It was one year ago that Pauline Clarke and I edited to publication the Archaeopress open-access book Digging into the Dark Ages.
The book explored the politics and popular cultures of the Early Middle Ages and strategies of public engagement with archaeological research in the field, via heritage sites and museums, and through publications, the media and social media. As such, stemming from a 2017 University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference, it represented a first of its kind: an edited collection exploring public archaeologies for the Early Middle Ages.
In a recent talk as part of the Storyhouse Lunchtime Lecture series, I presented a belated book launch for this publication, which was denied a public gathering to celebrate its release because of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
In the book, Sacha O’Connor – one of the students who presented at the 2017 conference – published a chapter exploring the popular culture of Viking horned helmets. Twelve months on, I decided to use that as an example, drawing also on my 2016 blog-post ‘I believe in horned helmets’ to discuss strategies of popular engagement and combating fake histories in early medieval archaeology. This topic has become all the more urgent in 2021 and hence I subtitled my presentation ‘Early Medieval Fake Histories and How to Combat Them’.
I began by introducing the book and some of the themes it addressed.
I then argued that engaging publics with the exciting and rich stories from archaeological research about the 5th-11th centuries AD involves going beyond ‘myth-busting’. Indeed, focusing on ‘correcting’ perceived errors, while seemingly straightforward, can constitute academic gatekeeping and can be exclusory and patronising. For while we must combat extremist narratives, we must also use opportunities to explain the far more exciting and nuanced stories our research reveals about both the early medieval past and its varied significances in today’s world.
Having used horned helmets as a case study to illustrate my arguments, I then suggested, using the Vikings as an example, there are many opportunities for researchers to write original and engaging stories about the peoples and early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean and Near East which tackle and critique some of the many strands of stereotype and fantasy about Norse people in the period.
This led me to suggest some ways we might do this beyond myth-busting, exploring the relationalities and materialities of the Viking world and moving beyond Vikings, both in dealing with the early medieval past and its later receptions through the Middle Ages and the modern world to the present. These can be engaging, fun (and funny), address the complex, changing and diverse nature of the Viking world, and explore many links between the past and the present. Yet these narratives shouldn’t shy away from the ambivalence of the ‘Vikings’. Instead, they should confront those narratives head-on. Key to this is not denouncing symbols and labels, but instead tackling the exceptionalism of the Norse in even the most revisionist of accounts of the Viking period.
Let me take this opportunity to once again thank my co-editor Pauline, all the authors, interviewees and the foreword and afterword contributors to Digging into the Dark Ages. Given the events of recent months, our task of combatting pseudoarchaeology both within and beyond the academy is becoming ever-more a necessity and a responsibility and it is a task we must step up to address if the archaeological study of the early medieval period is to survive and flourish. As argued in my 2019 blog-post ‘V for Viking: Fighting Norsefire with Fire’, our focus should be on rich, rigorous and responsible scholarship, not drawing attention to extremists and crazies by fixating on myth-busting.