For the third year running, I attended the Heysham Viking Festival.
Two years ago, I was one of the two public evening speakers in St Peter’s church.
Last year, I came back and, with University of Chester doctoral researcher, Brian Costello, and we ran a stall. Also, I conducted walking tours of the church and churchyard, and with Adam Parsons I commented on two mock Viking ‘funerals’ with an aim of reflecting on how we interpret early medieval furnished inhumation graves. This last dimension was intended as a fun activity, with the ‘dead’ getting involved, and the audience (mainly kids) contributing to the proceedings as mourners.
This year, Adam Parsons (Blueaxe Reproductions) and I did the same activity, and we oversaw 3 funerals on Sunday 21 July 2019. Before I discuss these, here’s what I said about the 2018 ‘funerals’.
We discussed both historical and legendary written sources, as well as archaeological evidence. We considered the living and the dead at funerals, whether items placed with the dead reflecting their identities or those of the survivors. We also considered the drama but also the intimate relations between the living and the dead in composing such graves. We made sure the audience were aware that cremation and inhumation were practised, and we discussed the monuments that might be raised over the graves.
We even discussed grave-robbing! And of course, the fact that we got kids involved meant we were able to discuss ‘authorship’ in funerals: who got to do what and who got to decide what it all meant. It might have been messy and confusing then as much as for archaeologists to work such things out now!
The first event attracted about 25-30 people, the second funeral drew c. 45-50 people.
The subjects discussed were very similar to the 2018 ‘funerals’. In each case, different artefacts were used to compose their graves and discuss the broader context of mortuary rituals and their social, economic and eschatological dimensions. The aim was not to reconstruct any single Viking-period furnished grave, but on the contrary, to provide some imaginative creations that link past funerals to present-day audiences: showing connections between past practice and present-day expectations, but also revealing the otherness of the past and its attitudes and practices surrounding death and the dead.
Things were different in 2019, however, in terms of the character of the funerals we composed, and the number of fuenrals, and the scale of the audience.
The funerals this year were threefold, and had different subjects. We started with an adult male (Stuart Strong of Gear and Graith).
But then we moved onto a female child and lastly a male child. Given that our ‘mourners’ were mainly children, the use of children as dead subjects provided a powerful connector and an advantage for discussions with all those attending.
This year, the audiences seemed comparable but slightly larger: the first one attracted perhaps 20 people, the second c. 30-40 and the last c. 40-50.
Adam and I used these mock early medieval funerals to discuss the challenges and potential of mortuary archaeological interpretation in a public setting at a living history festival. So alongside the funfair, the living history camp, the activities and ‘battles’ in the arena, the tours of the archaeological sites, the public evening talks and so on, this provided a further way in which a wide and varied public could access the Early Middle Ages at a free public event.
There is a broader theme these mock funerals relate to: how re-enactment is not simply about exploring past life-ways – including (in this instance) Viking-period crafts and conflict. In addition, re-enactment activities and events of whatever time period provide a versatile medium by which contemporary audiences can engage with dying, death and the dead in the human past. Indeed, early medieval re-enactors at Heysham told me of large-scale and elaborate theatrical mortuary performances conducted by other groups at other locations, including attempts to imitate dimensions of the early 10th-century account of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan who witnessed at Rus chieftain’s funeral beside the River Volga including the killing of a slave-girl! I heard of another festival whilst at Heysham where a ship is decked with grave-goods surrounding the ‘corpses’ of two women as a detailed re-enactment of the famous Oseberg ship-burial (minus the animal sacrifice, of coruse)!
Our funerals were necessarily more modest, discursive and pedagogic in character, rather than an attempt to be dramatic public events in themselves. No animals were sacrificed, no humans raped and slain, no grave-chamber dug, and no mound raised, and certainly no fire rituals. Still, it is clear that ‘mock funerals’ is an under-researched dimension of present-day engagements with death in past societies through experimental archaeology and living history. Funerals performed at living history events are another fashion in which archaeologists and hobbyists can operate as ‘death-dealers’, mediating present-day perceptions and experiences of mortality. This is another type of ‘public archaeology of death’.