On Wednesday 13th December 2017, the 3rd University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference took place in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. Here are some useful links:

This post outlines details of the event: the 18 student presentations and 2 guest lectures, which together provide a range of fresh perspectives on the public archaeology of the Early Middle Ages.


The Student Presentations

The students promoted, organised and ran the event, including greeting delegates and chairing sessions. There were 18 student presentations all told, based on student’s picking their own topic to explore how the archaeology of the Early Middle Ages is used and abused in today’s world. Three further final-year single honours Archaeology students were unable to contribute to the day’s events.

The sessions were arranged around 6-themed panels:

  • Dark Age Debates
  • Dark Age Entertainment
  • Displaying the Dark Ages
  • The Digital Dark Ages
  • Selling the Dark Ages
  • Imagining the Dark Ages

LogoDark Age Debates

Debating the term ‘Dark Ages’, by Ioan Griffiths

The term ‘Dark Ages’ typically refers to the early medieval period, and is popularly coined to refer to the lack of written and material evidence from this period. There are a number of debates around exactly how the term is used in a casual and academic contexts, which in part is due to differing levels of credit given to the developments made during this period. This presentation will seek to determine how the term’ Dark Ages’ has been used in scholarly and popular uses in the British Isles over the last 5 years, focussing on its use in venues such as museums and heritage sites, and also identifying trends in how it is used in literature, both academic and popular.

Why do Horned Helmets still Matter?, by Sacha O’Connor

This talk will present the results from an online survey aimed at finding people’s views on five questions relating to the widespread representation of horned helmets in contemporary society:

Vikings are idolised in film, media and scholarship alike. However, there are many common misconceptions about who the Vikings were and what they wore. This presentation will be examining the results of a questionnaire about the ‘horned helmet’ phenomena, which began in the 19th century and is still present today. Although there is no conclusive evidence for horned helmets within the archaeological record for the Viking period, modern society still closely associates them with Vikings, for example in sports, souvenirs and in music. However, has the archaeological community focused its negativity too much on the subject? Does it really matter if horned helmets are associated with Vikings? Can it actually be seen as positive interest into a period archaeologists know little about?

Public Archaeology of Early Medieval Assembly Places and Practices: Thingvellir, by Matthew Kelly

In today’s contemporary society the ‘Dark Ages’ are often depicted as a period of political instability throughout Europe following the withdrawal of the Roman Empire. Popular culture interprets the early medieval period as a time of little progression; an era where political systems capitulated or regressed. Do we consider politics from this era progressive and how has it impacted modern-day governmental organisations, if at all?

This present-day conjecture will form the basis of the discussion in this session and to illustrate an example of a political system in the Early Middle Ages. The focus will be on Thingvellir; founded in the 10th century and still functioning to this day as a national park. I will explore how research at the site of Thingvellir might change contemporary understandings of politics in the Viking Age. Will it modify public perception of how the site is currently perceived?

Dark Age Entertainment

Dark Age Video Games: Authenticity and Arms in Skyrim, by Stephanie Matthews

Often based on myth more than history and archaeology, many video games demonstrate clear inspiration from the Early Middle Ages. Gamers are immersed into early medieval-inspired material cultures, buildings, settlements, monuments and landscapes. This paper explores the accuracy and authenticity of these games and how they fuel popular misconceptions of the ‘Dark Ages.’ The paper takes the example of Skyrim: one of the most popular modern video games. With over 22 million unit sales made by 2015, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim (2011) is by far Bethesda’s biggest success ever. While the horned helmets, dragons and magic are not accurate archaeologically speaking, game developers clearly take ‘pastness’ and authenticity into account. As Copplestone (2016) recently argues: ‘… around half of the video game developer interviewees (52%) defined accuracy as relating to physical components – such as buildings, documents or artefacts – and their ability to visually render them to a known standard, or as one interviewee stated: “… it refers to us reconstructing things correctly.”’ Building on Copplestone’s work, this paper explores not only issue of accuracy, but also authenticity in the material culture of Skyrim, focusing on weapons and armour.


