Archaeologists face an ongoing struggle of how we tackle alternative archaeologies and their often inherently racist and sexist underpinnings. Yet, having presented my own review of Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox episode 1 ‘Viking Women Warriors‘, for my 8th response to the ‘Viking warrior women’ story I want to review the commentators of the show. I’ve now read some media reviews of the show, as in Jezebel, New York Times and this piece by Mike Redmond. and I’ve seen real rants and rage against both Fox and her programme by archaeologists and other scholars on social media. One esteemed US archaeologist has called Fox an ‘exceedingly poorly educated and ignorant human being’. Another has commented that the show is a ‘disaster’.

However, in this post I want to focus on the four US-based writers who have taken the time to write extended critical reviews of the episode beyond rants on Twitter and Facebook. I respect very much their endeavours to hold pseudoarchaeology to account in the media, but my sense is they have gotten it completely wrong in this instance, at least regarding the Vikings episode of LOTL.

I do this not because I have a vested interest in the show, or because I have a personal disrespect for any of the reviewers, but because I believe this is an important case study in the public archaeology of death and public and media engagement with the Early Middle Ages deserving of further deliberation. For those who don’t know me, I’ve published close to 100 peer-reviewed research outputs, including many articles, book chapters, edited collections and a monograph on early medieval mortuary practice and also public engagement with past death rituals and commemorative cultures. That doesn’t mean my voice is more important than the other reviewers, but equally it does suggest I’m entitled to offer a perspective.

This is a very long post – sorry – so if you want the soundbite. While the Legends of the Lost Viking women episode isn’t beyond criticism, I find myself more at odds with the critics of the show as much as with the show itself. In particular, I’m surprised to find reviewers accept Viking warrior women as uncontroversial and received wisdom because their ill-informed readings of problematic historical sources tell them so, and also I’m not convinced that pinning the badge of pseudoarchaeology on LOTL is fair and appropriate.

Let’s take each review in turn.

The Non-Mystery of Viking Women Warriors: Legends of the Lost Ep 2 – by ArchyFantasies

ArchyFantasies is written by Sara Head, a North American archaeologist who blogs about bad archaeology and pseudoscience. Her review is detailed, insightful and humorous, and she has many critical and important points to make about the Viking Women Warriors episode of LOTL: both Fox herself and the show’s narrative. The post aims to focus on the narrative rather than Fox, but she is unquestionably annoyed by Fox’s demeanour and behaviour:

Unlike male-hosted shows, we don’t see Fox driving herself around or doing anything scientifical herself, but she’s also not claiming to be a forensic anything or pretend to have credentials she doesn’t. I will say that she’s cast in a near child-like role of barely interested host, asking lukewarm questions and repeating back what experts tell her.  However, she also doesn’t come off smug and angry and seems to at least tolerate the people she talks to.

This is not a characterisation I perceived when watching the show. The journey of discovery does show her being driven, rather than driving, but I don’t see this as a passive thing in itself. Likewise, she walks with her own feet as an able-bodied individual – how is this passive? She talks confidently and with humour with specialists: how is this passive?  I detected nothing child-like beyond some obvious attempts at humour and faux-child-like wonder. Her interest in the story is sustained and coherent, without the fake and gushing enthusiasm of many other TV presenters of archaeology documentaries.

Likewise, Head implies that the show denigrates the first female archaeologist (Moen) interviewed by calling her simply an ‘archaeologist’. The voice-over augments this by describing her as ‘an archaeologist who has dedicated her professional life to deciphering the mysteries of the Viking people’. I can’t imagine a more impressive career description!

Head also perceives awkwardnesses and tensions in the dialogues with Moen, Carlsson and Gardela which I read to be some of the most natural banter and dialogue I’ve seen between presenters and specialists. Jarman handles this best of all, I felt. Again this reviewer is annoyed, rather than seeing it as potentially enlightening to non-experts, when Fox attempts to use personal analogies or likens items to popular fictional magical worlds: Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. One could read this as a belief that magic exists in the distant past – as Fox may well do – or simply see it as an effective presentation technique by making analogies of potential function and significance between real pasts and contemporary fiction.  Rather than an evangelism for fringe archaeology, I’m happy to regard this is effective ‘relatable’ presenting for lay audiences. Either way, it doesn’t infuse pseudoarchaeology into the principal narrative.

