So I return once more to musings about The Last Kingdom Season 2 and its ‘archaeology’.
In a previous post, I discussed how Season 1 deploys megaliths to denote the antiquity of the English countryside and the 9th-century inheritance of many old monuments. TLK does a better and more consistent job at affording a sense of the ‘past in the past’ than Vikings does, specifically in identifying stone circles as places of assembly and muster.
In Episode 5 of Season 2 we find a further dimension to stone circles within the lands overtaken by the Danes. In this part of the story, word comes to Wessex of a man named Bjorn who has risen from his grave to speak prophesies to the living. Uhtred and his companions, aware it might be a trap but seemingly compelled to find out more, travel into the Danelaw to meet with a Danish lord – Eilaf the Skald – who has access to the dead man’s grave.
The Danish lord is supposedly a pagan through and through. Therefore the set designers and storyline have to articulate this through his material culture and built environment. In addition to the portrayal of a distinctive Danish hirsute rainment and deportment, his paganism is revealed by his belief in dialogue with the dead. It is also marked out in the environs of his hall via posts strikingly similar to those deployed in Vikings from which animal skulls and horns are displayed. Likewise, we have the hall itself adorned on the outside with animal skulls.
Yet the most ‘pagan’ thing about Eilaf is that he has chosen to place his hall and farm adjacent to a presumably prehistoric stone circle so that the megalithic monument frames the approach of any visitors to his dwelling. There is a massive implausible centrally placed ‘altar stone’. There are stakes with banners on them, and tethered goats. None of this is discussed: it is just there…. A druid’s nightmare.
This ‘living in the past’ is contrived and yet not ridiculous. It reveals the interpolation of the ceremonial and the quotidian. It suggests the potential of ancient monuments to be deployed as part of the geography of elite dwelling in early medieval Britain.
No, I’m not saying this was how pagan Norse lords lived, but I am saying it serves to illustrate the potential theatrics of prehistoric monuments, deployed in a variety of ways by Christians and pagans, in the early medieval landscape. Of course, we soon learn that this is all a charade, and so the performative dimension of the ancient megaliths is revealed as just that: an attempt to display and deceive, not an assertion of coherent and time-honoured religious or other affinities to a deep and mysterious past.
So again, I don’t think TLK is particularly good or authentic, but this is yet another example where historical drama can be useful – whether intended or not – in critically debating what early medieval did in their landscapes, and our traditions of imagining what they did.