Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Dad Runes

The 29th of this month would have been Terje Spurkland's 72nd birthday. I first encountered him in the academic year of 1980-81, when I was on a scholarship in Norway and attended his lectures on Old Norse grammar, to improve both my Norwegian and my Old Norse. He was certainly a memorable lecturer, even then, but I didn't really get to know him until about ten years later. That was when I attended my first of what have come to be known as the 'Annual Meeting of Field Runologists' which on that occasion in 1990 ranged from Cambridge to Scotland, but with a focus on Northumbria. From then we met regularly at runic and other Norse and Viking events. The last time I saw him was again at one of the annual runologist meetings, in Västergötland, Sweden, in September 2017, where I took this runatic selfie (right) with him. Terje was a devoted runologist, a good colleague, and really excellent company on any runic excursion. He died on Christmas Day in 2018 from an aggressive form of brain cancer, and is deeply missed by all runologists, but also remembered by them and others with great affection.

In this, what would have been his birthday month, I have been reading a memoir by his daughter Marte, Pappas runer ('Dad's runes'). It really is a most extraordinary book. Terje had been working for some years on a book about runes, but also about literacy more generally, with a particular focus on the 300 or so years when Norway in particular was a two-script society, in which both runes and the roman alphabet were used side by side, often by the same people. A substantial draft of this book was in existence when Terje's cancer was diagnosed at Christmas 2017. His daughter had the idea to work on it with him as a way of distracting them both from the tedium and anxiety of all the hospital appointments, treatments and general misery of the illness. In the end, it turned out to be a different sort of book, in which a very personal account of Terje's illness and its effect on his family is interwoven with an introduction to runes and runic inscriptions. The ideas about runes and inscriptions are very much Terje's, and derived from his manuscript, but seen through the eyes of his daughter, whose interest in runes only came during this last year of her father's life. Like dad dancing, her father's interest in runes was just an embarrassment to the younger Marte, along with his clogs and old rucksack, his firm opinions on some aspects of the modern world, his oft-repeated stories, and his generally friendly grumpiness. This book is the story of how, just in time, she discovered why runes are so fascinating and why her father was such a gifted communicator of that fascination.

Obviously, the book is of great interest to those of us who knew Terje and who also love runes and runic inscriptions (though I think few people loved them quite as much as Terje did). Terje was a very popular teacher, and an engaging speaker, and his voice shines through much of what Marte writes about runes. In this way the ideas he had for his book find their way into print, though in an unusual context. It's hard for me to judge how the book would strike those who do not share these obsessions, or do not know the people concerned. However I believe the book has done very well here in Norway and even won a prize. It is certainly well-written and Marte switches between the two threads expertly. What I find fascinating is how well she has woven together the story of the rise and fall of runic writing with the story of Terje's last year on earth. There is an obvious metaphorical connection, and also many surviving runic inscriptions, especially on stone, are memorials to the dead. But some were raised by living people to commemorate themselves, and the book recalls how Terje commissioned the lovely stone pictured above right for himself and his wife Marit.

Marte finds even more intricate connections, discussing runic inscriptions that echo the events and memories of the book. For instance, the 8th-century human skull with runes from Ribe, in Denmark, comes at the point in the book when Terje has had an operation on his brain. The Ribe skull has a hole in it which might be evidence of Viking Age trepanation, also a form of brain operation. The Jelling stone erected by Harald Bluetooth is linked to her father's late adoption of a very simple mobile phone, which nevertheless also had Bluetooth technology. The Eggja stone, which probably recounts a shipwreck, recalls Terje's feats of rowing. These took place in Terje's childhood tracts of Nordmøre, and visits there during the last year of his life evoke other inscriptions, like the Kuli stone and the very fine inscription in Tingvoll church, near the family cabin. In fact, much of the book evokes Terje as he was before struck down by illness, strong, reliable, often taciturn, kind, and with a wicked sense of humour. To me it's a familiar picture, and yet I also learned a lot about Terje the father, the husband, and the human being, as well as the runologist. He's lucky to have had such a daughter, even if her runic enthusiasm came a little late! Thanks, Marte.


