, then raise the roof and the structure finally implodes…