The archaeological recording of early medieval graves has evolved over the last 170 years from sketches of exceptionally wealthy graves (and often not even that) to high-quality photographs and detailed digital plans and sections created from rectified digital photographs which show every detail of every bone’s position and artefact recovered. I explore this evolution in archaeological recording techniques in my 2009 book chapter ‘On Display’. Yet the representation of other early medieval deviant dead – execution victims – has further challenges in regards formal techniques of recording, but also public engagement.

This post reviews the evidence for early medieval ‘deviant burials’. It then reflects on how Vikings season 5 part 2 is inspired by, not only these archaeological discoveries, but the fashion in which they’ve been represented. This reveals the powerfully memorable and emotive nature of the posturing and positioning of the deviant dead in Anglo-Saxon England and how archaeology has mediated this for television audiences.

How can archaeologists identify early medieval ‘deviant burials’? There is no cross-cultural standard, and often we find burials in communal cemeteries that reveal practices that sit outside the ‘normal’ range of burial practices. Sometimes, archaeologists suspect these might have been criminals or clandestine killings, or simply those who died in unusual circumstances and thus afforded special rites. Often, we cannot be sure. Yet, a category of separate and discrete middle and later Anglo-Saxon burial sites (7th-11th-centuries AD) have emerged and been discerned over recent decades, with older excavations being seen as part of this category of ‘execution cemeteries’.

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A pair of ‘sand bodies’ – arguably judicial execution victims, from Sutton Hoo (Photograph: Nigel Macbeth from the Sutton Hoo Society website

Professor Andrew Reynolds has conducted the definitive study based on his doctoral research and published by OUP in 2009. Reynolds identified 27 sites, exploring the treatment of the dead, cemetery organisation and location, as well as place-name and documentary evidence for the treatment of criminals and other deviants in death. Examples include the Mound 5 satellite burials and Eastern Cemetery at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk), Stockbridge Down (Hampshire), South Acre (Norfolk) and Walkington Wold (East Yorkshire) and even Stonehenge (Wiltshire)!

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Excavation at Sutton Hoo, individual perhaps with hands tied and possibly an execution victim. Photograph by Nigel Macbeth, from Sutton Hoo Society website

These are unambiguously regarded as ‘deviant graves’, revealing traces of individuals denied access to Christian and communal grounds and perhaps also ‘respectful’ disposal: spatially, materially and corporeally excluded. For example, read the Current Archaeology article posted in 2018 about the 95 graves containing 124 skeletons and 35 disarticulated body fragments revealed from the Weyhill, Andover (Hampshire) Anglo-Norman execution site here.

They are made up predominantly of young male adults (although some adult females, children and even animals can be found). Sometimes there is direct evidence of torture and killing as a public judicial performance, whether hanged, decapitated, strangled or stabbed, or a combination. In addition to evidence of trauma on the bones, we can discern individuals who had been tied up and/or dumped seemingly casually into graves in odd positions. Graves of this kind rarely with grave goods and grave structures (although both are known, including examples of single silver coins held by the victims). Burials possess unpredictable and varied orientations (the convention of west-east alignment was well-established by the 7th century and often graves deviate markedly from this). Bodies reveal unconventional postures (showing evidence of being tied or unceremoniously dumped, and position, often supine but commonly prone (face-down) or on one side (often flexed or crouched). Heads are often present, but sometimes at angles and positions which suggest the neck was broken or decapitation had taken place. There are hints that as well as places of burial, some human remains might have been displayed post-execution at these sites: heads stuck on stakes, as evidenced at Old Dairy Cottage, Winchester; Walkington Wold, and Sutton Hoo.

Many of these were sites of repeated execution and burial over many years, placed on ridges and routes on the boundaries of hundreds and shires, they marked physically and conceptually the edges of society. The repeated association with prehistoric monuments has been noted, places perceived perhaps as fearful in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape: part of a political, moral and supernatural geography, maybe regarded sometimes as portals to demonic realms or places cursed by the spirits of the unquiet dead. Walkington Wold, mentioned above, is such an instance. Sometimes, however, early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries were reused after a hiatus as execution cemeteries including Guildown (Surrey) and Sutton Hoo (Suffolk).

A striking variant on this pattern of execution cemeteries is the Weymouth Ridgeway cemetery. This is different, because it seems to represent one single event, not many. Excavations revealed the stripped and decapitated remains of a single Viking raiding force evidenced by 54 adult male headless skeletons and 51 skulls buried separately and adjacent but in the same pit. Were at least three skulls displayed elsewhere as trophies? Together, the bones bore the trace of 188 wounds. They weren’t killed in battle but were publicly executed in a violent frenzy of blades and blood. As with other sites, all of this was taking place as a public performance upon a ridge-top route on a territorial boundary with prehistoric ceremonial monuments close by.

What is particularly striking is the unforgettable and disturbing photographic record of these deviant burials, but also their vivid sketches, notably the interpretation of the sand bodies at Sutton Hoo (the subject of a book chapters by Madeline Walsh and myself from 2019). Furthermore, there are striking artist reconstructions, particularly that by Sarah Semple in Reynolds’ 1999 book Anglo-Saxon England: Life and Landscape, and artwork accompanying the Weymouth Ridgeway mass burial published in Loe et al.’s report by Mark Gridley. 

There are also museum displays that draw on this evidence, notably at Sutton Hoo. For while Walsh and I critique the downplaying of the deviant graves by the National Trust, Kelvin Wilson’s artistic impression of an execution scene, and the display of the model of the ‘ploughman’ – seemingly buried with his mechanism of torture – are there for thousands of visitors to see. They explain the later transformation of the barrows from the ‘burial ground of kings’ to a place of pain and punishment.

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Vikings Season 5 part 2 is evidently inspired by this archaeological evidence in general terms in its portrayal of the mass execution of traitors by King Alfred in Winchester. In this instance, contrasting with the sacrificial dimensions of killing enemies shown taking place among the Norse, this is a grim, public and systematic affair without pagan sacrificial dimensions.

A single-post gibbet is not what we understand was used in the Early Middle Ages: manuscripts represent two-post gallows. Meanwhile, the royal vill itself within the city isn’t really what archaeologists and historians are envisaging for later Anglo-Saxon execution sites: this is public but not public enough! I’m not denying executions took place in Anglo-Saxon towns, just that the killing and display of the dead is often considered to have taken place on the borders of territories. Moreover, Vikings doesn’t depict the actual graves of these individuals.

Still, I think there is something revealing in this brief scene of how an archaeological aesthetic of execution, drawn from plans, photographs and museum displays, permeates Vikings. I see this in the overhead shot of the hanged men, showing a carefully arranged line of executed bodies, with varied postures. I cannot help wonder whether this isn’t directly inspired by later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries. By this I’m not saying they have taken a single cemetery as their model and the landscape context might be wrong. Instead, I’m suggesting this is another example of the show’s creators inspired by, and adapting, archaeological evidence to show. In doing so, Vikings captures something of the memorable and emotive nature of public execution by hanging. Even if their graves are not represented, the TV show is clearly on conversation with archaeological data, if not explicitly and specifically.