Sunday, 12 January 2020

Víkingr in Oslo

Here in dismal, grey, snowless Oslo it was a delight to visit the Historical Museum and especially its exhibition called Víkingr. The museum is currently being renovated, so this exhibition is a pared-down version of its old Viking Age exhibition, but also a long-term stop-gap while we wait for the new Viking museum on Bygdøy in 2025. It's quite minimalist, in terms of both the way it is presented and what it presents. I suppose that is partly because of limited space during the renovations and partly from a recognition that the Viking Age is such an extensive and complex phenomenon that it is hard to encompass it all in one exhibition. So on entering the room the visitor is told to expect 'a selection of exceptional objects that reflect the world of the Vikings and what they valued'. This seems to me like a good idea - it admits it's only a partial view of the subject and gives the exhibition focus, even if it does lead to a slightly clichéd emphasis on war and bling. There is no 'daily life in the Viking Age' as we were also promised there wouldn't be in the big exhibition of 2013-14 - which was a shame in the much bigger exhibition, but fine for this one.

Entering the room is a delight. It's a beautiful room in its own right, but is also very beautifully lit and laid out. The cases are all the same size and it is easy to follow them through the room in a logical order, with each row of three given an introduction on the wall to the right. The labels on the cases are very low down (for smaller people, or those in wheelchairs?) but there is a booklet you can borrow which gives general information and full details of all the exhibits. (You can also download the booklet in either Norwegian or English.) The massive Dynna rune-stone at the end of room and the logo behind it break up the monotony and draw the eye through the room, and you get to appreciate the art nouveau details of this very fine building from 1902.

The exhibits themselves move logically from international contact and the riches acquired from there to war and its accoutrements, ending with religion and new ways. This does mean that the vast majority of the items displayed are of metal, with just a few beads and the rune-stone breaking up this heavy metal emphasis. But I'm not complaining, for some of the absolutely top metal objects from the museum's collections are on display: the gold hoard from Hoen, the Gjermundbu helmet, and plenty of coins, jewellery (including some made from bits of metalworks acquired in the west), Thor's hammers and weaponry. The other non-metal exhibit is the skull of the young lady from Nordre Kjølen that featured in a recent National Geographic documentary on women warriors which I discussed in a previous post. The curators of the exhibition are suitably cautious as to whether or not this burial represents a female warrior, I was glad to see, and present alternative explanations.

In addition to the burial from Nordre Kjølen, women are well represented, in part by their jewellery (there are plenty of both oval and trefoil brooches) and by the magnificent Dynna stone. This has always been a striking element of the museum's exhibitions. It is a roughly 3-metre high pillar of sandstone on which a mother commemorates her deceased daughter Ástríðr, the 'handiest maiden in Hadeland' (her name is in the picture to the right) with a runic inscription and Christian images, particularly of the Epiphany (so very seasonally appropriate, even if a few days late).

On the whole, I would say the exhibition is small but perfectly-formed, like the little gold serpent from the Hoen hoard pictured left, and well worth a visit. Also, if you buy a ticket to the Historical Museum, you also get in free at the current Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy, also a beautiful building containing some fabulous objects. I only wonder why they called this exhibition Víkingr (just one Viking?). I myself would have gone for Víkingare (Vikings) or even Víking (a Viking expedition). Oh well, you can't have everything.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Orkney Yule

The church at Orphir.
Photo © Judith Jesch
As I noted in a festive blog post a few years ago, the Old Norse word jól can refer either to the pre-Christian midwinter festival, or the Christian one. What seems to unite them is that it is very much a time of feasting, as can be seen from both skaldic and saga-references. But the stories are generally interested in conflict, so we rarely get a picture of peaceful feasting, rather the Yuletide feast often seems to be a trigger for violent altercations. These violent events are quite clearly linked to the alcohol consumed at these feasts, and I guess it is these saga-episodes which give us our popular image of violent Vikings indulging in excessive drinking..