Archaeology in Alfred the Great (1969) and The Last Kingdom (2015-), by Victoria Nicholls

Alfred the Great (1969) was the first, and remains the only, feature-length film portraying the West Saxon king and his conflicts with the Vikings. Forty-seven years later, Bernard Cornwall’s novels have been adapted for television as The Last Kingdom (2015–). Despite the separation in time, both Alfred the Great and The Last Kingdom consciously aspired to portray the ninth century with a high degree of accuracy. However, from an archaeological perspective, this paper asks: is this true? Moreover, which of the two is more accurate and which has been more effective in portraying the material world of ninth-century England? This paper will be an evaluation of the authenticity of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking material culture, monuments and landscape portrayed in these productions.

The Great Hall in Vikings: Fact and Fiction, by James Fish

Television media often portrays the Middle Ages through detailed uses of material culture. One of the most recent and prominent examples is the History Channel show Vikings which is based on Norse legend and inspired by historical events and processes from the early Viking Age. The programme draws on archaeological sources to create a sense of historical realism and to provide a material context for the storyline.

This presentation considers how the programme draws on archaeological evidence and experimental archaeology in recreating a number of Viking-style buildings. Notably, the great hall at the fictional settlement of Kattegat is the prime focus of action in the series, displaying the outer (public) and inner (private) spaces of an elite household occupied by successive male leaders (Earl Haraldson, Jarl Borg, and Earl and King Ragnar,) as well as powerful women: Aslaug and Lagertha). This presentation will discuss the methods and source the programme inspiring this final design and critically addresses the functions and significances portrayed for the hall in early Viking Age Scandinavia.

Dark Age Sci-Fi: The Representation of the Early Middle Ages in Stargate SG-1, by Peter Rose 

Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007) attempts to portray varying points in human history and potential human future. The ‘Dark Ages’, otherwise known as the early medieval period, is also present in the program at different points, and might be taken to presents popular perceptions of the Early Middle Ages in popular culture. This programme is still re-run on channels regularly and therefore remains relevant to today’s engagements with the early medieval period. This talk also appraises the portrayal of Dr Daniel Jackson, one of the main characters and a fictional archaeologist, as one popular personification of how the archaeological community in general is seen.

Displaying the Dark Ages

Jorvik’s Re-opening Explored, by Robert Neeson

Archaeologists’ interpretations of Viking Age artefacts are contingent on political context and popular culture, from Nazi propagandistic uses of Viking imagery, the presently ubiquitous horned helmet syndrome, and through to specific local celebrations of Viking heritage, as with Shetland’s Up-Helly-Aa (Hall, 2007). The Jorvik Viking Centre in York has also developed as a unique experience of the Viking world in modern Britain. Built over, and focusing on presenting, the evidence discovered during the Coppergate excavations which revealed the complex Viking history of the city (Addyman, 1984), since opening in 1984 the Jorvik Viking Centre has become a fundamental aspect for the heritage of York. Following severe damage from flooding in 2015, Jorvik re-opened in 2017. This paper critically explores how Jorvik promoted its re-opening, focusing on the use of the symbol of the axe: both a widespread popular symbol of the Vikings and a visual cue to the most famous of York’s Norse rulers: Erik Bloodaxe. My paper attempts to explore the re-opening of Jorvik to appraise the current place of the Vikings in the popular understanding of the Early Middle Ages and notions of English/British origins.

Addyman, P. (1984). Jorvik: Rebirth of a city. London: History Today Ltd.
Hall, R. A. (2007). Exploring the world of the Vikings. London: Thames & Hudson.

Re-enacting the Early Middle Ages, by Amelia Studholme

Re-enactment has become a highly popular mode of public history. This presentation will analyse the many ways that people have represented the Early Middle Ages through re-enactment and bring into question the accuracy of these re-enactment events and how they are used by some heritage sites, accurate or not. It will look at people re-enacting the Early Middle Ages both in terms of the accuracy of their costumes and also how they portray this period to the public. The case study of West Stow particularly is useful as this open-air museum is built over the excavated remains of an early Anglo-Saxon settlement. At particular times of the year, Anglo-Saxon re-enactors occupy the reconstructed buildings and talk to the public, even giving demonstrations of the fighting techniques back in 2016. As well as historical re-enactment West Stow also has an annual event ‘RingQuest’, based on the world of J.R.R.Tolkien where people dress up as Orcs and Rangers.

