A few weeks back, I was invited by Old Norse specialist Dr Jackson Crawford to join him on Crowdcast to talk with his Patreon supports regarding the challenges of interpreting burial archaeological evidence, particularly in the light of viral debates over the last 2 years regarding the interpretation of Birka chamber-grave Bj581 as potentially the burial of a female warrior or military commander. Entitled ‘Burial Practices (with Howard Williams), you can view it here.
I’ll let you watch and judge the content for itself, but I use the Viking warrior women story as an embarkation point to consider key issues and debates in early medieval mortuary archaeology, focusing on how we interpret grave-goods and funerary performances. I also considered the variability in mortuary practices we find, whether these relate to afterlife beliefs, and how only fragments of evidence often survive. There were questions from Dr Crawford’s Patreon supporters about the significance of Valhalla, whether there were long-term influences from the Roman world in how the ‘Vikings’ treated their dead, and whether Viking-period funerals were really conducted over water, and much much more.
I addressed, as part of this discussion, early medieval stone monuments (particularly hogbacks), boat-burials, cremation practices and chamber-graves and their contents. I emphasised the concept of ‘mortuary citations’ as a profitable avenue for academic research that shifts the focus away from the identity of the occupants of individual graves to consider the mnemonic genealogies constructed through Viking-period cemeteries and monuments.
My understanding is that Dr Jackson Crawford’s YouTube channel on Norse Mythology has over 89,000 subscribers and his usual posts regularly get up to 10,000 views, accessing a global audience with fresh perspectives on Norse language and literature and incorporating themes that regularly touch on archaeological evidence and research. His clear, coherent and engaging no-nonsense sceptical approach, and his striking Rocky Mountains settings for his videos, make this a channel I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the Viking world. His channel is a rare example of a credible resource of academic information on social media regarding early medieval societies.
In this context, I understand that this is the first time his channel has included a lengthy discussion with an early medieval archaeologist. From the responses online and the quantity of views – over 4,000 viewers willing to dip into and watch large sections or all of a 1 hour 12 minute-long video – I’d suggest that this was a successful additional endeavour for Dr Crawford. I look forward to seeing further interviews in due course with linguists, historians, archaeologists and other specialists in Viking studies.
Incidentally, I have had the privilege of interviewing Dr Crawford for a forthcoming edited collection – Digging into the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Public Archaeologies – in which he discusses and evaluates the motives, context and content of his YouTube public engagement. I hope archaeologists also follow his example by providing a reliable and regular source of information on early medieval scholarship.
From my perspective, following on from my interview debating the reality and fantasy of Vikings with horned helmets on ArchaeoSoup’s YouTube channel, being interviewed by Dr Crawford proved a welcome experiment in using this medium. Inspired by these positive experiences, perhaps I will appear on other YouTube channels in due course. I have already attempted fieldwork vlogs for Project Eliseg, but this is something new. At some point I might experiment with my own videos. Given the continued dearth of detailed academic early medieval archaeological content appearing via this popular medium, even a low-tech approach might make a difference and help enhance a broader archaeological ‘literacy’ beyond the media focus on ‘discovery’ and pseudoarchaeological fakery and fantasy.