The TV show ‘Vikings’ is replete with ‘warrior women’: Lagertha mourns the death of one of her shieldmaidens in Vikings Season 4

Head then tackles the show’s narrative straw man argument: women have been thought of as in control of the household (as Moen puts it, or as Fox puts it in voice over: ‘merely subservient housewives’) but not as warriors: new evidence proves we may have to reevaluate this. I agree this is problematic on so many levels, but I disagree with the claim that the show “decided to create a controversy about Viking women, aka Norse women.” The problem here is that the controversy is one already established and well-rehearsed long before the AJPA article, but one now a focus of intense debate in large part because of the AJPA article and a range of other researchers’ investigations. Moen – the first presenter – characterises a complex historiography to the debate in an over-simplistic fashion for the necessary reason of creating a TV soundbite – not Fox. Likewise, Moen regards the aDNA analysis of Bj581 as ‘unprecedented’ – Fox doesn’t! Indeed, as the AJPA article makes clear – there has remained a reluctance to seriously debate and discuss the archaeological and pictoral, as well as the historical and literary evidence, for martial roles for certain Viking-period women, and new evidence has come to the surface, including the aDNA research on Bj581 but also many new figurines and pendants representing women with weapons. Fox and her documentary haven’t created this discourse at all: they are picking up and running with a timely academic debate in Viking studies about the potential martial roles, some actual, some linked to roles as ritual specialists – of selected females in the Viking period! So a real frustration, and something of a contradiction to saying Fox is creating a controversy, is that Head regards Fox as “…simply reporting what we already know and lying to make it sound like we don’t”. I would contend that this is patently not the case. If Head believes women (biologically female) women warriors are now accepted archaeological and historical fact, where is this synthesis and consensus? I know for a fact it doesn’t exist, although ongoing work by Leszek Gardela and multiple articles by him are leading towards a monograph he is composing on the subject that is sceptical of the historical reality at best. Work by many others will also shed light on this topic from different perspectives.

So if we know all this already as academics (which we don’t), can Head tell me where has this all been presented before on television? Some of it, including Cat Jarman’s section on Repton, Carlson on Frojel, Gardela on Oseberg and seer’s staffs, and Marianne Moen’s evaluation of Bj581, are not fully available in published academic contexts or else only in very recent studies (last 5 years). Many academics won’t have read these, let alone members of the public, so it is a useful popular summation. LOTL is presenting simplified fragments of complex ongoing research, sure, but is it creating its own fringe fantasy? I state categorically: it is not. Moreover, for the Birka ‘female warrior’, it is Moen who makes clear that this is a controversy, with some wanting Bj581 to be a warrior woman, and others really not wanting this to be the case: Moen, not Fox, makes the valid point that this is about modern-day aspirations and perceptions regarding gender roles: some are keen to embrace this new interpretation, others really can’t stand the idea.

Likewise, the focus on violence is criticised by Head as Fox’s – but the archaeology of warfare and conflict in the Viking Age is a well-established and well-trodden field, exploring weaponry, armour, communication networks, seafaring, fortifications and so much more. In fact, I agree with Archyfantasies on this point: Viking archaeology has as big a problem with martial valorisation as it has with gender stereotypes.

Head’s review then asserts that any criticism of the Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. 2017 article is a set of ‘laughable excuses’ and this is ‘blatant sexism… at the academic level’. Archyfantasies states: “I mean yeah, there are a lot of people who seem to not be able to wrap their heads around the idea that one of the coolest Viking burials ever uncovered was for a woman.” I’m guessing I’m one of the people being targeted for criticism here… However, this is contradicted by the criticism that claiming she was a woman is an error by Fox: we can only say she was ‘biologically female’, argues Head. Well, Archyfantasies rightly makes the point that we do not know how the person was categorised or portrayed themselves in Viking-period society, and rightly criticises the celebration of the ability to enact violence as the principle articulation of equality between men and women in past societies as warped. However, these are not Fox’s failings, but a wider set of argumentations in the public reception of the Bj581 paper enshrined in the original article itself.

