Happy New Year! I start with something positive!
Since the publication of a 2017 AJPA article about the aDNA sexing of a skeleton associated with Birka chamber grave Bj581: ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’, academic and public debate regarding the historical reality of Viking warrior women has burgeoned and festered. I’ve written 6 critical reflections on this blog regarding the academic article itself and its academic and popular reception (to read these, follow this link here: Viking Warrior Women).
- The story’s wide appeal;
- The power of images in the media;
- Responses from the public;
- Responses from academics;
- Challenges with the archaeological interpretation;
- Responses to a public talk outlining themes 1-5
However, there is now a need to present a new evaluation of this unprecedented success story for public awareness and engagement with Viking-period archaeology and (more broadly) with public mortuary archaeology (public engagements with mortuary remains from the human past). This is because the ‘female Viking warrior’ story has broadened and developed in new directions and is now engaging fresh audiences with the airing on the Travel Channel’s new four-part documentary Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox.
So this 7th response to the Viking Warrior Women story reflects on the first episode of this celebrity-presented show, aired in early December 2018, entitled ‘Viking Women Warriors’.
I want to respond to the show itself, before addressing (in a subsequent post) some commentators who have been extremely critical of Fox and the documentary, particularly for its exaggerated and simplistic assertions, and also for its pseudoarchaeology. Again, I’m not primarily debating the ‘thesis’ of the show primarily, but its narrative and style.
Having explored the 2017 AJPA multi-authored peer-reviewed article and its public reception, I was nervous about the inevitable extension of the story into heritage interpretation, popular books, and also television documentaries. Therefore, it hardly surprised me to learn that LOTL was dedicating one out of its four episodes to Viking Women Warriors. Having seen a flurry of criticism about LOTL on social media, I was expecting a clusterbomb of dumb presenting, bogus pseudoarchaeology, and incoherent academic argumentation, while the camera would linger on the visage of Fox and her quirky comments.
Then I watched the episode. I wasn’t simply mildly relieved, I was delighted! Fox’s approach was humorous and affable. If her voice was somewhat monotonous and her dialogue with academics and voice-over comments riddled with anachronistic phrases, unnecessary spiritual dimensions and some exaggerations (e.g. “Viking empire”), she was a delightful presence as she explored and discussed the topic in a reasonable fashion with key researchers. I was especially surprised knowing that, while she might be an established actress, she is brand-new to presenting.
Most importantly, I was bowled over by the diversity and quality of the scholars as communicators (Marianne Moen, Dan Carlsson, Leszek Gardela, Maria Kvilhaug, Kim Hjardar and Catrine Jarman), regardless of the over-simplistic narrative into which their contributions were inserted. I think it also worthy of note that all the experts were Scandinavia and England-based: perhaps it was a frustration of some academic viewers who demand experts with plummy Oxbridge accents or US-based before they deign to take a show seriously. Indeed, I feel sorry for Dan Carlsson getting subtitles: he was totally comprehensible to me! My point is that the show tried to use scholars from the regions visited, and (more importantly) those that knew what they were talking about. This worked to great effect. Each researcher had different perspectives and evidence that shed light on the theme of ‘Viking warrior women’ – historical, mythological, archaeological. Together, they told a coherent and captivating story sustained by new research, but also showcase their own fields and expertise. Some of them included material that hasn’t been published fully at the time of airing, so it is not only new to TV, but new to academia too.
Regardless of the narrative spun from the evidence – that Viking warrior women were an historical reality and this is a revelation of new research – which I still feel is pushing the evidence and is riddled with archaeological and historical problems – the viewer gets to see high-quality and unique texts, artefacts, sites and monuments in Scandinavia and England. Viewers visit the Midgard Museum, the Oslo ship museum, Frojel, and Repton church, crypt and churchyard. Those watching gain a sense of landscapes they might never have encountered before, including the fjords and forests of Norway, the island of Gotland and one English village. The range of roles women participated in, not simply in the household, but also mercantile activities and specialist roles as seers as well as potentially individuals of high military rank (Birka), and as raiders and warriors within the Great Heathen Army (Repton), are suggested.