In the saga about the earls of Orkney, usually known as Orkneyinga saga, we get two rather different views of the most famous of those earls, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson, at this season. In chapter 20, he is praised for how he treats his followers at this time of year and, yes, it does involve feasting, with perhaps a little moral twist to the tale:
Earl Þorfinnr did that admirable deed in the Orkneys that he gave hospitality, both food and home brew, to all his court and to many other powerful men all through the winter, so that they did not need to go to the tavern, just as it is the custom for kings and earls in other countries to entertain their court throughout Yule.
The anecdote is supported by a half-stanza by Arnórr jarlaskáld 'Earls' poet' emphasising Þorfinnr's generosity. It comes just at the point in the story in which Þorfinnr's brother Brúsi dies, and he takes power over all the Orkneys. The throwaway comment about keeping his men out of the pub also underlines his firm hand on the tiller of state.

The saga is largely about internecine warfare in the families born to rule. So it is no surprise that Brúsi's son Rǫgnvaldr soon comes back home from his travels to challenge for his share of power, which he gets, at least temporarily. Þorfinnr however starts to chafe at the power-sharing arrangement, which also involved political interventions from Norway. After a decisive battle, Rǫgnvaldr flees to Norway but soon comes back and sets fire to the farm where Þorfinnr was staying at the time, but doesn't realise that the earl has managed to escape with his wife Ingibjǫrg. Rǫgnvaldr assumes power and does his ruler's duty by going to Papa Stronsay for the malt with which to brew the Christmas ale (chapter 29).

His followers never get to drink the brew, as Þorfinnr uses the advantage of surprise to attack Rǫgnvaldr and his men and burn the house down over their heads. Rǫgnvaldr has a premonition of his death just before: as they are sitting around the fire he misspeaks and says that 'we will have reached our allotted ages [fullgamlir] when these fires have burnt out', having meant to say fullbakaðir 'fully-baked', or 'well-warmed up', I suppose.

Having eliminated his main rival ('the most popular and most accomplished of the earls of Orkney; his death was a great sorrow to many'), Þorfinnr consolidates his power and continues to rule successfully. His obituary is less positive. In chapter 32, we're told that he was the most powerful of the earls of Orkney. His death was mourned by those in his ancestral lands. But in those lands he had subjugated, people really felt their lack of freedom living under his power.

More dramatic Yuletide events are recounted in chapter 66, as I alluded to briefly in a blog post a few years ago. It is a chapter of great interest since it not only provides quite a lot of detail about the buildings at the earl's residence of Orphir (remains of which can still be seen), but also gives a detailed account of the Christmas festivities as held by the earl, in this case Páll Hákonarson. Páll was at the time resisting claims to power by yet another Rǫgnvaldr, or Kali Kolsson, the nephew of St Magnús who had been killed by Páll's father Hákon. I told you there were family feuds aplenty in the saga.

The sequence of feuds and killings in the saga is really quite complicated at this point, so suffice to say that the episode marks our introduction to the saga's most complicated character, Sveinn Ásleifarson, a great power player in Orkney politics, and variously friend or enemy to several of the earls. At this point in the story, Sveinn's father Óláfr has recently been burned to death in his house with five other people. Sveinn uses the Christmas feast at Orphir as an opportunity to kill another Sveinn, called brjóstreip 'Breast-rope', an associate of the person responsible for Óláfr's death.