Let’s finish on something Sara Head and I can agree on. I completely agree with the LOTL‘s obsession with the capability of women in the past to enact violence and take on martial roles is a narrow and utterly sexist modern obsession. She hits the nail on the head is in her final evaluation:

Still, the show managed its own form of sexism, while trying not to be sexist, and it came off strange. Fox keeps bashing housewives like it’s something awful in favor of trying to push the narrative that a woman had to be masculine and violent to be respected.

Torvi fights against her fellow-Norsemen in Vikings Sesaon 5

But here’s the point: this isn’t Fox’s ‘straw man’ (or straw woman) – it is enshrined in the AJPA article itself. Indeed, Fox’s documentary does far better than the AJPA article. The interview with Carlson does make clear the importance of trading as well as raiding in the Viking Age, and women’s potential roles in mercantile activity (as Fox says: ‘financial powerplayers’). Meanwhile, by discussing the Oseberg ship-burial guided by Leszek Gardela, we see burials articulating ‘power and prominence’ and one or two women who commanded respect (as Gardela states): one has been presumed to be a ‘queen’ in the past. And seer’s staffs showed us, according to Gardela, ritual roles for women may have been linked to battle magic. So the show isn’t completely myopic on this point: in connects together different high-status/influential roles for some women in the Viking Age and drawing on different experts from different disciplines in a structured fashion to do so. In summary, Fox is given too much agency and too much blame for the story of Viking warrior women and it is certainly not a story already told in full elsewhere. Furthermore, most assuredly it is not a story restricted to ‘fringe’ scholarship.

Review of Legends of the Lost S01Eo1: “Viking Women Warriors” – by Jason Colavito

US-based author and editor Jason Colavito has also reviewed the episode and has put considerable efforts into evaluating the other episodes too. As with Archyfantasies, he struggles both with like Fox as a presenter, and with the quality and character of the show’s narrative. Regarding Fox, he states:

As an actress, she should have had an instinctive understanding of the need to bring presence to her role as host and to imbue her voiceovers with excitement and drama. Instead, she is flat and affectless throughout, rarely breaking from a soft monotone except for occasional instances of upspeak. The void at the center of the show makes it a challenge to watch because Fox is neither informed, nor interesting, nor engaging. She seems to be almost intentionally blank and neutral, someone for the viewer to project onto rather than to engage with.

While I agree that her monotone is not what I had expected, I wouldn’t agree that this makes her blank or neutral. See my comments above in response to Archyfantasies.

Regarding the story of the episode – the historicity of warrior women – his main point is that Fox is claiming something as new evidence, but we already know it to be true. Apparently we already knew that women had a greater role in Viking society (greater than when?). This is, however, a stereotype of its own, rooted in 13th-century saga literature and its romanticisation of the era of settlement up to and immediately following the Christian conversion (9th-11th centuries AD). This is therefore a medieval elite perspective that needs sustained debate and critique in itself.

Colavito asserts that we already know, without needing archaeological evidence, that women operated as warriors in the Viking Age. Colavito finds evidence of warrior women hinted at in Byzantine commentator John Skylitzes’ account of a battle in 971 and in Saxo Grammaticus’s references to women who trained for battle. However, quite simply: the show itself sheds light on the ambiguities of Skylitzes, while Saxo is writing pseudo-history centuries after the Viking Age, and it is near impossible to regard his work as an historical window onto 8th-10th centuries AD.

Incidentally, I think it is a cheap-shot to criticise Fox for going to see the original copy of the text of Saxo Grammaticus rather than looking online. If you follow this logic, one might deride her for getting access to film the Oseberg ship museum and museum-curated artefacts, rather than looking at pictures of it online.

Colavito has a simple historiography to throw at Fox’s show:

The short answer is that the recent discovery was exciting but not unexpected, and the evidence for the role of women in Norse society was always there, but often downplayed by sexist past historians.

So like Archyfantasies, the popular discourse of specialists is now that anyone who finds a problem with Bj581’s interpretation is a ‘sexist historian’. We were all expecting to find women warriors in the archaeological record, and only the sexism of some has prevented this happening until now.

