Archaeologists frequently talk about the power and character of the images they create to convey and disseminate, enhance and extend, their interpretations. Once created, they have a power to fix and legitimise particular arguments made from archaeological evidence. Moreover, images can acquire afterlives of their own, used for different purposes in different contexts.
This is particularly true for mortuary archaeology: where the contexts of discovery, artefacts, monuments and architectures associated with the dead, as well as human remains themselves, are frequently deployed through images. They range in character: including drawings, laser scans and photographs. They appear in many venues, from academic publications to popular articles and reports, public lectures and websites.
Often these images take interpretations far beyond the scientific information they are informed by. They frame and promote particular readings of the evidence. They also simultaneously fascinate and captivate readers and, in some instances, can afford an intimate connection with the long-dead. In short, images bring the dead back ‘to life’ in our social world and our individual imaginations.
Building on a previous post, this entry addresses how mortuary archaeological intepretations of a Viking female warrior-grave have not only been reported, but also envisioned. This is part of my broader interest in how art and images are an integral part of not only mortuary archaeological interpretations, but also mortuary archaeology’s public engagement. In fact, it is one of the topics in my forthcoming book: The Public Archaeology of Death.
Be warned, discussions will include fictional characters and some mindless stock photography.
Envisioning the Birka Warrior-Woman
A rash of news stories have followed the publication of an open-access peer-reviewed journal article on 8th September 2017. The article in question argues that a rich chamber-grave (dating to the 10th century AD from Birka, Sweden and containing a range of weapons and other items often taken to be ‘male’) actually contains a female body.
How have images been used to guide interpretations and convey them to a wide audience?
News stories have relied on images from the original article and its supplementary material. That is not all. Many news stories go beyond this and deploy a wide range of popular images of ‘Viking women’ to project the academic article’s argument and take it in different directions. I imagine in many cases this is because news outlets are randomly scrambling through stock images of things with ‘Viking’ in the title with no little further critical thought. On other times, there is method in what at first glance appears to be madness: images have been very carefully deployed to chime with the story.
The Grave – the 19th-century image and the artist’s reconstruction
The Daily Mail, a much derided publication (and for good reason), is equally known for being visually literate and visually dominant to the extreme. Their website opts for a simple approach. They quarry the academic article itself for the plan of the original 19th-century grave. They then juxtapose a 19th-century image of a mythical valkryie with the artist’s reconstruction of the burial chamber, with a quote from archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson explaining the contrast between the romantic fiction and what was actually found: a ‘real life military leader’.
A range of platforms have done the same quarrying exercise. PhysOrg does the same as the Daily Mail and in the same order. The History Channel also use the image of the excavation plan. The National Geographic also, as do Science News and Science Magazine. The Washington Post does not indulge in silly images and uses both the 19th-century grave-plan and the artist’s reconstruction. In short, many of the more ‘serious’ online outlets restrict themselves to archaeological images, albeit powerful ones.
It’s important to say something more about the artist’s reconstruction. This visualisation is one of a series commissioned by Professor Neil Price from Þórhallur Þráinsson to support his academic publications and public lectures for over 15 years, including The Viking Way and his articles in prominent academic journals such as World Archaeology and Medieval Archaeology. This particular example is simple, stark and striking, showing the arrangement of the grave seen vertically from above, with a clearly young female dressed in an Eastern style, with trousers suitable for riding.
In the absence of a skull – the usual ingredient of mortuary archaeology public engagement – the art and grave-plan convey a striking visual message of weapons buried with a women, and of a single living person, fleshed and recently alive, within this burial chamber.
Notably, while the first archaeological images were used on 8th September, the same day as the academic publication, we also see them used throughout the subsequent week. Perhaps the urgency to publish news articles quickly outweighed the need to reproduce more striking images at first, but the grave-plans and artist’s reconstructions have endured in support of the story through various different platforms. Here, the archaeologically created images from the 19th and 21st centuries promote the narrative in combination.
The last 5 years has seen the rise of a phenomenon of popular engagement with the Viking world: the first multi-series historical drama set in the late 8th and early 9th centuries: Vikings. In it, a range of powerful female characters are portrayed, including the versatile multi-tasking mother, farmer, warrior, warleader and then queen: Lagertha. The following day, 9th September, The Independent casts aside the images from the article, and reproduces an image of Lagertha – played by Kathryn Winnick – from the television series Vikings. She is portrayed here in the midst of battle: I think from Season 2 of the show when she is raiding. Meanwhile, Refinery29 go with Lagertha from Season 4 onboard ship. These first two images are rather thoughtless: simply showing Lagertha ‘in action’ raiding and fighting, but not ‘in command’.
The Mary Sue is more clever in its choice of woman to depict, departing from the already established trope, but still exploiting the popularity of Vikings. Rather than Lagertha, they adopt Thorunn, the wannabe warrior of Season 2 of Vikings who rises from slave-girl to shield-maiden and accompanies Bjorn on the raid to Wessex and Mercia. Still, the ‘warrior’ status is paramount.
Next we have History Channel themselves and here we see a shift. They deploy a different image: one of Lagertha and her lover/side-kick Astrid from Season 4 in the most appropriate image yet: since it actually shows Lagertha leading other warriors – both females and males – into battle (the cover image of this entry). In the pre-made video accompanying the article, the show’s writer, actors and historians talk of women’s liberation in the Viking Age. The story is clear: the archaeological evidence proves the show’s portrayal of women as correct and historical: the Viking Age was a time of female freedom.
