A quick post to take note of the fact that I recently found myself in the august and hallowed pages of the online Daily Express commenting about the TV show Vikings.
I’ve been reflecting on the historical and archaeological underpinnings of the TV show through this blog, one book chapter in The Public Archaeology of Death, and two co-authored pieces in Vikings and the Vikings, as well as a piece for History Extra. Most recently, I appeared on BBC History podcast: a 2019 recorded public lecture at Chester.
Now, my response to a request for some guidance from a colleague led me to be quoted as an ‘expert’ and a ‘historian’ in the Daily Express.
Obviously, I wish my academic research had piqued the interest of a journalist. Unfortunately, the question set by the Daily Express – were Alfred and Ivar really enemies – isn’t particularly interesting to me. Still, the details included in the piece seem to be largely ok and they reflect the 5-minutes of research I did before answering the short-notice enquiry pitched to me by a colleague, Professor Keith McLay at the University of Derby. I think they do at least pitch very fairly that the TV show is not true to historical events, but also how little we really know for sure about the period: there is plenty of room for fictional events to be inspired by the bare bones of the sources and the gaps in between.
As I review Season 6 part 2 of Vikings, however, my attention is on other questions than the likelihood (or not) the events portrayed relate in any fashion to happenings of the 9th century. Instead, I’m interested in how and why the show is so popular and the implications of its choices on popular understandings and engagements with the Early Middle Ages, its material world and environment as much as specific events. In particular, I’m interested in how the show reflects both contemporary academic and popular passions for how the ‘Vikings’ dealt with dying, death and the dead. So, my questions are less about ‘accuracy’ and ‘authenticity’, but instead they relate to the material and corporeal dimensions of the mortality rendered in the 89 episodes of the TV show.
My questions include: ‘why did the show choose to portray the deaths and funerals of specific characters in the fashion that they did?’ and ‘what is the balance between mythological, legendary and archaeological inspirations? ‘Is any of this really inspired by the 9th century, or instead does it relate to pressures and expectations of the 21st-century filmic and televisual genres?’ ‘How does this affect our engagement as public historians and archaeologists?’ Check out my latest blog-post, for example, for how I approach the show, in discussing the howe of King Bjorn.
So, I do hope that I finally get approached by journalists interested in not simply the ‘real Vikings’ behind the show, but what the exploration of the show reveals about our fascination with, and imagined representations of, the ‘Vikings’. Specifically, what is the significance of Vikings for academic education and research? How archaeology is transforming how this takes place and what we now about the Viking Age?
When this happens, it would be nice if I was approached as an ‘archaeologist’ rather than as an ‘historian’!
However, I fear that given that I’m not employed at the ‘right’ kind of university for journalists to approach, and I don’t have the ‘right’ look, and despite this accidental media appearance I’m sure I don’t promote myself to the press in the right fashion to attract interest. So I suspect I’ll be waiting a long time before the press show an interest in my research, whether it is in early medieval archaeology, mortuary archaeology, public archaeology or (as in this case) where all three of those interests collide.