The narrative weaves the story of the killing into the sequence of Christmas festivities. Orphir is said to have had a large drykkjuskáli 'drinking-hall', with a fine church right next to it. Going into the hall, there was a large flat stone slab on the lefthand side, behind which were many large beer-barrels. When people came from Evensong, they were placed in their seats. After the tables had been taken up, most of the people went to sleep, but then got up during the night for the canonical hours. Then there was a high mass, and people then went to eat. There was a master of ceremonies, a certain Eyvindr, who was in charge of the feast, with waiters and attendants serving the drinks he poured out. There was a minor contretemps when Sveinn brjóstreip thought he was being served more quickly than Sveinn Ásleifarson, who was holding back on the drinking, contrary to etiquette. After another service at nones, the drinking continued, with speeches and drinking from horns. Then Sveinn brjóstreip, whose horn was smaller, wanted to switch with Sveinn Ásleifarson. Eyvindr intervenes to make this happen and Sveinn brjóstreip mutters under his breath that one Sveinn will kill the other. This is heard by Eyvindr, who basically eggs Sveinn Ásleifarson to kill Sveinn brjóstreip, but not before further drinking up until Evensong. The deed is done beside the aforementioned slab, as people are leaving the hall for church again. Sveinn Ásleifarson is spirited away and thanked by the bishop for his good deed in ridding the country of Sveinn brjóstreip. His responsibility for this (another man is killed too) becomes clear back in Orphir when the earl makes people go back to their seats and only Sveinn Ásleifarson is missing. Clearly, feasting your followers to keep them out of the pub and whatever trouble they might have got into there didn't really work, and the episode does seem to mark Páll out as a rather weak earl.


And so the feuds continue. It's rather hard to sum up all the events of Orkneyinga saga so I won't. But the episode presents quite a complex picture. Two people are dead and, though there are feuds and enmities to explain the killings, the sheer amount of drinking that appears to have gone on must have been a factor, too. Presumably the regular excursions to church broke the drinking up somewhat, but the church is also complicit in this kind of behaviour by the powerful, to judge by the bishop's reaction. Once again, there is a potent combination of the dark of winter, fire, home brew, and murder, here with added multiple church services.

It's rather good to think that nowadays, factions of Orcadians compete and contend at Christmas (and New Year) only in a rough, but not violent, game of surfing a ball from one end of Kirkwall to the other, known as the Ba' - indeed they are doing it more or less as I write this. And Merry Christmas to them.


Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II

Reproduction dice and a gaming piece
made by Adam Parsons
(c) University of Nottingham
CC-BY-4.0
In my previous blog post, I looked at two recent television programmes on this perennially popular topic. I found a few things to like but on the whole concluded that the programmes were still very much driven by a strong desire to prove at all costs that there really were Viking women warriors (without really defining what those might have been). I also came to realise that what is essentially an academic debate was being carried out in the televisual sphere rather than in more academic fora, to the detriment, I think, of the discussion. Basically, when a TV programme has a particular message to sell (as both of those did), there is no real discussion, apart from a few knee-jerk references to 'debate' and 'controversy', which are not explored. I'm not even sure I think there's that much of a controversy, so one-sided have most of the discussions been - these are straw men to stir up interest in the programmes. What there certainly hasn't been is any nuanced discussion of the fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence, let alone the challenges of defining our terms, and reaching conclusions through interdisciplinary explorations.

I've never denied the possibility of female Viking warriors and, in case anyone still believes I am a warrior-woman denier, they should refer to what I wrote in 2015, even before the current discussions blew up in 2017 (The Viking Diaspora, pp. 104, 107):
...people in the Viking Age and its aftermath were perfectly capable of imagining women as warriors, or at least as imagining them carrying and using weapons, whether this occurred in real life or not. Doubtless it did occur in real life, since human beings are capable of most things, whether or not it is considered 'normal' for them to do so, but the strong emphasis on gender distinctions in Viking Age society already outlined suggests that it did not happen very often.
... that the very few women buried with weapons were warrior women in life seems the least likely explanation of all. 
I may have moved slightly on the last point, but not that much. But really, being the nerd that I am, what I am most interested in is not the answers but the questions. I'm fascinated by the past because we know so little about it, we have to piece things together using, as I have just said, fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence. I also relish the challenges of defining terms, and of interdisciplinary explorations. And there is no doubt that such things are hard to put across in a television show. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And I was heartened to come across yet another Swedish TV programme on Viking women warriors that shows signs of a more nuanced approach than the ones I discussed in my previous post. Even though it takes its starting point in the Bj581 burial, and features some of the same experts as other shows, and despite its oddly provocative title, it does seem to be moving slowly towards that kind of more nuanced (and much more interesting) discussion that I have been looking for all along.

