Last weekend I attended the Viking Heysham Festival to co-present one of two evening talks within St Peter’s church as previously discussed here and here. However, due to spending a long time talking in cafes talking to archaeologists and local people, and because of the heavy rain on the Saturday, I spent relatively little time exploring the re-enactors’ stalls and encampment, and I didn’t get to witness any of their parades, mock battles and conflicts and so on. Still, I did get to see the village’s Viking scarecrows: a fun dimension to celebrate the arrival of the ‘Vikings’.
I also had a quick stroll about the camp and grabbed a burger before my talk. You can see loads of images of those involved on the Facebook page for the Festival. From what I saw, there was certainly plenty of genuine interest and enthusiasm for the Viking heritage of the region present in the discussions I had before, during and after the talks. In this final post, I want to briefly reflect on the Viking material culture I witnessed. The Viking re-enactors were selling things and showing off things. There was armour, weapons, coins, jewellery, food and so on.
Now while their logo has a horned helmet upon it, and the horned helmets were ubiquitous among the scarecrows, I noticed a stark contrast with the re-enactors. None of them wore horned headdresses or helmets. Of course to do so would be to commit re-enactor-suicide; showing a brazen disregard for historical inaccuracies. So while there was some implausible kit on show, there is clearly a lot of self-regulation regarding how crazy it can go. Personally, I’m an advocate of the view that there may have been actual ‘horned’ headdresses in the Early Middle Ages – or at least representations of them – as discussed here, so I wouldn’t have been too angry if one of the re-enactors had crossed that line into forbidden territory…
The absence of horned helmets notwithstanding, the re-enactors are a store of knowledge and information, but also enthusiasm. As well as wishing to entertain and sell their wares, many are keen to talk and educate about history and archaeology. Indeed, I noticed multiple professional archaeologists among their number!
This leads to another issue. One problem with the festival – a critical one for me as much as anyone else – is how do we best harness the educational dimensions to these events in the future, particularly from an archaeological perspective? The church guides were ready to show off their church, Morecombe Bay Partnership have a new app to guide people around Heysham and they had a stall on the festival field both days. Still, there is clear potential to enhance how the history, archaeology and heritage of the region are promoted at the festival: not only its Viking dimensions, but everything from its prehistory to the present.
Guerilla Archaeology is one example of the kinds of activities that might take place at festivals, connecting modern life to themes from prehistory and early history. See their website here.
Perhaps next year there might be a pop-up museum or perhaps some guides to St Patrick’s chapel, the churchyard and the broader landscape? What I would say is that this event drew so many re-enactors, so many people, that it would be a great opportunity to do more than simply academic talks to engage people about the early medieval past.