As a mortuary archaeologist, I remain attentive to popular culture representations of my period of specialism. In particular, recent shows have put a lot of attention and detail into depicting death rituals and commemoration practices in the Early Middle Ages, informed to varying degrees of detail and accuracy by archaeological and historical evidence. Understanding these helps me to reflect on my own interpretations, as well as to understand popular conceptions and confusions that are shared by my students and audiences. Furthermore, they shed light on our present-day attitudes towards death and the dead in their own right, and therefore fictional materialities are themselves a focus of my archaeological interest and expertise. This is the background to why I’ve spent so much time on this blog addressing The Walking Dead as well as Vikings and The Last Kingdom, among a host of other filmic and televisual representations of death and the dead.
This will be my last post reflecting on the archaeological dimensions of The Last Kingdom‘s third series. I focus here on Ragnar’s grave, which is a significant dimension of the latter part of the story.
In episode 5, we encounter the frozen lakeside amidst trees and without any human habitation in sight. This is the sombre setting for the isolated ‘pagan’ furnished inhumation burial of a powerful Danish lord. Only a small crowd participate, with his wife, Breda, overseeing the funeral. There is no ritualisation: she stands silently at the foot of the grave, down-slope from the grave towards the lake. There are no slaves, servants, and indeed no retinue in attendance. Breda is the only woman. There are no animals either: how the body got there and how animals were used as transportation is unclear. Animals or other materials are not deployed in sacrificial rites. It’s all very melancholy, robbed of ritual, and depressing: no fun at all!
Two wooden shovels are used to dig the paltry and shamefully shallow grave-cut. I guess this is supposedly the middle of winter and grave-digging is hard, especially with two wooden spades. But frankly, isn’t that what slaves would be for: to participate and conduct labour for an elite burial?
As is usual in TV representations of inhumation graves, as Sian Mui explores in a chapter in a recently published book The Public Archaeology of Death, Ragnar’s hands are placed over his waist. He is wearing that hideous leather armour he has been exhibiting since he first appeared on a longship in series 1.
Even more oddly, Ragnar is afforded no grave-goods but one! A sword is laid centrally, the hilt held in his hands, seemingly his only grave offering beyond his clothing. They don’t even put the sword in a sheath, although at least there is an attempt to show intimacy in touching the hands of the dead person whilst adding the sword: this point is interesting.
As underwhelming as the funeral and burial practice, a dismal micro-cairn covers the shallow grave. There is no grave-marker, although a stone near the head is placed upright as a micro-marker.
It is all very unimpressive and like some of the funerals in Vikings, displays little appreciation of grave-depth and mortuary monumentality.
It is particularly interesting, however, how the grave becomes an anchor for the story and characters revisit it in episode 6. Uhtred says a prayer to the dead, bending down at the head of the grave to touch the grave with his forehead, having touched with his right hand the upright stone that serves as the closest thing to a headstone. He has slept close by overnight.
In episode 10, we see Uhtred visiting the grave once more. This time he digs a shallow hole in the top of the grave where the chest of the corpse is positioned. He adds a Thor’s hammer pendant: a marker of Ragnar’s pagan faith, and perhaps his devotion likewise.
Now, while I’ve quibbled over details and absences, I’ve been generally positive about the range and themes depicted in the funerals in Vikings, while I’ve been more critical of TLK‘s graves and stone sculpture. Having said that, I think there is plenty to criticise all round for both shows. Vikings wins on the number and character of funeral scenes by far, and the multiple sources of their inspiration from saga literature and archaeological evidence. TLK struggles in all regards, and my critical commentary above just adds to the long list of bloopers and lazy thinking in the depiction of graves and mortuary monuments. Still, I did think this adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s novels attempts to show graves as places of multiple visitations and acts of deposition within a pagan world of Danish settlers in northern and eastern England is notweorthy. The pivotal role of Ragnar’s isolated grave is evident as a (modest and underwhelming) melancholy landmark and focus of commemoration, including burying additional artefacts, is worthy of positive comment.