That point aside, the obvious counter to this is that the archaeological evidence is certainly new, or at least newly reappraised and analysed: and the controversy over its interpretation is not of Fox’s invention. Indeed, it is stated as a new controversy by archaeologists interviewed on the show (Marianne Moen). Certainly Gardela’s work on seer’s staffs is recent, building on his doctoral thesis. Carlson’s finds are still coming out of the ground. Bj581 was published as a female ‘weapon grave’ only last year. If this isn’t controversial, it is certainly timely. Moreover, Colavito is at error to call Fox’s characterisation of women in Viking society as ‘disingenuous’, although he would be right to see this as a gross simplification of generations of scholarship. And the show is clear that this is not about newly discovered evidence for ‘powerful’ women per se, but ‘warrior women’ specifically.

Finally, I would suggest that Colavito might have misunderstood the significance of the Repton section of the programme when he states:

The show ends with a visit to a burial site of Viking war dead where 20 percent of the bodies were female, implying that the women were warriors. “This changes everything,” Fox said, though she had just finished reading Skylitzes’s thousand-year-old account of exactly this same thing.

Of course, Skylitzes tells us nothing directly about the size, character and gender composition of any Viking army, and not even how and how many, if any, women fought. That aside, he certainly isn’t talking about the Great Army that wintered at Repton in 873-4. Nor have archaeologists previously uttered the ideas Jarman presents in this show. Jarman has recently completed doctoral research re-dating and reinterpreting the Repton mass-grave as well as much else about the site. She is also conducting new fieldwork in the vicinity. Sorry, but the idea that 20% of the mass-grave might contain female individuals has been reported before, but the possibility that some or all might be warriors with the Viking micelhere is not an idea one can find in print.  The evidence of trauma on the bones is also new. Therefore, this is far from telling us stuff we already know! Whether there is further supporting evidence for this argument or not, Jarman is giving us new ideas here. If they can be supported, it does change a lot!

In summary, while I think Colavito has done a service in rapidly publishing evaluations of the show, I feel he doesn’t fully appreciate the archaeological evidence under discussion, and the positive ways in which the episode sheds new light on existing research questions thanks to the input of a range of specialists.

Old shieldmaiden Lagertha meets her old flame

Review of Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox – Vikings Episode – by Carl Feagans

US archaeologist Carl Feagans invests a lot of time in a superb resource – his Archaeology Review – where he focuses on ‘fringe, fantastic, and fraudulent archaeology’. He is therefore looking to critique the Fox show from that perspective. Subsequently he identified Fox’s show as one of the worse pieces of archaeology news for 2018. Rightly, to my mind, he takes exception to the ‘Viking visionquest’ section of the show. It’s difficult to disagree with his appraisal:

Outside of this 10 min or so segment that starts over half-way in, the rest of the episode wasn’t awful. Fox interviewed several archaeologists and showed some really cool sites

This is very close to what I say in my own review! What struck me again, however, was how Feagans accepts the Bj581 evidence as ‘fact’ and disputes that it remains controversial, even though Marianne Moen rightly characterises this as an ongoing debate regarding the interpretation of the grave assemblage (even if the aDNA evidence is accurate). The objection is to the hyperbole that it ‘set the archaeology world ablaze’ rather than to the complex burial archaeological questions regarding chamber graves, their occupants, and their grave-goods in 10th-century Birka and beyond.

A further concern of Feagans is with Fox’s intellectual capacity and belief in magic. This is justified, since it is repeated again and again in the show itself, and this is disconcerting and distracting. Yet he perceives a disjuncture between Gardela talking about what people believed in the past, and Fox whom Feagans thinks believes that staffs were magical and crystal pendants were also magical. Likewise, the rest of the critique is focused on what ‘Fox believes’. I share his concern, but I would contend that Fox is playing a role, not espousing a vision of the universe without qualification or respondents. In any case, this remains an odd way to evaluate a television documentary. Surely the point is the dialogue between experts and presenter, not what the presenter ‘believes’ and what ‘escapes her’. In any case, we have had decades and decades of medieval history, art and archaeology dominated by Christians, particularly Catholics, and no-one has claimed this invalidates their roles as presenters. Similarly, indigenous communities may very entertain different attitudes towards landscape, time and history to academics, but their views are often presented in programmes about world archaeology without jeopardising the integrity of the academic argumentation. If it affects the narrative, Feagans isn’t clear how. To my mind and sense as a viewer, the appearance of modern seidr practitioners, and Fox’s own beliefs, do not invalidate or taint the entire thesis of the programme, which isn’t primarily about the existence of magic as a reality in the world in any case. The argument that the Oseberg women were practitioners of seidr and this battle magic afforded them a high status, is controversial but not outrageous. Therefore, I didn’t identify a single point where Fox’s personal beliefs infect the overall narrative.

