As those of you who follow my archaeological research will know, I specialise in early medieval mortuary and commemorative practice, which includes the Viking Age. For instance, I edited a special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology on death and memory in the Viking Age recently. I’m also interested in the present-day reception, uses and abuses, of the Early Middle Ages, including the ‘Vikings’.
Vikings has now moved into its 5th season and I for one am still watching with an enthusiastic and critical eye. Indeed, I want to point out that I now have 2 forthcoming book chapters, one in press, one under consideration by editors, tackling Vikings as a form of public mortuary archaeology. The first paper is about the funerals in seasons 1-4, the second one, co-authored with Dr Alison Klevnäs will tackle how the show depicts the circulation of human remains beyond the funeral.
Therefore, I have ‘grave’ expectations for Season 5 of the show. Before I wade into the funerary scenes in the current series, let me review what I’ve covered so far on this blog. First up, I did a broad review of Seasons 1 and 2 here. For while I am critical of key aspects of the story line, I herald as important the centrality of the material world and material practices portrayed. I’ve previously stated:
I think Vikings is great news for Viking-Age archaeology
I take my helmet (without horns) off to Vikings and recommend it as essential viewing for all students and scholars of the Viking Age.
I then proceeded to review aspects of the mortuary practices in the show. My principal criticisms focus on misunderstanding cremation practices and the limited portrayal – partly for practical reasons but not entirely – of funerary monuments and cemeteries. Here’s a quick review of my posts thus far:
We get some stock adaptations of Viking mortuary practice in Season 1, but my favourite is the mass cremation on the beach!
Things get more personal and macabre in Season 2, and also weird. Jarl Borg’s skull worship and Floki digging up his dad to retrieve a sword before his wedding were my highlights.
After the funerary richness of Seasons 1 and 2, Season 3 is a funerary disappointment. It makes up for this in the last episode where I found much to discuss in the ‘funeral’ of Ragnar. In particular, it gets us to consider the tactility of coffins as membranes for mediating with the dead. It also shows us an elaborate funerary processions on a big scale, and what’s not to love about that?
- Aethelstan’s Funeral
- Making and Moving Ragnar’s Coffin
- Talking to Ragnar’s Coffin
- Ragnar’s Funeral Procession
This is perhaps the most interesting Season to date in terms of funerals. There were 4 in total I discussed, and each is as different as the other. That’s what makes them so interesting! I liked the storytelling dimension of grave-good deposition for Helga, and the horse sacrifice for Aslaug was good to see too. Best of all, for me, was Kalf’s graveside scene.
I haven’t covered everything in these blogs. For instance, I decided to steer clear of reviewing the portrayals of Christian Anglo-Saxon and Frankish cultic and mortuary practices. Likewise, I didn’t blog about the death of Ragnar himself. Still, have a look through the above, dear reader, and please add any thoughts you have as comments.
What do I think now? Vikings as Public Mortuary Archaeology
So do I still stand by my appraisal of Season 1 and 2, now I have seen Seasons 3 and 4? Well, the Franks in all their craziness came in for Season 3, and we’ve seen more bizarre and implausible battles on land and on water. The show does infuriate me on multiple levels, including some of the dimensions of costume and weaponry. However, I feel I must stand by my initial comments from an Archaeodeath perspective, and add to them.
I can now conclude that, taking Seasons 1-4 together, Vikings offers an unprecedented and rich televisual insight – inspired by sagas, contemporary written sources and archaeological evidence – into the mortuary and cultic practices of the Viking world. In this regard, it makes for good public mortuary archaeology, exploring the variability and materiality of mortuary practice. The way the show interacted with the publication of an academic journal article on warrior women last year proves my point. It provides a focus for our critical attention regarding what we think we know, and what we still don’t know, about death, burial and commemoration in the Viking world. Has the show ‘got it right’? Well, not always and not really, but that really isn’t the point, is it? I use it in my teaching and it has made me think about my research, and I aim to continue to use it in my public engagement with the Viking Age. In all regards, it is a positive.
On I go to review Season 5 in future blog posts….