You know what? It’s difficult to keep track on what I blog about and what I don’t! You see, I recently composed a critical evaluation of a scene of a Christian burial site depicted in the first episode of the TV historical drama set in the late 9th century: The Last Kingdom.  I plumb forgot, and only recalled whilst I pressed ‘publish’ on that blog-post, that I still had a few posts about Season 2 to wrap up. So let’s back-pedal to Season 2 for a moment and explore some of the funerary elements from an archaeological perspective.

Again, archaeologists have to admit that they really don’t know a lot about how 9th-century pagan and Christian graves ‘looked’ on the surface. Did they look similar, or were they starkly contrasting in their appearances? The Last Kingdom aimed for close proximity and a striking dissimilarity, which is provoking and interesting. After all, the whole narrative is poised around ethnic/religious conflict between pagan Danes and Christian Saxons, and those that ‘walk the line’ between them. Hence we have pagan Danish lords living in animal skull-adorned halls located next to stone circles… while Christian kings live in repaired Roman villas.

A Christian cemetery at night

I refer to a nighttime scene where we are shown a mixture of stone rectangular and angle-topped gravestones – 6 or 7 in total – interspersed with wooden crosses of different sizes. Presuming these are aligned west-east, they are collectively marked by a tall ring-headed free-standing cross of tenth-century Hiberno-Norse type. This arrangement is reminiscent of middle Anglo-Saxon field cemeteries – away from churches or chapels, but demonstrably Christian in their lack of grave-goods and formalised west-east arrangement, and the presence of a large cross, as spectulated from a large post-hole next to graves found during excavations at Thwing, East Riding, Yorkshire.

(note: it is almost as if TLK and Vikings are in funerary competition, since there is a nighttime Christian graveyard in Vikings season 5!)Christian cemetery

Pagan/Christian burial proximities

In doing so, we tackle an odd scene where Uhtred encounters something that the archaeological record has some hints at: the close association of ‘pagan’ Danish graves in the proximity of pre-existing Christian burial grounds. Not withstanding the manifold reservations with equating furnished burial practice with Norse pagan influence, we do have dated furnished graves from a range of sites in mainland Britain, Man and Ireland where it seems that those influenced by Scandinavian burial practices – whether locals or incomers – were buried in Christian sites already centuries old. Therefore, while we might quibble about almost everything else The Last Kingdom shows us, this spatial juxtaposition is reasonably plausible.

Having discussed the Christian burial ground and its relationship to a pagan grave, what can we say about how the pagan graves are represented.

The Pagan grave

Both Vikings and The Last Kingdom utilised the ubiquitous external suspension of animal skulls as somehow a sign of ‘pagan’ belief. We aren’t told why, although there is archaeological evidence that animal skulls could be associated with pagan cult practice and feasting. From whales and sharks, to deer and domesticates, animal skulls are everywhere. From Season 5, Vikings adds them to graves. Near simultaneously, we have this grave from The Last Kingdom, which is not only north-south, and thus contrasting with the Christian graves’ alignments, but is topped by a spindly stake, upon which somehow is suspended a tiered triad of skulls: a small deer skull, a goat skull and a cattle skullall with intact antlers/horns. And what horns! I’m no cattle expert, but those are some crazy horns one might expect on an early medieval beast!

To disappoint you all: we have no archaeological evidence (to my knowledge) for such a flashy and fascinating above-ground arrangement. I can’t say this didn’t happen: anything is possible, but such ephemeral above-ground traces remind us how much we are missing from the archaeological record, and how elaborate displays might leave no below-surface trace for archaeologists to find. In this regard, this ‘pagan animal skull grave-marker’ is fascinating and instructive, if impossible to substantiate.

Bjorn's grave

The living dead

It is worth noting that it’s left unclear whether we are supposed to be looking at a ‘typical’ pagan grave, or that of a special person, since the whole reason for them being there is that the dead man within can rise from his grave and deliver prophesy. Later (plot-spoiler: sorry) we learn this is just a ruse to try to convince Uhtred to switch his allegiance from Wessex.

Still, it is significant and noteworthy that the entire scene is focused on the living dead. Did the pagan Norse believe that the dead could rise from their graves and deliver prophesy? Well, later sagas give us this impression, and the idea that those sitting on mounds can commune with the dead, and those who enter graves might have to combat an animated draugr. The literal raising of a walking, talking, beardy Viking out of the earth itself though? I don’t think this is what the sagas are referring to at all. Oh well, it’s only a TV show based on a book. And as I said above, we learn it is a ruse and even the pagan gullible Uhtred doesn’t buy into this Norse bs. In any case, our sources don’t suggest that the pagans had an exclusive interest in the ‘living dead’, and Christian communities might equally fear an animated corporeal revenant, as Professor John Blair has argued for middle and later Anglo-Saxon England. See the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist for more on the archaeological and historical background for this theme.

Bjorn the dead

Gravestone recycling

A final point needs to be made regarding the Christian graves. With hindsight, I can confirm that these are almost without a doubt the same gravestones reused in Season 3 episode 1, and thus they’ve migrated from the Danelaw to Hampshire between seasons! 🙂 For more on crosses and their recycling, see my earlier blog here.

Rating

I have to give TLK 10/10 for this, not that it is based on archaeological evidence, but just because it raises so many fascinating questions about beliefs in, and practices surrounding, death and the dead in the Viking world. It’s therefore very good to think with, and is one of my few favourite bits of Season 2.