Feagans finishes with a valid point: ” I would have loved to hear Fox talk to her more about the role of women in modern archaeology and the sciences in general” but this is really outside the programme’s scope.

What is really problematic about Feagan’s review is (again) the sense that we ‘already know all this’:

I don’t think there have been any drastic changes in the body of knowledge regarding the roles of women in Viking culture. It’s true that there are new data, as with the Birka Warrior, and fresh data, as with the Gotland and Repton burials. But Fox didn’t justify her statement that “this changes everything.” We’ve always had tales of Viking women….

It’s like no matter how much archaeological research is done, we have a few literary tales suggesting women fought in battles and therefore what more do we need to know? We certainly don’t need expert source-critical evaluations of these fragmentary, ambiguous and late texts, it seems. And we certainly don’t need aDNA! If archaeologists are so convinced of the irrelevance of their own data: why should the public?

Lagertha in battle: Vikings Season 5

How TV shows use serious archaeology to promote bogus history – by David S. Anderson

I’ve left this one until last since it is the newest, and is published in a very prominent location: The Washington Post. Anderson’s point is that Fox’s backstory, her enthusiasm for Ancient Aliens, and her personality, render her problematic as an archaeological presenter and a pusher of pseudoarchaeology. A piece in Forbes contextualises his views in relation to other shows.

I think Anderson and the other reviews watch far more of these shows than I do and so I defer to them for the comparative view. Also, I certainly share his concerns: the pre-release information about the show didn’t bode well at all. Anderson, however, retains this view having watched all four episodes (I confess to having only watched the first and second). In Anderson’s view, the four episodes are mobilising mythological, historical and archaeological evidence to create a pseudoarchaeological narrative.

Having viewed the Stonehenge programme, I accept that there are real issues regarding pseudoarchaeology that Anderson is contending with, not least because Graham Hancock appears! However, I’m not sure they are fully implicated in the Vikings episode in the fashion he suggests. So I concede that Anderson might find more problematic abuses of archaeological evidence to create pseudoarchaeological narratives in the other episodes, but for Viking Women Warriors, he is unable to mobilise any evidence in support of his case. As he values evidence-based argumentation, he’s worth quoting in full:

In the first episode, Fox discusses the evidence for female warriors in Viking society, starting with the recent DNA analysis of the famous Birka warrior burial excavated in the 1880s. This new analysis revealed that the burial’s inhabitant, while bedecked with weaponry, was a woman.

The episode implies that Fox is breaking new ground by taking up this topic, sidestepping the fact that it has been discussed for centuries. The presence of women among Viking armies is noted, for example, in historical texts from 10th-century Ireland that relate the sacking of Munster by a Viking army commanded by Inghen Ruadh, the “Red Maiden,” and Viking sagas such as the Volsunga Saga speak of shield maidens and Valkyries, both representing powerful female warriors. By suggesting that others have ignored the evidence for female warriors, the show tries to present Fox as a radical revealer of the truth.

First, this topic hasn’t been ‘discussed for centuries’ using the kinds of archaeological evidence deployed in the show – aDNA evidence, detailed excavations of settlements and cemeteries, and rich contextual investigations of written sources. Indeed, much of the archaeological research showcased by the episode is unpublished or published only in the last 5 years old (including new interpretations of older finds). As stated above, this is informed by a host of new and ongoing researchers, many younger scholars. Anderson mobilises two disparate texts is a bizarre attempt to claim that Fox herself is concocting a controversial story from nothing. As asserted above, all these reviews are simply not well-placed to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Viking-period scholarship, and the historical and literary sources are not strong and straightforward evidence for the historicity of female warriors. The experts who appear on the show make clear some of the many avenues of ongoing research that are shedding new light on this topic. I would have backed the assertion, were Anderson to make it, that it is pseudoarchaeology to accept Viking warrior women as an historical fact, but rather than take this line, it adopts an opposite tack. The idea that Fox is creating a discourse of her own out of illusions is profoundly false in my view.

