I spent last weekend, together with my PhD researcher Brian Costello who gave up his entire weekend to volunteer, representing the Department of History and Archaeology, and the University of Chester of which it is part, at the Heysham Viking Festival 2018 (21st-22nd July 2018).

Centred around the Lancashire coastal village of Heysham, I attended a part of the festival last year and gave an evening talk. I enjoyed myself then and got to meet for the first time some great re-enactors and also Dr Dirk Steinforth who was visiting.

My posts about the 2017 festival can be found here:

As well as a funfair, market and festival field with re-enactment battles and activities, there was a parade through the streets. Moreover, the entire ‘Viking settlement’ was open for people to see. St Peter’s church was open and a church guide was present to show people around. There was also a heritage centre, and there were many cafes, shops and stalls in front of houses in the village. There were also two evening lectures – by Dr Charles Insley and Dr Clare Downham – to provide, as with last year, an academic focus to the festival.

There were also the scarecrows again around the village, now more in number and all the more fun in their mocking adaption of horned helmets. Someone even left out a gnome (shudder)! My favourite, however, was Chewy-Viking!

In short, I thought it was a fabulous event for its individual public engagement elements, but in combination it achieves an audience and demographic that one can only dream of for an archaeology-only event. It is important to recognise that this event wasn’t about public engagement regarding Vikings alone, but Vikings were the hook relating to all things early medieval in the North West and beyond.

So while I have never had the money or time to attend festivals of any kind, and I’ve also never participated in running a stall at a festival (although I did attend a University of Chester stall at the Cheshire show about a decade ago), I was keen to get involved in the 2018 event.

Adam Parsons of Oxford Archaeology North put in a phenomenal effort into facilitating the presence of a range of regional archaeological organisations, and facilitated the availability of a first-floor hall in the Heysham Institute at the heart of Heysham village for our stalls. Our activities were incorporated into the festival programme and widely promoted. Chester was joined by Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre (represented by two friendly MA student volunteers), the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Roger Lang (who has worked on early medieval stone sculpture and is enrolling on an MRes Archaeology at the University of Chester in October), and a wonderful team from Oxford Archaeology North.

I was invited to participate in 4 ways:

  • The aforementioned University of Chester stall
  • Leading archaeological tours of the church and chapel
  • Recreating Viking graves with Adam Parsons and his re-enacting friends
  • Being active on social media about the event in general and our activities.

This was an experiment in participating in the Viking Heysham Festival and it was a success overall. There were a few challenges and problems that we are planning to iron out if we get the chance to go back in 2019, but here’s a brief summary of how it went down from my perspective.

The Stall in the Heysham Institute

Following on from the University Archaeology Day, Brian and I ran the stall for both days, talking to festival-goers about our degree programmes and, with the help of a scrolling screen of images from the TV show Vikings – regarding what we know, and what we don’t know, about Viking mortuary practice based on archaeological finds.

We had a banner too outlining some of the info about our Department’s archaeological research and teaching. We probably chatted with c. 100 people over the two days and it was also a valuable networking activity linking with other colleagues in the region. We also got a visit from some prominent archaeologists. Still, the upstairs location and limited signage restricted access to many festival-goers who went by en route between the festival field and the church without seeing we were there. On the Sunday afternoon, we remedied this a bit by going out onto the street to shout ‘roll-up, archaeological displays upstairs’ and this seemed to work well. Next year, we might need to relocate to the main festival field and/or employ better signs/strategies.


The Archaeological Tours

The tours left at 1pm each day from outside the Heysham Institute and explored the headland and St Patrick’s Chapel, as well as St Peter’s church, focusing on the surviving traces of early medieval architectural stonework, crosses and recumbent stone monuments. These were well-attended, with c. 30 on the first tour, and 50 on the second.

I took them all around the key visible elements, but also discussed what they cannot see: what the excavations revealed in the 1970s about the chapel.

The only problem was that the church guide wouldn’t step back and let my tour group view the hogback stone at all on each occasion we entered the church. This was despite the fact that I had entered the church with dozens of people and I had given an academic talk about the hogback in the church last year!

We combined each tour with a free raffle of an archaeology text book: The Archaeology of Britain by Hunter and Ralston. This seemed to go down well!

Viking Funerals

On the Sunday, Adam and I, with the help of his re-enactor friends, created two furnished inhumation graves. In the morning, with the help of kids attending the festival, we created an adult male-gendered burial assemblage. In the afternoon, two adult female-gendered burial assemblages. Obviously there was humour and the dead even interacted and questioned our decisions at points.

We discussed both historical and legendary written sources, as well as archaeological evidence. We considered the living and the dead at funerals, whether items placed with the dead reflecting their identities or those of the survivors. We also considered the drama but also the intimate relations between the living and the dead in composing such graves. We made sure the audience were aware that cremation and inhumation were practiced, and we discussed the monuments that might be raised over the graves.

We even discussed grave-robbing! And of course, the fact that we got kids involved meant we were able to discuss ‘authorship’ in funerals: who got to do what and who got to decide what it all meant. It might have been messy and confusing then as much as for archaeologists to work such things out now!

The first event attracted about 25-30 people, the second funeral drew c. 45-50 people.

Social Media

I spent a lot of time talking with people. However, the festival is not only a real-world event, but a digital one, with an active Twitter  account with over 1k followers, and and even-more active Facebook page with almost 4k followers. 

Including this blog, I worked hard to promote the festival during the whole weekend on social media, tweeting images of our stalls and activities as well as live-tweeting in the evening lectures.

I even broke into film to capture the sense of what was going on.

The festival had its own social medial guy and he videoed one of my tours of the church and chapel, so the digital footprint will extend throughout the year and help foster interest in next year’s events.

Here’s my Twitter Moment for the event!


Having participated last year by giving an evening talk only, I felt privileged to be able to experiment with a first attempt at participating in the festival itself. I enjoyed myself, despite having little time to be part of the activities happening elsewhere, and I think we lay the foundations for a strong Chester archaeology participation next year!