By now, almost everyone has pitched their take on The Northman and my contribution was a series of TikToks and a TikTok Live which I translated to YouTube. Here, I share these videos in one place for you to watch and reflect specifically on the mortuary archaeology in the film.

There have been so many bad takes on this film, from borderline illiterate conspiracies regarding the poster before the film was even released and bogus claims upon release that it is ‘white supremacist’ for simply being made about Vikings (check out History with Hilbert for a solid repost on this aspect), to gushing celebrations of its powerful cinematography, great acting, detailed insights and historical accuracies informed by expert consultants.

I’m no film critic, but as an early medieval archaeologist interested in the reception of early medieval societies in contemporary popular culture, I went to the cinema to see it.

My take is simple and neither of the extreme stances above. I think it is to be celebrated as a materially rich and archaeologically informed portrayal of aspects of the early Viking world, spanning the Russian river systems to the North Atlantic and Iceland, focused on a sullen, unearthly drive towards revenge at all costs by Amleth against his uncle. There are so many details to explore and think about, and much I can use in classes in my popular and long-running final-year undergraduate module called: Vikings. These relate to a host of themes, from Viking conceptions of fate and religion, to craft activities, seafaring and warfare.

Simultaneously, I found almost every scene a misfire within the film’s simple storyline and the entire plot was so far removed from an authentic sense of the early Viking world. It may have afforded the sense of a weird and violence ‘alien’ feud-obsessed pre-modern world, but it felt utterly dislocated from any coherent sense of the socio-political and religious structures we can access and recognise for the early Viking period through archaeological and historical sources. It was very much a poorer rehearsal of the same range of miserable moping semi-mad characters one find already far better portrayed in other Viking films and television shows, and yet took itself way too seriously to be even slightly enjoyable. For me, the arty Valhalla Rising is far superior as a journey into the heart of Viking darkness.

I found much to agree in this review by Richard Brody.

You can check out response to seeing the film:

@archaeodeath

I went to see The Northman #northman #vikings #norsetok #archaeology #history @steffenbakksigils @doknowharm17

♬ In Maidjan – Heilung

And my semi-humorous follow-up video:

And a more serious take here:

I transferred my TikTok Live to YouTube so you can hear my views on the film in long-format!

What I’m basically saying is that The Northman was simultaneously a massive disappointment in being more of the same and a much-welcome ‘first’. More of the same in being yet another hypermasculine violence-driven feud-fest that valorises the pagan Norse, but a ‘first’ in a film-length representation of the early Viking Age informed by a vast amount of the latest historical and archaeological research, from costume and settlement architecture to the portrayal of ritual specialists and weapons with life-histories.

What I haven’t really discussed is my feelings on the one principal funeral scene in the film. Informed by Ibn Fadlan’s Risala and the Oseberg ship burial as interpreted specifically through one of the film’s historical consultants, Professor Neil Price, the scene of the funeral is a microcosm of my broader sentiments. It was ‘accurate’ to those ideas of Terje Gansum which Neil Price has promoted through his writings and representations of Viking funerals circulated widely through the moonlit reconstruction of the Oseberg funeral ceremonies by Anders Kvåle Rue.

Yet this funeral scene is so botched by being so stinted and stylised. I say this not only because this funeral is taking place in Iceland far removed from its source material, but also because any sense of the ceremonies, performances, duration and culmination of the brief scenes of the funeral in The Northman are completely left out. The child cutting a horse’s head off in a single blow was frankly just one of several comedic elements to this short scene which made me utterly disappointed. Even The 13th Warrior did far better in this regard, and the many funerals in the TV shows The Last Kingdom and Vikings, while explicitly mashing up mythology, legend and archaeological evidence in fantastical permutations, at least show aspects of the ritual process unfold and the celebration of those who have passed on in a fashion that chimes with aspects of our Viking-period evidence and the expectations of modern audiences. This failed to do either.

Crucially, the aforementioned TV shows, especially Vikings, give time and space to represent the storyline punctuated with funerals in contrasting circumstances, different locations and a host of materialities for varying subjects. Especially for seasons 5 and 6 they pay increasing attention to funerary monuments too.

Hence, for me, the season 6 Vikings funeral of Lagertha is the ultimate ‘Viking’ funeral in modern popular culture. I say this not because it tries to be accurate, but in its ludicrous multi-staged fantasies, it captures more of our sense of Vikingness than the grim, abrupt condensed representation in The Northman ever could. Put that alongside the many other funerals in Vikings and The Northman‘s funeral may be more ‘accurate’ but it is a disappointing backward step from the variability and complexity of Viking-period mortuary practices represented in recent television shows.

On balance, while I commend the use of historical and archaeological consultants and fascinating attempts to portray an early Viking material world and its supernatural connections – reflecting an overall attention to detail in The Northman – I regret it is an Archaeodeath flop. Having said that, I’m optimistic that the more detailed and informed representations we have of early medieval funerals, the less popular culture is reliant on any one to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘authentic’ or ‘disinforming’.