Again, I repeat my view that just because Fox rambles on about ‘energies’ and ‘magic’ as part of the biographical dimensions of the show, doesn’t make the core narrative of the episode ‘pseudoarchaeology’, nor does it pervert the core narrative to a pseudoarchaeological agenda. The contradiction here is that Anderson, like others, resorts to problematic historical and mythological sources that ‘prove’ that the archaeological narratives are not only uncontroversial, but unquestionable.

One more thing to throw at Anderson and other critics about this being ‘pseudoarchaeology’. How many TV documentaries actually visualise the front page of an AJPA paper that is fully available and open-access within the documentary. How more ‘go read the actual academic research’ can one get into a TV show?

Gunnhild in battle: Vikings Season 5

Shared Concerns with the Reviews

While I respect the four reviews above, and I share common ground with each of them in places in disdain for pseudoarchaeology’s long-term percolation into mainstream academic discourse and popular culture, I stand by my tweet of 5th December:

I find disconcerting not only the thinly veiled and not-veiled-at-all hatred of Fox as a presenter, but that the reviews of Legends of the Lost lack due recognition that we are dealing with a show created from many influences and agents, not simply from Fox’s personal beliefs. Even if she was instrumental in producing the show and presenting it, a professional team was involved in its script and production, and a range of experts were interviewed. Likewise, I don’t feel that any of the Viking-period specialists are being misrepresented significantly (although I address this in my previous post). Indeed, Cat Jarman provides the best foil to Fox’s spiritual musings: in response to her confession that she is scared of churchyards, Jarman simply says: ‘Fantastic!’. She isn’t the only one.

Also quite shocking is that the overall thesis of the programme – the historical reality of Viking women warriors – is regarded by journalists as more crazy fringe theory promoted by Fox, and this isn’t fair at all. More shocking still, female warriors isn’t regarded as problematic at all by the reviewers: they seem to see the existence of a publication in AJPA on this topic translates to the argument being a done deal and thus the evidence uncontroversial. Fox’s crime, they argue, is making it TV-worthy at all!?

The thing is that the journalists are closer to the mark (if not wholly accurate either). This is indeed a controversial and ongoing area of debate among Viking scholars. Fox is not inventing this controversy as accused: she is reviewing the scholarly debate and offering a simplified version of it to a mass audience. The role of battle-magic in the martial roles of women is important to the debate about the nature of sidr and shape-shifting in the Viking world as well as those occasions/scenarios where women might have wielded weapons – as Gardela’s work outlines – and Fox is not concocting this either. Equally though, the debate about Viking warrior women isn’t ‘fringe’ and it isn’t ‘pseudoarchaeology’, even if I have outlined many critical points about the AJPA article and its reception elsewhere.

And let’s remember, it’s a bit rich to criticise Fox’s show for focusing on the intersection of myth and archaeology when, not only is this a key and rich seam of interdisciplinary Viking-period research, but also her first stop is at the Midgard Viking Centre, at Borre – an example of how Norse mythology and cosmology is deployed as an entry-point into the historical and archaeological world of Scandinavian peoples in the centuries before and during the Viking Age. To denigrate this as either ‘telling us what we already know’ or ‘pseudoarchaeology’ both constitute a flagrant public demonstration of ignorance regarding Viking-period scholarship.

Lagertha fights with the dead in a vision of eternal battle – Vikings Season 5
Torvi riding into battle, Vikings Season 5

Building on this, a really odd thing about all these reviews is that they miss the possibility that there is anything problematic in the idea of Viking warrior women as an historical reality connected to other sources than ‘pseudoarchaeology’. Specifically, they do not perceive any dialogue with warrior women in contemporary popular culture – including Rohan’s Eowyn in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, but most significantly since they are inspired by Norse legends and myth, Sif in the Marvel Thor films, Brida from The Last Kingdom and Thorunn, Torvi, Astrid and Lagertha (and now Gunnhild) from Vikings. Indeed, the fact that the reviewers seem to accept that warrior women are ‘fact’ and joining the chorus of voices celebrating this as empowering of women today and a victory over ‘sexist’ male researchers, may owe as much to these influential fictional characters as to any historical, literary or archaeological evidence! There is a case to be made that the most prominent and influential intersection between past research and popular culture is not with Ancient Aliens or ‘real’ magic, but is with fictional envisionings of warrior women that populate our Hollywood films and television dramas. For me, this is the ‘real’ ‘alternative archaeology’ demanding of careful critique (and hence why I’ve again populated this blog-post with images from the TV show Vikings) and the reviewers so far seem completely blinded to its power and influence.

