In episode 4 of Vikings Season 5 part 1, we encounter a further plot device involving the burning of the dead. Equally notable, this is combined with the deployment of two key archaeological dimensions of the Roman city of York that may have (in part) survived into the topography of the Anglian settlement of the 9th century – walls and sewers. I won’t pretend this plot-line doesn’t stretch my patience to new limits, but feel the allusion to cremation and Roman remains makes it impossible to not mention as part of my review of the show’s unprecedented attention to archaeological sites and environments.
Having been tricked by the Great Army into believing they were not defending York’s old Roman walls, the West Saxon army enters the city thinking they have an advantage. Instead, they are ambushed by traps in the streets of the city of York and flee suffering heavy losses. King Aethelwulf is minded to give up and return to Wessex to raise a new army. Bishop Heahmund proposes a different course of action: to besiege the Norsemen and starve them out, killing any who venture out to gather resources from York’s hinterland. This seems to be working, but Ivar has a cunning plan in response. He feigns the onset of disease and starvation and gives the Saxons the impression they are burning their corpses in the streets of the city. He then pretends to abandon the city and sail away: the Saxons find no ships and no Norsemen in the city when they enter a second time. Instead the Vikings are hiding in the fully intact Roman sewer system of the city, and leap up and out and somehow manage to complete a second slaughter, this time of the West Saxons and Northumbrian combined force, capturing Heahmund for reasons rather unclear to everyone.
Regardless of the plausibility of this plot, it is interesting that, having experienced the mass-burning of their own diseased dead in the wetlands, Aethelwulf is amenable to Ivar’s ruse, and attacks thinking the Norse are vanquished having burned their dead as an emergency measure. While cremation is not shown, braziers are deployed to give the impression of thick smoke from funerary pyres. Evidently the topography and archaeology of York provided a role in the creation of the story, and the potential for smoke to be misinterpreted: screening military strategies.