One of the principal criticisms I’ve repeatedly identified in the TV show Vikings is the relatively superficial and limited funerary monumentality displayed in the prominent and varied funerals that punctuate each series whereas funerary rituals themselves are shown operating on a variety of scales and tempos. This contrasts with our rich archaeological evidence that funerary monuments were prominent components of the landscapes of later Iron Age Scandinavia, taking a variety of forms and scales.
Season 1 portrayed no funerary monuments, and Season 2 only briefly depicts a single grave – an old one occupied by Floki’s father – portrayed by a low stone setting. Season 3 returns to including no funerary monuments again, but then in Season 4 we find a modest boat-shaped setting afforded to Earl Kalf.
Up to this point, therefore, despite the varied inspirations from saga literature and archaeological sources informing (in broad and non-specific terms) the representation of Norse death ways in a legendary 9th-century world, monuments to the dead are near absent.
However, almost as if they were listening to this criticism, in Seasons 5 and 6 there is a shift in the representation of death, with increasing attempts to rectify this limitation. So far, I’ve reviewed how funerary monuments are portrayed as part of the emerging cemetery for the feuding first settlers of Iceland, represented through an emerging sequence of boat-shaped settings. I’ve also identified boat-shaped settings containing a low mound is afforded to one of the sons of Ragnar during raiding in the Anglo-Saxon landscape.
Now, the scale of these monuments are modest, and the use of animal skulls and other features bears only superficial resemblence to any particular grave discovered in the archaeological record. Partly, we are dealing with practical limitations on the scale of earth-moving feasible for TV shows to conduct, but the issue is more than the small-scale of earth- and stone-moving involved. There is also a limited understanding of the form and character of funerary monuments. Yet, to their credit, there is an internal consistency in the representation of graves as an evolving funerary culture with very different funerary monuments created for specific events and circumstances associated with individual and massive deaths.
Season 6 part 1 continues this trend. First, we have a mass slaying associated with Hvithár’s attack on Lagertha’s settlement. The funeral is represented as a mass-burial of 9 shrouded corpses within a ship-shaped setting of vertical lines of logs laid within a low platform of stones: a symbolic ship. Beside the funerary scene are a pile of rocks, clean of moss and lichen and thus appearing to be have been quarried, waiting to be used to cap the grave. In terms of the funerary monument, whilst the scale is perhaps too small, and the cairn should extend farther outside of the boat/boat-shaped feature, the concept mirrors the low funerary monument I excavated with Professor Martin Rundkvist at Skamby, Östergötland, Sweden.
From intermittent taller posts around the ship-shaped structure, a rope is drawn. On each posts are deer antler frontlets and ribbons of yellow and blue. An inward-facing horse-skull is hung from the prow, and another horse skull is placed within the ‘ship’ beneath it. The bodies of the dead are shown laid across the ship, tightly wrapped in shrouds, presumably to conceal the signs of wounds upon their bodies.
What of grave-goods? It’s all a bit weird and inverted, although in broad terms the idea is to evoke the rituals identified from the Salme ship burials. Furs line the interior of the ship-setting but don’t cover any of the shrouded corpses. Floral offerings are also shown within the ship and garlands hang from some of the posts. Bowls of fruit are visible and other food stuffs placed with the dead. This is all good. Oddly, silver coins are scattered over the bodies: I don’t know where archaeologists have ever found this happening! Other key grave-goods include weapons – bows and arrows, axes, swords without scabbards, and a ‘shield’ that can only be a toy given its small scale. So, paradoxically, the bodies are wrapped but the blades are bear, and the animals are present in only bony form – no blood and no freshly slain beasts are shown, contrary to other funerals including Queen Aslaug’s in Season 4 and the beach burial in Season 1. There is little in general terms, or in detail, that commend this representation based on archaeological evidence. This is overall quite disappointing.
Regarding the mourners, this is more interesting if still weird. There is no music, singing, dancing and no living animals. This is all odd. However, Lagertha does give a short speech, laying her hands on her grandaughter Asa’s shoulders after Asa has, as a child who lost her older brother, Hali, lays a pettle on his grave. She is the loveliest little Viking of all and she plays an important part in the biggest funeral ever in the TV series to come later in the series.
Perhaps most evocative is not the detail of the grave itself, but the words of Lagertha. In offering a graveside choice to the survivors regarding how to proceed against the bandits, she evokes fighting for the settlement versus not only abandoning the harvest and animals and land, but ‘abandoning the dead’ themselves. This is perhaps the most powerful point to be garnered from this scene: where the dead reside, the land is claimed. One of the women replies that she wishes to stay to ‘defend the dead’. So finally, Vikings begins to articulate the power of the dead in the landscapes of the living, situated close to the farm.
Another feature is worth noting and is informed, in broad terms, by recent archaeological evidence. Namely, adjacent to the cemetery, ambiguous regarding whether it is to be seen as a gateway entrance to a formally established burial ground, or something else, we have a timber portal, also bearing animal frontlets and blue and yellow ribbons akin to the grave itself. Drawing analogy from the portal over which the slave-girl is raised to see into the next world in Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Rus funeral, Scandinavian archaeologists have identified potential portal features at some cemetery sites, as discussed by Dr Marianne Hem Eriksen. Again, Vikings shows itself to be attentive to archaeological evidence, and here we are shown the cemetery as more than a place of burial, but by implication this portal implies other ceremonial practices not shown.
But regardless of all this, the best stage is to come because, for the first time, Vikings shows individuals returning to this grave to reflect on the son of Torvi and Asa’s brother Hali. In a snow-peppered winter scene, she places a belt on his grave, speaking to her dead directly as a mother in mourning. It is all very modern and very personal, and thus quite touching, but serves to at least reflect the longer-term presence of the dead in the landscape and graves as places of intercession between the living and the dead, picking up on this theme already addressed in the ‘robbing’ by Floki of his father’s grave in Season 2.
In summary, while there is much to criticise about the details of the monument and the arrangment of the grave beneath it, and no attempt has been made to replicate any single archaeological context, there is equally much to commend here in foregrounding graves as monuments and cemeteries as spaces for ritual and dialogues between the living and the dead in Viking society.