Perhaps part of the problem is that while reviews are informed and well-read in pseudoarchaeology’s many guises, they lack specific expertise in Viking-period archaeology and history, or specifically with the theoretical challenges of interpreting past mortuary practices in first millennium AD Europe more broadly. Also their North American context is revealing, since it shows how sensitive issues of pseudoscience are there at present, infecting politics, medical research and so much else. Therefore I totally appreciate their reaction to this show. Furthermore, I support their efforts to critique pseudoarchaeology in the public fora of blogs and online newspapers. The reviewers are really doing an important job in this regard and I wish I stuck my neck out as much as they do. However, debunking everything that tries to popularise or reach out to new audiences as ‘pseudoarchaeology’, only empowers the sense that the archaeological community are snobs who don’t like any non-experts voicing views. This is fantastic fodder for anti-intellectuals and pseudoscientists everywhere. This is especially the case when programmes like LOTL are all about the voices of Viking-period experts, albeit ones that ‘fail’ to have US or UK accents! Let’s remember the recent summary of best practice in dealing with alternative archaeologies advocated by Dr Gabriel Moshenska of the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, in his Key Concepts in Public Archaeology book:

Perhaps the most constructive approach to alternative archaeologies is to treat them as a phenomenon worth studying: something that we can examine, evaluate, critique and deconstruct. Whether you believe that alternative archaeologies are harmful intellectual pathologies or valid ways of approaching the past, it is surely worth approaching them with a clearer understanding of their nature, their appeal and their possible harms.

This is not to say we must indulge all manner of falsehoods and fantasy passing as archaeological research on TV. Indeed, like the reviews above, I believe we must critically engage with documentaries and hold them to a high standard. Having said all that, I personally think the character of the flak aimed at this particular episode is unwarranted, inconsistent and paradoxically treats controversial theories as orthodoxy in a bid to focus critical attention on Fox herself and her rhetoric as a presenter. Instead, I would regard LOTL as addressing a controversial and fascinating topic that chimes with popular culture in multiple ways but is not primarily pseudoarchaeology. Instead, it is a success story for Viking-period archaeology and has garnered worldwide interest. If we want to criticise the episode’s core narratives: let’s debate the scholarly work behind them before we blame TV shows and their presenters and accuse them of misrepresentation.

Conclusion

Outside of the ludicrous ‘Viking visionquest’, if there is any ‘pseudoarchaeology’ at all in rest of the Vikings episode of LOTL, it has been generated by Viking-period scholars, and our uncritical celebration (as Archyfantasies rightly highlights) of violence in the past, and the sexism that women’s past lives can only be celebrated when they perform violence in a fashion akin to some men. However, this is connected in no small measure to popular culture portrayals of women warriors in The Last Kingdom and Vikings, not concocted or misrepresented by Fox and her documentary team.

And so the story of Viking warrior women goes on…

Postscript

In addition, I’ve now listened to Megan Fox Teaches Archaeology – on The Archaeology Show aired on 29 December 2018. Chris Webster – one of my former editors – takes a critical eye on the four episodes of the show. Like others, the point he makes is that Fox is trying to buck the establishment. About the Viking women warriors episode: Webster states that ‘without doing any research, the answer is probably yes’ to the historical narrative of women warriors. Her terminology is anachronistic as discussed above and the assumptions she makes from limited evidence, and that she is going on a quest herself and ‘coming up with a grand theory’. However, these are all common themes in TV shows, I don’t see this as a problem specific with Fox. Anyone looking beyond the show, including the AJPA article that is explicitly cited in the TV show in a way unprecedented in many documentaries, will see that Fox is drawing on recent academic discussions, not creating her own narrative.

 

 

 

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