The Digital Dark Ages

The Digital Public Archaeology of Early Medieval Stone Monuments, by Amy Dunn

In the 21st century, it is not unreasonable to expect that information about key early medieval stone monuments should be able to be accessed online. However, this is not always thought to be the case and some of the churches that are caretakers of early medieval inscribed and sculptured stones are especially behind the times.

This presentation aims to critique churches’ duty to the care and presentation of early medieval stones by appraising the extent and content of their digital media representations. Churches from the Isle of Man, Cheshire and Lancashire will be compared to determine who presents their stone monuments in the most effective and accurate way online through texts and images, and how this may be improved in the future.


Vikings and Virality, by Matthew Thomas

Contemporary popular understandings of the early medieval period are frequently shaped by dramatized depictions on television and film, with newspaper and online coverage often providing popularized factual coverage. If academics provide material targeted for dissemination through such means they may contribute to greater awareness of the period.

This paper investigates insights gained by using two statistical data sets. One, a set collating the most common search engine queries relating to a relevant early medieval term e.g. Viking; and another that aggregates the sum ‘virality’ of posts across social media networks, relating to the same search term.

Viking Warrior Women? The Birka Chamber Grave and its Impact in the Media, by Joseph Keelan

This paper will focus on the Viking-period site of Birka, where a tenth-century chamber grave was found during an excavation in the 19th century. Containing two horses and a range of weapons, new osteological and DNA research has determined the skeleton from the grave belonged to an adult female.

The talk will consider the significance of the discovery of a female Viking ‘warrior’ to modern Western culture, especially the political ‘lessons’ drawn from the grave about present-day society. This is achieved through a survey of the media reports and responses to the Birka ‘warrior woman’. 

Selling the Dark Ages

Dark Age Artefacts in Museum Advertising, by Victoria Bounds

The archaeology of the Early Middle Ages is used and abused in contemporary society for many reasons. Within a museum context, early medieval artefacts are notably used to advertise and lure visitors to view a collection. This is particularly problematic if there are other items within the collection that would be more suitable and appropriate to use in advertising, due to their relevance and the museum’s greater understanding of the artefact. In short, advertising with precious, striking but perhaps misleading or ill-understood artefacts could be considered part of a broader issue of misinterpreting and misrepresenting the past to the public. But this is often abused by displaying the artefacts with little to no relevant interpretation, particularly within local museums. The importance of advertising is outlined with Falk and Dierking’s work “The Museum Experience Revisited”. The talk will draw upon Ludlow Museum as a case study, which holds two artefacts with early medieval provenance, both of which are heavily included in advertisement for the museum, but are not a major part of the exhibit. To further contextualize this case study, other examples and broader theoretical debates are tackled: the challenge we face of luring the public in but not delivering an appropriate interpretation of the Early Middle Ages.

Magic Runes in Neo-Pagan Practices, by Jessica Penaluna

An interest in wicca, witchcraft, and Heathenry in the 21st century has led to the use of runic scripts for their perceived mystical and magical powers. The challenge is that the symbols are often separated from their early medieval origins and historical associations.

This research will endeavour to investigate the continued use of runic inscriptions for Neo-Pagan belief and practice. The research will consider how archaeological and historical sources are deployed, if at all, by the sellers and users of runes in a contemporary society by investigating both shops and online outlets selling runic artefacts and art.

Selling the Vikings via Online Museum Shops, by Abigail Salt

The purpose of this research is to assess the range and character of Viking-related merchandise sold in online museum shops, in order to identify key themes in the public ‘consumption’ of the Early Middle Ages today. By analysing national, and some regional/city, museum shops from both the UK and Scandinavia, I will piece together how Vikings are being sold through books, art, replicas and other souvenirs. The presentation will contrast how the Vikings are commodified as opposed to other periods and cultures. This study provides the basis for then comparing the stories sold to the stories told about Vikings in museums.


