In this follow-up post to my review of the STV documentary Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren (the female Viking warrior) I consider the reconstruction presented of the funeral culminating in the burial of ‘Signe’ in Bj581. The grave was dug up and recorded in the late 19th century, yet the recent academic and popular interest derives from two recent peer-reviewed academic studies (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al 2017; Price et al. 2019). These investigations argued that the occupant of Bj581 can be reconsidered as evidence of the historical reality of Viking female warriors: a phenomenon hitherto considered something of a fantasy by scholars. The presence of a ‘complete’ weapon set, the absence of female-gendered items, and the osteological and aDNA evidence of a female sex from the skeleton indicates, according to these studies, that the occupant was a female warrior: perhaps a high-status military commander who had been mobile in life: travelling widely.
The TV show presents a dramatisation of her adventures and trials. We see ‘Signe’ hunting, travelling, fighting and finally she comes back to live in Birka where she spends her time playing hnefatafl. A very balanced view is offered of a woman who seemed to negotiate a high-status position in a proto-urban setting, sometimes resorting to violence, otherwise living at peace and trading. What was amazing was that we then, in the last 5 minutes, see her funeral: the very event that has supposedly left us traces of this fictitious story.
Thanks to the heavy inspiration and involvement of archaeology in the creation of the semi-legendary material world of TV shows like Vikings, we are perhaps more used to seeing a reconstruction of open-air Viking funerals than we might otherwise be. I’ve discussed and published on the prominence and character of funerals in the TV show Vikings – not simply what they get ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but the valuable educational and research role these reconstructions provide in stimulating our thinking about the complexity and variability of past funerals: what we think we know, and what we think we don’t. The same applies here although in this case the aspiration is to give an impression of a funeral that has actually been excavated by archaeologists. This makes the funeral drama all the more powerful and problematic. What gets shown?
Signe’s funeral is represented as a sombre manifestation of her personal life-story. Each item placed with her seems to tell the audience something of her personal relationships with the mourners and her acquisitions of personal possessions during her life’s journey. This span from the silk hat she wears through to the axe she acquired from her father, given back to her by her former slave. In this regard, the chamber grave’s contents – grave-goods as archaeologists call them – seem to be conceptualised as personal signs of the deceased individual, their possessions, their skills, their story.
The funeral begins at the grave, not at the settlement, and in this regard, the funeral is shown as rather static. To be fair, in failing light, a torch-lit procession of mourners from the settlement is depicted effectively and evocatively. We also see something of a cemetery context outside the defences of the proto-town: there are other stones marking previous graves.
The funeral is thus shown not as a procession with the body, but as a gathering at the graveside around a body already posed, propped against the chamber wall, to which further items are added. At the graveside are two horses which are to be sacrificed. A male mourner holds a torch aloft in one hand, spilling light down into the chamber. He holds Signe’s richly painted rune-inscribed shield in his other hand. Beside him is a volva (sorceress), represented as the principal officiate of the funeral which is very interesting in itself.
We next look down into the grave and see what the mourners are seeing: the ‘corpse’ of Signe, seated, with her wonderful silk hat on. Upon her lap we see the gaming pieces are arranged on a board, laid out for an afterlife game to come. Furs and textiles line the bottom of the chamber, and items are already in place within the grave upon the furs. The side-walls of the chamber are oddly bare.
Despite this modest crowd of family and friends, we still get a sense of Signe as a lonely person, an isolated individual, someone with personal possessions and wealth but a lack of broader connections. It doesn’t look very homely or comfy in that chamber!
There is no singing, no music, no drinking, no feasting, no mood other than silent reflection as the mourners gaze down at her in the chamber. This is a visual affair only – no other senses intervene, whether sounds, smells, tastes and touch.
It seems that most items were added without an audience: they are somehow already there, already installed for the mourners to gave upon.
About the survivors: there are no children, no very old people either apart from the vola. There are no animals either – this is an adult-only funeral it seems and apart from the docile equines, no non-human identities are involved.
Having said all that, some attempt is then shown to regard mourners as active participants in the obsequies. One adult male mourner adds a sword in its scabbard into her grave.
Another male drops her shield into the grave, propping it up against the side-wall.
The volva then kicks up some form of performance, banging her stick and wailing in isolation.
A third male throws a spear over her body into the grave: a practice that might be dedicatory rather than an indication of her social identity at all: a dimension of 10th-century chamber graves discussed by writings by Neil Price and others but I noticed was glaringly conspicuous in its absence from the two published academic papers, presumably because it interferes with the simplistic equation of the published academic research! Leszek explains this might be a way of ‘imitating’ death in battle for those who should have ‘died as warriors’ on the battlefield. This re-enactment makes clear that none of these items are merely ‘props’ and none of these items need be ‘hers’.
We are shown many people around the grave, but it is only female actively involved other than the seeress is Signe’s former slave-girl, seemingly now a free woman, adding the axe and re-arranging Signe’s hair. This is shown as a private act in a public setting ahead of the closing of the chamber and is a rare moment of personal intimacy in an otherwise very Protestant dismal funeral.
Finally, and powerfully, we are shown an overhead view of the grave just before it is covered over. Surrounded by mourners with torches, we look down into the chamber at the composition of Signe with her grave-goods and grave-furnishings, but not yet with the corpses of the horses to keep her company.
It is an archaeologist’s view: a clean, dry and static view of the grave: no blood, booze and other liquids are spilled! It is very much a nineteenth-century gaze: the view of Stolpe and by association the interpretive gaze of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al 2017 and Price et al. 2019. This view makes clear what has been clear all along: the chamber isn’t big enough to represent the burial chamber found by Stolpe: it isn’t a replica, it is an impression of Bj581. Other aspects are not included that I found odd. There is no indication of a possible chair or stool upon which she may well have been seated, and there’s no space for the sacrificed animals. A cauldron is present but nothing seems to be in it.
It’s important to remember that by focusing on this stage of the funeral, we are being deceived. Just as we aren’t shown the preparations and practices before the grave-side, equally, we aren’t really shown what comes next: the long rituals and labour that would have been involved in covering over and marking the grave, whether a mound or the large stone, or a process of closing and re-opening the grave on multiple occasions. Having said that, the landscape location overlooking the lake is made clear in the accompanying discussion by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and there is a good crowd is shown at the very end.
There is much in this funeral scene that speaks of early 21st-century aesthetics and dispositions to death, and much that is powerfully ‘alien’ and ‘other’. In this regard, I think this is an important, fascinating, but inevitably problematic, attempt to show the creation of Bj581. For me, this funeral simultaneously bolsters the narrative of academics regarding Bj581 as the grave of a female warrior in some aspects, but in other regards, it disrupts this narrative of a single identity, and a single authorship, and the grave-goods found in rich 10th-century chamber graves as primarily ‘possessions’ of the deceased.