The programme was first aired in October and comes from the series Vetenskapens värld 'The World of ???' Unfotunately, we don't have an English word for vetenskap (as for German Wissenschaft). Although a literal translation would pick up on the root (from veta 'to know') and translate it as 'knowledge', it is a bit more than that, implying science, scholarship and all those kinds of things that go on in universities (sometimes), and sometimes elsewhere too. The actual programme is called 'Sanning i sagorna?' or something like 'Truth in the sagas?' but again it doesn't translate well since the 'sagor'  of the programme go beyond what we tend to think of as the (Icelandic) sagas. In this case, the anonymous Old English Beowulf, the Latin-writing Dane Saxo Grammaticus and the Byzantine historian Skylitzes all get a mention, and I would call none of their works sagas. So that is stretching it a bit, but despite the title, the programme takes an intelligent approach, at least to the female warrior question.

My advice is to skip the first 40 minutes of the programme (some self-indulgent stuff about Beowulf not relevant to my topic today) and just watch the last 18 minutes which takes up the question of Viking women warriors again, in supposed contrast to the 'masculine world' of Beowulf. After a brief repetition of the scientific identification of our old friend Bj581 as a woman, the camera shows Tommy Kuusela, identified as a historian of religion at Uppsala, with quite a pile of books. The voiceover states by way of introduction that there are a lot of 'more or less' trustworthy textual accounts of female viking warriors. Kuusela reads out the usual bits of Saxo, and then the relevant bit of Skylitzes, which the voiceover narrator claims is more more reliable than Saxo because written down in the 11th century (not quite correct, but I'll leave all that pesky detail for another occasion). But when challenged about the textual basis for Viking warrior women, Kuusela admits that there is no 'certain' evidence. This is then immediately contrasted with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson claiming that the evidence of Bj581 is 'certain' evidence for female warriors. But interestingly she straightaway modifies this by emphasising that this evidence does not mean that this was a common phenomenon. Also, unlike some other presentations, the programme recognises that the evidence could potentially be undermined by some of the find circumstances in which the bones might have been mixed up. Even though the osteologist Anna Kjellström reassures us that the remaining bits of the skeleton do in fact belong together and are from the right grave, it is still interesting to see these various admissions of potential uncertainty.

There then follows a bit in which our heroine the presenter sets out to demonstrate what might be required physically of a female Viking warrior by meeting a combat trainer. Compared to a similar episode in the National Geographic programme, this seems much more realistic and the presenter concludes that it was not that simple to become a female viking warrior after all. The emphasis is very much on the physical training that would have been required to wear all that armour and swing those weapons, not to mention wielding the shield. This leads into the point that the Bj581 skeleton shows no traces of such physical training, or indeed of wounds that might have come from fighting. Kjellström does point out the fragmentary nature of the evidence, that not much of the skeleton survives, so we cannot say for sure, but again it's good that these counter-arguments are aired. Back to Hedenstierna-Jonson and we get once again the argument that the playing pieces suggest someone whose role in war is a strategic one, as a senior officer, for example. The suggestion is made that the nature of the grave-goods suggest a member of the elite and that it was such elites that could 'break the gender mould'. Hedenstierna-Jonson brings up the parallels of patriarchal societies where women could nevertheless rule because they belonged to a particular dynasty (presumably she is thinking of the likes of Benazir Bhutto).

It is then proposed that the spear in the Bj581 burial was a kind of ticket to Valhalla for the deceased, but, importantly, it is stressed that this does not mean that she actually participated in battle in life. Kuusela's concluding suggestion is that she was the wife of a military leader who accompanied him on his expeditions (here I'm reminded of Admiral and Mrs Croft in Jane Austen's Persuasion) and who was buried in this way to follow him in the next world too. I'm not sure I really buy that argument, partly for lack of evidence of women in Valhalla (apart from valkyries, but they're another story...), but it's a thought.

Just when you think the programme is over and the credits roll, there's a curious postscript. Our friend Leszek Gardeła pops up again and gives a better brief summary of the Åsnes burial than in the National Geographic programme (where it was supposedly a centrepiece), and, unlike there, with at least a hint of why the skeleton has been identified as female (it is slight and gracile). On being questioned about the Birka burial, Gardeła admits that the lack of trauma on the skeleton complicates the warrior interpretation, and that gaming boards might have had other meanings than indicating military commanders or strategists.

