From assicles to art installations, Season 1 of Norsemen was triumphant and clever, both as a comedy show in general terms, and by providing a fun commentary on the Viking Age and its present-day popular portrayals, including those by the TV shows Vikings and The Last Kingdom but (significantly) those of academics too. Hence, in my earlier post I called it essential viewing for any historian or archaeologist of the Viking Age. Funny and cutting, the first season’s highlights for me were the Norsemen take on horned helmets, the parody of Vikings in portraying the seer and his hut, the creation of an art installation using Norheim’s weapons to ‘put them on the map’, and, of course, the failed boat-funeral scene.
How could Season 2 compete, both in general terms as Viking comedy, and for parodying aspects of pop culture and academic engagements with the period? In my view it did very well, with some very dark humour, including a PTSD suffering Viking raider inspired to propose the creation of a committee to discuss best practice while raiding. I also liked the repeat jokes about ‘starting again with a clean runestick’, numerous parodies of contemporary conflict resolution speak, business management lingo, and political discourse (‘making Vargheim great again’), and the repeated mocking of the supposed fatalism of Norse societies in the Viking Age (blaming the Norns and Odin).
In archaeological terms, there is much to commend. In addition to the hall and settlement settings, and the ship, and the relationships with slaves, I want to point out the ludicrously large law-rock at the thing in episode 5. For this Archaeodeath review, however, I want to focus on 6 scenes that I feel are particularly worthy of attention.
Failed pyres and describing their imagined effects
As a specialist in the archaeology of cremation, I just have to point out this brilliant scene, since it reflects on how dramatic public fiery ceremonies and executions involving fire, intended to shock and awe, can go so hilariously wrong. In episode 2, Jarl Varg has gathered all the best metal smiths from all over Norway to make him prostheses to replace his lost hands. The first smith who has failed is condemned to summary execution to make a lesson of him. He tries to defend himself by arguing:
Jarl, I’ve tried my best, I really did, but this is the year 791 and that is how far we’ve come in our metalworking…
Varg ignores his pleas and proclaims that the one who can make him prostheses will be rich beyond measure, and the rest will follow the fate of this first smith, caged upon a pyre. He pleads for his life while Varg’s henchman tries to light the pyre. After multiple attempts, he fails to light it, blaming wet wood. In despair Varg orders the crowd to shut their eyes and imagine the fire instead:
Now, join me on a small journey, close your eyes and imagine that the fire is burning like crazy. Flames crackle pleasantly and start licking the body of this miserable blacksmith. Helpless, he tosses his head back and forth, screaming in fear and pain. Eventually his all consuming screams die down and when the flames’ dance ends, nothing but a charred mute lump is left behind. Now you can open your eyes again.
The henchman is amazed, stating in joy that ‘the images you create in your mind are more powerful than the real thing’. Varg emphasises that the images should motivate them harder to create the prostheses.
While this works as comedy regarding a sinister human killing gone ridiculously wrong because of the simple reason that the wood is too wet to be lit, it also makes us think about the actual practical and environmental aspects affecting the drama of funerary practices in the Viking period. Whether deliberately or not, it mocks archaeologists who have perhaps not taken into account more prosaic dimensions of Viking-period mortuary and sacrificial practices.
‘Shim’ and misgendering the dead
Jarl Varg has commissioned a ‘China-man’ to assassinate his way into Norheim and steal the map to the west. After slaying many guards, he dies at his moment of success, crushed by a boulder set as a trap and triggered by him grasping the map.
Arvid and Ragnar are first on the scene. Arvid asks ’cause of death?’ Ragnar says ‘most likely the boulder.’ And to justify his supposition that the motive was stealing the map, Ragnar says: ‘there isn’t much else here shim could be after’.
Arvid queries his odd use of ‘shim’ and Ragnar explains:
It’s impossible to see if it’s a man or a woman, so I thought it best to say ‘shim’ in order to not step on any toes.
Arvid then wonders whether ‘shim’ wanted the map for ‘shimself’..
While intended as a comedic extension of present-day identity politics to the Viking dead, I wonder if the makers were also aware that gender attribution/misattribution has become a topic of debate in Viking-period archaeology too… as most notably with Birka chamber-grave Bj581!
‘Give ’til it hurts’ funerals
The lawspeaker dies in suspicious circumstances. The crowd gathers around the body and Arvid the chieftain says:
And the old lawspeaker should get a burial worthy of a man of his standing. We shall hold nothing back. Everyone has to give their most prized possessions and send it off to Vallholl with him. So give ’til it hurts.