Imagining the Dark Ages

The Potentials and Pitfalls of an Arthurian Early Middle Ages, by Niamh Moreton

Popular perceptions of early medieval Britain focus as much on myths and legends as history and archaeology. Indeed, it is the interaction of myth and archaeology that perhaps fosters the greatest public interest. For example, archaeological sites with Arthurian connections, including Tintagel, South Cadbury and Glastonbury, have long been controversial and attracted fringe interpretations due to the connections of myth to specific ruins and monuments. This paper explores both the challenges and the potential of cultivating Arthurian myth and legends in relation to specific archaeological stories and heritage sites. It will consider how stories of Arthur can both spark the public’s curiosity and engender misrepresentations of the Early Middle Ages. Following the recent controversy surrounding the re-display of Tintagel by English Heritage, I will consider the implications for Glastonbury’s heritage and archaeology.

Exploring the Public Archaeology of Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology, by Max Moran

How is the legend of King Arthur presented as part of the internationally famous ‘Dark Age’ citadel and later medieval castle site of Tintagel, Cornwall? How has new archaeological research affected how the legend is communicated? By reviewing previous archaeological excavation reports, reviewing the new English Heritage interpretation panels and artistic additions, I will consider how these changes have been received by local and international audiences. This will attempt to illuminate the politics of the past surrounding one of Europe’s most well-known legends and one of Cornwall’s paramount tourist destinations.


Analysing the Appropriation of Early Medieval Runes by Contemporary Far-Right Groups, by Megan Hall

The way we present the past to the public depends on our motivations. Recently, we have seen the wholesale appropriation of archaeologically-derived sites, monuments, material cultures and narratives to support specific social discourses or political agendas. Viking culture has been repeatedly abused to endorse extreme ideologies throughout history, perhaps most notably by the Nazi regime to promote ideas of racial superiority and the subsequent domination of “lesser” peoples. This type of exploitation continues to this day. This study focusses specifically on how the runic script, synonymous for many with the Vikings, is being used by modern far-right groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement and the White Liberation Movement to support their ideals. This presentation will consider if and how this use of the past can be combatted, with note to the group Vikingar mot Racism who are working to reclaim Viking heritage within Scandinavia and fight the racist ideologies being promoted.

Guest Speakers

The guest speakers were twofold and we were delighted to have them present fascinating new research that cannot be found elsewhere. Their papers filled geographical, thematic, theoretical and methodological gaps, as well as offering context and insights that complemented the student papers.

AD 2017: Rome Keeps On Falling, by Chiara Bonacchi

Dr Chiara Bonacchi is a researcher at UCL and public archaeologist. Her abstract reads:

The destiny of the Roman Empire and the passage from the Roman to the post-Roman period in European countries has been leveraged by different stakeholders in contemporary society in relation to the issue of the membership of the UK in the European Union. In this talk, I will address how ideas related to the ‘end’ of the Roman Empire are drawn upon to create myths of collapse that have been used in the context of debate about the Brexit referendum held on 23 June 2016. I will also reflect on the genesis and implications of these myths and their relations to past and present academic research practices.

The Dark Ages in a Dark Age: Identity and Science in a Post-Truth Era, by Adrián Maldonado

Dr Adrián Maldonado is an early medieval archaeologist and has a sustained and active profile in public engagement. His abstract reads:

Archaeology has never had more scientific tools at its disposal, and it has never been easier for the general public to find out more about the subject. Yet in many ways, the discipline of early medieval archaeology is being dragged backwards into outdated theories by bad science, reported badly. In particular, this paper will highlight the misuse of paleogenetics (the study of ancient DNA) and stable isotope studies (which can track the movements of people in the past). These techniques generate news headlines as much as peer-reviewed articles, and because of the complicated scientific analyses behind them, the vast majority will only ever see the former. Yet both techniques are still relatively new and reveal more uncertainty than the headlines claim. In a time when the medieval is       increasingly being appropriated by far-right groups, it matters more than ever how we talk to the public about the period we study. Rather than make the past more ‘relatable’ to the present, it is argued that we should keep the early       medieval  period ‘weird’, and use the science of identity to challenge what we think we know.


I would like to thank the following for helping this to be a unique, memorable and successful conference:

  • The Grosvenor Museum;
  • Chester Archaeological Society;
  • University of Chester’s Alumni and the Cestrian Fund;
  • The Department of History and Archaeology
  • The Guest Speakers: Dr Bonnachi and Dr Maldonado;
  • The audience, including members of the public, commercial and academic archaeologists and historians and students from Liverpool and Chester universities;
  • The students for their hard work and superb contributions to the organisation and delivery of the event.