All in all, I would say there is some considerable backtracking going on in this short programme from the original bombastic claims of 'A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics' back in 2017. There is some recognition of potential problems with both the physical and the textual evidence, there is an emphasis on what being a 'warrior' (however that is defined) involves by way of training, and there are alternative suggestions put forward as to why a woman might have been buried with what is traditionally regarded as male equipment. And all in 18 minutes. Well done Vetenskapens Värld.

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? I

MM131 Andreas II
Viking Age runic cross from the Isle of Man,
commemorating a certain Arinbjǫrg
I never for a moment thought the fascination with the possibility of female Viking warriors would go away. After all, I have already argued that this fascination goes back at least as far as the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus writing in Latin around 1200, and since then it has come back at regular intervals. Way back in 1991, I suggested (and I was not the only one) that Saxo's warrior women owed more to Amazons than to Vikings (Women in the Viking Age, p. 178). This is an aspect I have touched on in some talks over the past year, and which I am developing for a proper academic article in the near future, for those who think (with some reason) that blogs are not an appropriate venue for such discussions. In the meantime, of course, the proponents of the Birka warrior (Bj581) continue to pop up all over the place. I have already discussed a brief reference in the Channel 4 programme Britain's Viking Graveyard, last April, so won't repeat myself about that. Howard Williams will fill you in on the Megan Fox approach to the topic. What I thought I would survey in this blog post and the next are three recent television programmes which take the discussion in new directions, not all of them entirely negative. I'm not going to rehearse arguments which have already been aired ('what is a "warrior" exactly?', 'do board games really indicate military leadership', etc. etc.) but try to see what directions these programmes are taking the debate in, since judging by the number of TV programmes just within the last year, the debate is being conducted on the airwaves more than in academic fora.

Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren

This programme , the title of which translates as 'The female Viking warrior', was first aired on Swedish television in August of this year and is still available (in Swedish, though some interviews are in English). Although the main heading on the website describes it as a 'documentary', this is nuanced a bit in the paragraph below, which claims it is a 'drama documentary' based on 'research results'. It is basically a dramatisation of what the life of the person buried in Bj581 'could have been like'. I will leave others to decide how well they think it works as a drama - in these contexts fiction is not my business. However, it seems clear enough to me that the dramatisation (which is only about half of the programme, interspersed with more academic content) seems designed to give further credence to those 'research results' to a wider audience. The programme makes brief reference to the 'international debate' those results caused back in 2017, without giving any sense of what the debate might have been about. Some of the interviews are with the archaeologists involved in the original research, and Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson in particular is worth listening to in her explanation of the importance of roles, and of belonging to a group, which I agree is an important aspect of the Viking Age. Other interviews are clearly designed to give the drama bit a sheen of academic credibility but they don't really explain anything. Thus Elisabeth Ward gives some useful information about Iceland, Greenland and North America, based on the sagas of Icelanders, but there is no explanation of why or how these sagas might be relevant to understanding the Bj581 burial, it is just assumed that they are. This assumption that what happened in one part of 'Viking society' can explain what happened in another part of 'Viking society' is shared by Janina Ramirez who also generalises about 'Viking society' without reference to any actual evidence - her comments are all based on, and obviously meant to support, the narrative of the drama. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the programme refers to 'Byzantine sources' as evidence for female warriors. This idea is crucial to the development of the narrative, which envisages the Birka person as having travelled to and to some extent developed her martial skills in the East - here we are presented with a rather distinct part of 'Viking society' when it suits the story. The programme several times makes the suggestion that Freyja was a goddess of war (the evidence for this is actually quite limited and mainly from Snorri), and the implication that she was therefore a goddess for female warriors. Also, my favourite bugbear, the word 'Viking' itself, makes some annoying appearances. The archaeologist Leszek Gardeła, asserts that 'Saxo talks about Viking women', but Saxo never used the word 'viking', and of course Saxo is problematic as I keep saying. And Ramirez asserts that 'the Vikings did not call themselves Vikings', but they did! She also says that what they did say is that they would 'go a-viking', implying that it is a verb, which it patently is not. Yes, yes, I know I'm nitpicking, but even so, let's get it right folks.