Then, someone pipes up from the crown:
you know, errr, in Vestfold they’ve started burying big shots in ships now. Yeah, they bury entire ships full of all kinds of nice things. You know, the ship is our most valuable asset, and it would probably hurt the most.
Arvid replies, ‘Yeah, I think we’d be a little wing-clipped as Vikings without Viking ships.’ The man replies, ‘It would really suck for everybody but you said give ’til it hurts.’ Arvid: ‘so maybe we should just do it then’. Rufus of Rome, the new lawspeaker chips in: ‘the ship shall not be buried, that’s for elite funerals, like chieftains… and artists (pointing at himself).’ Instead, they beat a drum, drape the corpse in a white cloth, and process of the settlement towards the burial place.
I just loved this: notably the complete uncertainty regarding Arvid’s decisions as chieftains and how easy he is swayed by rumour. Again, it reflects off real archaeological finds, most notably at Oseberg and Gokstad, and reflects on the significance of grave-goods as a conspicuous consumption by which the dead are afforded with prized possessions, but not those which had belonged of the deceased, but those of family and friends obliged to chip in.
Also in episode 4, we have a scene where Arvid goes to see Ragnar who is getting a new tattoo. Ragnar says:
You know Arvid, the thing about me, my body is my runestick and my tattoos are my saga. With me, I’m like a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shadow and you can read it on my arms, my shoulders, my back, my stomach, my legs even…
It then transpires that each of the marks on Ragnars arm are to mark a female conquest, but then this is clarified by the information that only two with physical, the rest imaginary, and only those he wants to reminisce about were inked as: ‘small pages in the saga of Ragnar in a way’.
Norsemen thus simultaneously mocks modern tattooing trends but also how the dramas Vikings and The Last Kingdom have supplanted the myth of the horned helmet with facial and body modifications as the en vogue ‘authentic’ hipster Viking image.
Burying slaves alive!
The funeral of the lawspeaker then takes place on the ground surface, with a range of food offerings and artefacts gifted by the mourners. Jarl Varg’s lacky turns up and discusses with Arvid about how difficult funerals are, not knowing what is the right thing. Arvid concedes that showing up is what matters most. Varg’s henchman chucks a bag onto the assemblage, admitting it is a coins weighed down by stones. This is an overt parody of what people say and do at funerals today that fall below even the most basic standard.
Then the idea comes to Orm, supported by Rufus, to get rid of the 3 slaves who know their plans, but then it is realised that if they sacrifice all three, no one will be left to dig and raise the burial mound. Two protest but dutifully lie down amidst the grave-goods, resigned to their servile fate to be funerary offerings. Rufus states: ‘cheer up! It’s one of the greatest honours for a sub-human to be buried next to a respected lawspeaker’. They ask whether they can eat some of the fruit. Rufus responds ‘Oh course not, that’s human food for the journey to Valhall!’
One slave says he doesn’t believe in Hel, so it is going to be total waste as far as he is concerned. The other slave objects that she is a Christian and this doesn’t make any sense to her. Rufus simply says ‘well you’ll just have to hold your tongues’.
Amusingly, everyone waits what must have been a ridiculous amount of time while Kark alone raises the mound! Just as he finishes, one of the buried slaves tries to dig him/herself out and Kark is instructed to bash the flailing hand with a shovel. Orm then jumps up and down on top of the mound to ensure they don’t rise out again.
Kark alone adds a floral offering. Amusingly, it does result in a bizarrely small and context-less bare burial mound: the focus of a comedic exchange between Kark and Orm.
In summary, this is a wonderful parody of archaeological interpretations of funerary eschatology focusing on the provision of grave-goods, sacrificial offerings and mound-building!
The legacy of Rufus
In season 6, anticipating his departure from Norheim, the lawspeaker and former slave Rufus defines his own legacy in a fashion that parody’s politicians and business leaders. Whether intentionally or not (and I just keep feeling that an archaeologist is somewhere involved in this programme), from my perspective I found it mocking revisionist characterisations of the Vikings, their art, monuments and mortuary practices (for which I might be regarded as a participant):
I have single-handedly – single-handedly! – ensured that when the history of the Vikings is written, you won’t be remembered as skilled warriors with iconic ships, but for abstract installations and performance art.