I’ve just viewed the second documentary focused on the Bj581 Viking warrior women story released to my knowledge. It follows December 2018’s Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox Episode 1 which was panned by many archaeologists but I thoroughly enjoyed, for while I don’t buy the overall thesis, I thought it served to showcase a rich range of archaeological evidence and ideas presented by a solid range of (mainly) early career scholars.
This new one is different on many levels and deserves broad attention. It is a Swedish TV docu-fiction called Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren (the female Viking warrior) aired on STV. Unlike LotLwMF this focuses near-exclusively on Bj581’s reinterpretation by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. My summary is that it is again valuable in show-casing Viking-period research and, through the story, something of the material world of the Viking Age: its houses, ships, weapons, clothing and traded material culture items. On the downside, it adds a new level of faux-historicity to the story currently being presented regarding the identity of the occupant of Bj581.
The format comprises imagining that the Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. interpretation of Bj581 relates to a real historical figure called ‘Signe’. It tells the story of her fictional rise to power through violence, trade and travel until she is finally buried as a rich merchant and warrior in Bj581. A broader context is offered in a few ways: stating that women were warriors across many past societies with a montage of images from China and Africa to ancient Rome, but also to draw on later historical sources and, in particular, a discussion of women in Iceland and Greenland from the family sagas, but also Scandinavian medieval sources and Byzantine written sources. The most important key contextual information is touched upon: artefacts and graves (Gamla Uppsala only is named) regarded from elsewhere in the Viking world that hint at the associations of women and conflict.
If you are interested, see previous posts on this subject by following this link.
I can’t follow all points in the narrative very easily due to my limited Swedish, but here’s my sense of things. Signe is out in a forest hunting boars with her family and retainers and doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself: she’s too serious for that, because spearing boars is serious business and she’s good at it. She sits by the fire and half-smiles, seemingly for the only time in her entire miserable stern life. Her father gives her an axe and she almost smiles, but not really. Her father and others are killed by the baddie, and unsurprisingly she doesn’t seem happy. She goes to Birka, goes to see a volva to gain help, seeks the assistance of a powerful chieftain, and gets her father a proper chamber grave – still no smiles, but at least there are a few almost-happy faces inside the hall to remind us that not everyone was quite so miserable all the time.
The funeral of her father meets the requirements of status, but without a funerary audience. She isn’t glad. Subsequently, she is obliged to go east on behalf of the Birka chieftain to trade, taking with her a Slavic girl as her slave and companion: neither find this funny. A man drinks on a boat, but a woman won’t entertain his affections and breaks his nose. No one is happy. She has a fight with a man and loses. She practices and learns how to fight, without facial expressions at all. She gains status, fights and travels and never seems to enjoy herself.
She kills a random easterner and steals his bow with the help of her slave girl: nothing to be smiling at here. She gains revenge against her enemy – her father’s killer – fighting in a duel against him: no grin to be seen. Signe returns to Birka and becomes wealthy and powerful: no laughing matter. Later, she dies in circumstances that are unclear to me, and even then no one smiles.
The Viking Age was the most sorrowful of times and even the children, the drunk and the mad don’t chuckle or snigger. It’s like watching The Bridge but with every character having the range of facial expressions of Saga, yet no one has Saga’s wit and intelligence. Actually, the Viking Age seems a bit like Twitter and takes itself just as seriously.
The material world
If one ignores the story line itself, there is still plenty to enjoy. We are shown wonderful views of Birka today from the air. The show is worth it for this!
The past world created for the show is great too. I did love the reconstructed houses of Birka and the reconstructed defences. Birka is used for filming some of the shots, like this jetty.
And I loved both the interior and exterior scenes of the Birka houses. The street scene is great too.
In the background you can see the defences that encircle the proto-urban settlement. I liked the shot when we have a close-up of the gate with a wall-walk. I note, no ditch (ditches are universally absent from almost all TV shows depicting early medieval defences).
The best bits of all are the distant shots of ships and Birka in daytime and at night!
