I’m now well into Season 5 of Vikings and want to continue my commentary on the mortuary practices of the Northmen and their archaeological and other sources of inspiration.
The use of boats and ships in mortuary practice was already established as a Norse pagan mortuary practice in Season 1 when Earl Haraldson is burned inside a full-sized ship launched from the jetty into the fjord at Kattegat. It also features when symbolic boat is deployed: a boat-shaped inhumation grave cut into beach sand for four warriors and a decapitated horse-head. The boat as a vehicle of mortuary deposition does not feature in Season 2, but in Season 3 we are shown Ragnar’s coffin fashioned as a miniature boat by Floki the ship-builder. The, Earl Kalf is evidently cremated and his grave is a boat-shaped stone-setting in Season 4 part 1. The boat as a mode of funerary conveyance is portrayed again in Season 4 part 1 and in relation to Kattegat once more, for the funeral of Queen Aslaug: she is set adrift and then flaming arrows conflagrate her modest-sized craft.
So the actual deployment of ships on water, and the symbolic representation on land, are both already represented in Vikings. Yet there has been one stark absence: full-sized ship-inhumation. This is indeed a widespread feature of the Viking world from mainland Scandinavia (particularly Norway and parts of central Sweden), the Baltic, and elsewhere in the British Isles and North Atlantic where Norse people settled and influenced during the 9th and 10th centuries AD. As well as famous examples from the Isle of Man (notably at Balladoole) and the islands of Scotland, the first conclusive boat inhumation grave from mainland Britain was widely reported as being found on the Ardnamurchan peninsula of NW Scotland in 2011.
This paves the way for Vikings to deploy the possibility of a boat-inhumation in the series. How do they do it? In Season 5 part 1, Episode 1, we see the funeral of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
First, we see the grave from above, as an archaeologist would draw an excavation plan or many artist’s reconstructions of furnished graves have been portrayed.
The boat is a small craft, not much bigger than the 5m vessel imagined to have been used to contain the weapon burial at Ardnamurchan. Sigurd’s body is placed supine, with his head somehow resting unsupported looking straight up. This stylised position is commonplace in representations of the dead in historical fiction and fantasy. Notably, he is placed alone, uncovered by a tent or other canopy, and amidships. Also of interest, the body is placed very high up, almost as if it is suspended on a board placed across the thwarts rather than fully in the boat. This is very much an ‘archaeological’ view of a boat-grave, forgetting the kinds of tents and other layers that might have staged the concealment of the body and the grave-goods during a longer sequence of funerary obsequies.
Sigurd’s body is richly clothed. His corpse is aligned with the boat, and I suspect the head is to the west (upriver as we shall later see).
The grave furnishings are rich, and yet also poor. There are no smith’s tools, gaming pieces and no lavish feasting gear. Certainly no complete human or animal sacrifices. Still, this is a weapon burial: a sword is placed centrally down his body with his hands clasped together over it. I think it is bare, rather than sheathed. A shield is placed within the stern against the thwart, with its board facing the prow, like a headstone for the grave. An axe and other items are subsequently added (see below).
Sigurd’s body is laid on furs, and there appear to be modest food offerings present on two plates: one either side of his feet. Below the feet are precious metal caskets with unknown contents. Further offerings of food have been placed in bowls or plates by the prow and stern. One of these is shown in close-up: a sheep has been sacrificed and its head placed in a wooden bowl at the stern.
Ubba, the second-eldest of the songs of Ragnar and the eldest of Sigurd’s actual brothers (Bjorn is his half-brother), places an axe (and perhaps other weapons?) wrapped in black leather, beside the right-side of Sigurd’s head.
The next point is an odd one that seems not to have an archaeological correlate. Around the body are a series of posts that create a low barrier between the grave and the mourners that surround the boat. Between them are strung astragali or vertebrae, and on top of each post, and the bow and stern posts, are situated the skulls of animals, perhaps sheep. This feature remains visible after the grave is covered over (see below).
Previous funerals have been loud, even jubilant affairs, with singing, music and dancing. Yet perhaps reflecting the tragic, sinister and unforeseen nature of Sigurd’s death, killed by his own brother Ivar at a feast rather than in battle facing the Saxons, there is no theatre, no performance: only silence and solemnity. The mourners standing with hands clasped in front of them, or hands on hips, apart from Sigurd’s killer: Ivar. He watches from the ground in front of the standing warriors. Indeed, the other leaders of the Great Army all stare at Ivar, not daring to challenge him, but deploying the funeral to assert disapproval of his actions.
The monument strikingly modest: a slight mound of fine sifted earth without roots or stones, brought from who knows where (a local garden centre?). Given its size, it would barely cover the cadaver, let alone serve as a monumental feature to honour a great war-leader. This might seem disappointing and inaccurate, including the framing of the grave with skulls remaining a visible feature outside the low, small-scale mound. However, it is important to state that shallow funerary monuments are well-attested in association with boat-inhumation graves, as I have discussed in print. Indeed, the famous Balladoole boat-grave from Arbory, Isle of Man, need not have ever been covered by a vast mound, but simply a low stone setting.
The final scene showing the grave of Sigurd reveals a further point. At some point, a symbolic mast has been erected on top of the mound, with a leather shield-like disc and a cross-beam. From the ends of the cross beam, and winding around the mast, are long strands of red and black cloth (is the red/black combo, mirrored in the colour of the tents behind, supposed to be the insignia of the sons of Ragnar?). I like this touch, since, while utterly speculative since no evidence has survived of precisely this kind of feature, it relates to suggestions I’ve made in my 2006 book. There, I broached the possibility that early medieval boat-graves might have had masts, even sails, adorning the mounds. I make this suggestion not based on direct evidence, but in the light of the account of Ibn Fadlan informing us that a rune-inscribed memorial post was stuck into the top of a burial mound following a ship-cremation on the Volga, and the evidence from Ballateare, Isle of Man, where a 10th-century furnished inhumation grave had a mound topped with at least one post. David Griffiths’ 2010 book isn’t so convinced by this scenario, but I think Vikings helps us to think further about the range of potential adornments that could have made burial mounds more than simply heaps of freshly moved earth.
The location is a further point and perhaps the most interesting and accurate. The boat is aligned with the contour on a ridge above an unspecified river and adjacent to the Great Army’s camp. Such a location would suit the situation where disturbed human remains were found in plough soil at Torksey, at the edge of a large ridge upon which the Great Army wintered from 872-3. The grave is therefore situated in a plausible position adjacent to a sprawling Viking winter camp, a suitable situation for Viking military leader killed on campaign.