Subsequent stories show as much care and poise as the History Channel in which images of Lagertha to select. The Christian Post picks an image of Lagertha from Season 4, not at war, but in the hall and in royal regalia, a barn owl perched on her shoulder. Their emphasis is on the woman as a ‘commander’. Then, The Guardian go for a young Lagertha in battle again, but not fighting. Instead, she is depicting pointing her sword forward to imply her role in leader her troops whilst raiding.
Then we return to a more generic image: ABC news deploy Lagertha in battle against the West Saxons in Season 2 of Vikings in a story questioning the evidence with the caption: “Female Viking warriors. Awesome on TV. Not so great in academic research”.
So it is not just any Lagertha, or any image from the TV show: at least some of the media stories have put efforts into carefully matching image to their version of the story.
Depictions of 19th-century valkyries make an appearance in the Daily Mail to juxtapose against the find, and they re-appear in the Huffington Post video. Oddly, Science News uses a 19th-century depiction of women on board a longship which seems like a random incongruous stock photo. In short, I was surprised, especially given this was a 19th-century find, how stylised images of Viking women have simply not been utilised: Vikings trumps them all.
Models and Re-enactors
Perhaps to avoid fees in using images from Vikings, older and cheaper images have been used for other stories. A recycled Viking warrior model has been used in a range of stories, including Newsmax. Re-enactor’s Viking-inspired helmet is used by The Local and a Vendel-inspired helmet by another US news channel.
Yet within the use of re-enactors, we find some of the most powerful images accompanying the story. These are those portraying modern-day women attending re-enactment events. This is significant on a register that other image cannot affect, even those from the TV show Vikings. This is because it shows the ‘live’ character of the debate: how the story chimes with modern desires to re-live aspects of the Viking Age and warrior culture across the Western world. Examples of such images accompanied the stories in Quartz and Newsweek. Likewise, National Geographic use an image of a re-enactor dressed in war gear, plus a generic scene of re-enactors fighting from the Wolin festival. We then come back to Jezebel, which uses a second image of a Viking festival in Spain showing women in celebration – both at the news story and to denote modern aspirations to re-live this tradition.
Mashable write a ‘lingering doubts’ story, but still use a re-enactor, perhaps to parody those who envisage warrior women as an historical reality. But here, the power of the story is connected to living female aspirations to connect to the stories of the Viking past, materialised in a powerful way.
Random Images of non-Viking Crap
What is particularly striking is how relatively few articles use really dumb and random images – either fantasty or from the wrong time period. I think this is good, because it generally shows that the media, in reporting an archaeology ‘science’ story, do want to be taken seriously at some level. There are, however, exceptions. The New York Post starts off with a single image of a Viking horned helmet sitting on a shelf, seemingly in a sauna. This is reproduced elsewhere. This early story must have selected this as a mindless stock image due to time pressure: I cannot think of any other good reason. Horned helmets!? Come on: who believes in horned helmets? It could only get better: and above we’ve seen it did.
Huffpost has a short film depicting female warrior women from Mad Max Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa, Xena Warrior Princess, Wonder Woman and then scenes of Lagertha and Thorunn from Vikings. The article itself juxtaposes the 19th-century grave with some of these characters and portrays Xena! Notably (perhaps because of stricter copyright restrictions?) Game of Thrones’s Brienne of Tarth and Daernerys get referenced a few times, but not envisioned. The Huffington Post are saying: ‘look in fantasy stories women kick ass, now we can show it really happened in history’.
Then we have the dumbest of images: a random woman in chainmail and plate armour with a fantasy sword. I’ve no idea what this says, but it appeared in Bizwomen, aimed at women in business I should hazard a guess, but ones without much historical knowledge I presume.
The pattern here seems to be that cut-rate media outlets don’t care about the images they pick. However, it isn’t that simple. Staggeringly, this pattern was broken today. Ironically, the first article in a serious online news platform by an archaeologist, is accompanied by a bogus close up of a fictitious late-medieval sword and plate armour, worn presumably by a woman. Random!
Archaeologists can’t control the story, but in my previous post I’ve argued that most news stories do put up a good attempt to convey the meat of the original journal article. Misrepresentations are few and limited to obvious territories.
Still, archaeologists can attempt to provide and thus direct, if not control, the images used in the media. While some of those images which have departed from the story are striking and cringeworthy, in perhaps predictable ways, the 19th-century grave-plan and the fabulous artist’s reconstruction of the Birka grave have persisted and been widely used. When deployed in a large fraction of the posts, particularly in the more ‘serious’ venues, they serve to support and extend the arguments in a strikingly visual fashion.
Most media images are desperate scrambles for any relevant images, and there are a couple of non-Viking random car-crash images as noted above. Yet the vast majority show high visual literacy in embodying the key elements of the story – female martial identity and authority.
Whether intentionally or not, the use of female re-enactors has a powerful message in itself, showing the link between past interpretations and modern aspirations for that past: women want to be integral to the full range of roles and stories written about, and performed through, the Viking Age.
The use of Victorian romantic imagery to stand in stark contrast to the ‘scientific’ evidence is present in only one case (Daily Mail) and very effectively done, but I’ve noted how rare they are.
Yet unsurprisingly, the biggest story of all is how the archaeological story has been made to consolidate and enforce what Michael Hirst and Kathryn Winnick has already been saying in interviews about Vikings for c. 5 years; the Viking Age was a time of women’s liberation and where women fought alongside men. Also they could lead armies and preside over kingdoms. Hence Lagertha, but also Thorunn and Astrid, have come centre stage, with images selected to illustrate the combination of power, authority and martial skill that the archaeological story aims to project.