Season 5 part 1 of Vikings opens with a boat-inhumation, and so it closes. In doing so, it returns to Season 1 and Season 4 part 1, in which boat-shaped graves are portrayed, rather than the deployment of boats themselves in mortuary contexts.
The back story: Floki leaves the Great Army in England to ‘give himself to the sea’ but then he discovers Iceland (as one does). He has visions of the pagan gods as he explores and comes to believe the land is sacred to them. He is then inspired to return to Kattegat to evangelise his discovery and encourage true-minded ‘believers’ to accompany him to Iceland. The settlement of Iceland is thus portrayed as some bid for pagan purity in response to the feuding of Scandinavia and the ‘infection’ from Christian ways.
He leaves with Lagertha’s blessing with Aud the Deep-Minded and Ketil Flatnose with his own craft and two further ship-loads of followers. He wants to create a perfect community free with principles of equality and harmony, free from any violence (apart from animal sacrifices, of course). However, he has lied to the community about the wealth and benevolence of the land, and discord unfolds. A temple to Thor is built by Floki and his followers yet some in the group object to the temple and the tax they must pay to maintain it. The temple is burned and the young man responsible for the fire – Bul – is slain in a fight with another young man: Thorgrim.
The boat grave for Bul takes place amidst the geysers of their new settlement, implausibly far from the sea and from farmland. Still, it is in a location that, for the narrative of the story, works to show the potential benefits and spiritual connections of the new colony Floki has fostered.
A wicker boat-shaped frame is created c. 4-5m long, and the dead body is laid clothed. Again (as in Season 1’s Northumbrian beech boat-shaped inhumation grave for four warriors) we are afforded an archaeological plan view: from above. The cadaver is rested on furs and cloth, themselves on a layer of large stones. The stones are in turn lain on smaller stones which are built up in a layer over the ground’s surface.
Why? Well, to be honest, I think we’re not dealing with an exact archaeological parallel here. Instead, we have to be generous since surely production restrictions would have prevented the production team from digging into a sensitive natural site, and so they have ‘built upwards’ to create a funerary tableau, rather than digging down to arrange the burial. Hence, there is no depth to the feature.
The grave-goods are rather bizarre. There are lots of bits of individual animal bones and deer antler tines, and only a pair of axes arranged above his head in a symmetrical fashion. There seems to be an empty wooden bowl by his feet, and a pot by the outside of his left leg. Notably, however, a gaming board is placed by the left side of the man, with the brother saying ‘we always used to play this when you were young, farewell, brother’. The gaming board is placed exposed, with the pieces in a bag on top of it. This is the most archaeologically interesting of actions, since it relates to discussions by (among others) Martin Rundkvist and myself regarding the significance of gaming boards and pieces in Viking Age graves.
Others mourn the dead man, but his brother and sister are sent from the graveside into some form of undisclosed exile given the dead man’s violent actions. Why the father doesn’t receive a similar fate is unclear.
There is only a small pile of stones waiting to be used to create a modest cairn over the shallow grave. Floki’s crow sits on the rock-pile, adding a macabre dimension to proceedings.
The location of the grave makes no sense: it is simply proximal to their makeshift settlement. It has no views, no prominence in relation to routeways, it is utterly bereft other than being in a place of volcanic activity. I’m not sure this has parallels in the Icelandic archaeological record, but I defer to others to make a call on this.
Again, as with Sigurd’s funeral, the graveside mood is sombre. There is silence and sobbing by the father (Eyvind), mother, brother and sister. Again, this is not to be taken as typical: this is in the context of the feud and the dead man was obviously a complete arse. Floki does not perform: he simply approaches afterwards and warns the father not to seek revenge and set in cycle a look son and only approaches the grave once the family has left. Floki promises to make Eyvind law-giver if he agrees to put aside vengeance.
So the grave serves to root the interests of people in the land, but also to serve as the focus of bitter feud. We can imagine what will come next…