What is absent from this version of the Viking world, however, is animals – the settlement has no beasts whatsoever apart from a solitary hound, and no one rides horses, anywhere! Luckily two equines show up at Signe’s funeral (see a future blog-post). Overall, we are shown a really strange animal-free Viking Age. I don’t think I saw much food either, so maybe they are all vegetarians or on strict diets brought on by too much taking themselves seriously?
The narrative and maps
I cannot critique in detail the overview offered, but I would like to comment on the maps of northern Europe with the land populated by the Hylestad stave church portal to indicate it is ‘Viking’. First, the Vikings are so scary that everywhere they land is set alight! That is, apart from the modern Scandinavian countries, which are made entirely of asbestos.
Second, Birka is shown as having no northern routes and no inland/lakeland routes of contact. No one gets to the Norse Sea either…
This one is to illustrate Leszek’s words regarding the slave trade, but it obviously presumes no slaves from elsewhere within or beyond the Scandinavian lands: just Slavs.
The ‘historical experts’ are 7 in number. Three are from the ensemble of researchers who re-investigated Bj581 from Sweden – Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson and Anna Kjellström. In addition, there are commentators based in Scandinavia but not part of the Bj581 research: Kristina Ekero Eriksson and Leszek Gardela. From farther afield, Elizabeth I. Ward and Janina Ramirez made contributions.
Highlights of their contributions include Charlotte’s superb jumper and her explanation of the traded finds from Birka including beads, Elizabeth I. Ward on site in Iceland discussing Freydis and saga society, and Leszek’s clear and sober delivery of contextual archaeological data including miniature shields and axes and his discussion of his research on other female ‘weapon graves’ and his discussion of slavery.
I confess my Swedish isn’t good enough to follow everything said, but my views of the arguments regarding the interpretation of Bj581 can be read in other blog-posts so I won’t repeat them here. However, I must point out one particular low-point, when Janina Ramirez makes a categorical interpretation of mortuary practice in the Viking world:
“Most ordinary Vikings would probably only have one weapon, it could be a spear or short sword or an axe, but to have a complete set of weapons deposited as grave-goods was essential for a high-status chief. Those would be the weapons he would take with him to the afterlife: to Valhalla, that special place where only the best warriors would fight and feast for all eternity.”
I concede that synthesising complex archaeological and historical arguments without making misleading and plain wrong interpretations is a complex skill. I most certainly would struggle with doing that in a TV documentary. I’d also state that in fairness, this lays bare the reasoning of the archaeologists working on the recent interpretation of the burial assemblage and so it is internally consistent with the TV programme’s simple equation of treatment in death with biography in life. This in turn reflects the Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. recent research. Ramirez seems confident to categorically state that ‘the Vikings’ all believed in ‘Valhalla’ as the afterlife destination of ‘warriors’, and that grave-goods were a universal index of social status across the Viking world. I would caution viewers that, as a summary of current thinking on the interpretation of weapon burial in the Viking world, let alone early medieval mortuary practices more broadly, this is ineffective and misleading.
Likewise, Ramirez seems confident that slaves weren’t even buried and ‘left to die in the elements’. We are shown a dead slave dumped outside the settlement and a dog begins to sniff at the corpse… Listening to this part of the show made me wish I was that cadaver.
This docu-fiction is worth viewing, and the storytelling dimension is effective in shedding light on multiple dimensions of society, economy and religion in the Viking world and its maritime and settlement contexts. I liked it in these senses. The downsides are that everyone is so miserable all the time and that this format valorises a disputed archaeological interpretation of Bj581 in multiple ways. Principally, we are shown an ethnic Swede going east, being stern, killing easterners, trading in eastern things that make her rich, and coming back home to be rich and successful in a man’s world. She is powerful and she is violent, and she is not happy about it. This apparently makes the fiction into fact. Subsequently, Signe dies and is given items that reflect just how serious, violent and powerful she was. Simples! Apart from the clear racial and gender issues paraded uncritically in this narrative, and the possibility of multiple other interpretations of Bj581, it is fun in itself.
I’ll come back to discuss the portrayal of the funeral of Signe in a subsequent blog-post, since this is very revealing in itself!