So what’s not to like? Well, some academic snobs might look down their nose at all of this for its dumbing down and simple narrative, but where will they have seen these sites and ideas assembled before for TV? All of this will serve as a valuable introduction to many people new to archaeology and new to the Vikings, and this is how we should appreciate it.
Ok, so there are problems with the show. The only flagrant ‘error’ I identified in the editing was the elision of the discussion of the Oseberg ship burial with the discussion of a seer’s staff from another grave: this was misleading for viewers who might think that specific staff under discussion was from Oseberg.
In terms of misrepresentation: I concede there is hyperbole throughout, as in many TV shows. However, the only specialist who I think is misrepresented directly is Maria Kvilhaug regarding the way she is introduced. Norse mythology is characterised as ‘oral tradition’ that might be taken to mean an unbroken chain of ‘native’ pre-Christian understandings of the world passed down to present-day people. This is especially problematic when Fox’s voiceover said of her that ‘she has a near-supernatural grasp on the poetic eddas…’.
This connects to the unnecessary section in which a modern-day seer – Maria Jacobsen – guides Fox to participate in ‘one of their ancient rituals’. I have no disrespect for those that believe this today (and I would suggest that academics commenting on this section are mindful of dismissing neo-Paganism in the modern world). However, this ‘Viking version of a visionquest’ is just silly in the context of the story of the episode and I couldn’t understand why we should care whether Fox believes in magic or not, even if it is worthwhile to see Norse mythology inspiring present-day spiritual beliefs and practices.
This section aside, I regard this as a far-ranging and top-notch popular TV archaeology documentary. It goes far beyond the Birka ‘warrior woman’ story, and indeed it doesn’t need it, to consider various strands of evidence connecting Norse women to supernatural and real-world martial roles and activities. Indeed, I regard this episode as visually striking and far more accessible and coherent than most TV documentaries I’ve viewed of late. Furthermore, it is free from some of the more ludicrous aspects of recent documentaries by supposedly more credible and ‘learned’ presenters. Certainly, despite the mystic elements, I would contend that this is not an exercise in pseudoarchaeology, and the scholarly voices win out against the fog of Fox’s own spiritual musings which are easily set aside by the discerning viewer.
The Big Picture
Disregard all that if you must, let’s take a step back here and take this in. A big-budgeted US historical documentary has only 4 x 40-minute episodes to explore the ‘mysteries’ of ancient cultures, and one of them focuses on the Viking Age! That is nothing short of a massive coup for early medieval archaeology and we should all be celebrating this stupendous public success story. Hopefully it will reach new audiences who might not otherwise tune in to Viking studies! Hence, I stand by my 5th December tweet where, having immediately watched the episode in the evening whilst at a research workshop at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Leiden, I stated:
I concede, I’m no expert in media archaeology and I have no prior experience of reviewing TV documentaries. I use this blog for other matters. Also, I accept that I share many commentators’ serious reservations about the needlessly bald straw man exaggerated argumentation that riddles this and other archaeology TV documentaries (I’ll discuss this in a future blog). Likewise, I find the ‘personal journey’ of the presenter cringeworthy (“as an actress…”), but it is such a standard trope of ‘discovery’ in TV documentaries that it is hardly worth criticising Fox for a similar approach.
However, although I thought the section where Fox goes on a spirit journey a complete waste of air-time and irrelevant to the narrative, I don’t think this taints the key strengths of the documentary. Similarly, the constant reiteration that the past is full of ‘mystery’, ‘legends’ and ‘myths’ is so banal and commonplace among documentaries as to say nothing specific about a pseudoarchaeological paradigm underpinning the narrative of the episode. This need not equate to a belief in supernatural or alien interventions in past cultures!
In short, Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox gets a thumbs up from me as a superb example of public mortuary archaeology on TV, with an unprecedented high profile afforded to new archaeological research and top-notch archaeological communicators. It does a massive service to Viking-period archaeology, hopefully bringing new people and enthusiasm for the subject, and so the spiritual Fox vignettes don’t ruin it for me and shouldn’t taint our sense of the episode for fostering the widespread public appreciation of the detailed and diverse research ongoing in Viking studies.
Am I convinced there were hordes of Viking women warriors? Nah. But that’s not the point!