The programme is yet another example of what I have called 'a view of research ... which fills out our meagre evidence with speculation and imaginative reconstruction' which 'can lead to the blurring of the line between primary research and public presentation'. It's a difficult balance to manage in these days when academics are practically required to engage with the general public and I know how difficult that can be. I'm not sure how successful this programme is as drama - the story is interesting enough but could have been more so. It is clearly devised to reinforce the research results and the interspersed interviews tend to disrupt any flow it might have had. I cannot see this programme as anything more than yet another attempt to lodge the interpretations of the 2017 and 2019 articles even more firmly in the minds of the general public and cut off further discussions. I am still uneasy with the 'docudrama' format, since the 'docu' bit is just there to support the drama, and doesn't allow for any ambiguities in the interpretation of the evidence, let alone any counter-evidence. A proper documentary, however, can be expected to present different interpretations, no?

Viking Warrior Women

So is this programme such a documentary? It was first aired (in Britain at least) on the National Geographic Channel earlier this month, I assume it is regularly repeated. This programme is more closely focused on archaeology, which is I think a good move, since previous attempts have come a bit unstuck on the literary and linguistic aspects. Nevertheless, the credits show that Neil Price was a consultant on the show, so it is once again a show with a mission (as the presenter, an 'archaeologist and National Geographic explorer', admits). As the presenter, Ella El-Shamahi, is not to my knowledge a Viking archaeologist, she plays the traditional role of the non-specialist presenter being informed by a variety of experts, most of whom have already appeared in previous TV shows about this topic. One could almost get a bit bored... (Disclaimer: a few years ago, when National Geographic was first thinking about this programme, they got in touch with me with a view to interviewing me for it. For whatever reason known only to them, that never happened).

The non-specialist presenter is of course allowed to say things like 'It's always been assumed that Viking warriors were all men' or 'what is being revealed right now is transforming everything we thought we knew about the Vikings and how their women might have gone to war' to big up the programme, even though they are patently untrue. Again, there is the formulaic reference to the fact that Bj581 is 'causing controversy in Viking archaeology' but without really explaining what that controversy might consist of. But heyho, a good controversy will make the programme seem even more cutting-edge and relevant and all that. And I'm afraid the word 'badass' is used of the occupant of Bj581...sorry but it grates in something intended to be serious.

The content of this programme is really rather interesting, as it draws on the research of the aforementioned Leszek Gardeła, and Marianne Moen from Oslo, regarding certain Viking Age graves in Denmark and Norway which could also be interpreted as being those of 'warrior women'. What interests me is the questions that the programme raises without answering, or sometimes even without recognising that they are interesting and important questions (I suppose the downside of having a non-expert presenter). An example is how an examination of the Bj581 skeleton moves very quickly from the width of the greater sciatic notch being 'in keeping with a female pelvis' to it is 'of course female'. But OK, I'm willing to take the osteoarchaeologist's word on this matter. In other cases, there is a real lack of information.

The programme is about two graves, in addition to Bj581, one Danish and one Norwegian. On the Danish island of Langeland, there is apparently one (out of 49) graves that has been identified as female, but never before as a warrior. (Leszek admits at this point that 'I don't think this [i.e. women warriors] was very common but they certainly existed'). What makes her a warrior? Well, she has an axe, a battle-axe in fact, and indeed one that was 'crafted hundreds of miles to the east'. Does one axe (especially an exotic one) make a woman a warrior? I'd like to have heard more about that. But it is a high-status chamber grave, so with some parallels (including the eastern connection) with Bj581. Lots to discuss here, but it is not discussed much.

The presenter and Moen then make a pilgrimage to Åsnes, in Hedmark, Norway. Here, there is a grave discovered in 1900 which contained a 'kvinneskjelett med mannsutstyr' (a woman's skeleton with a man's equipment), according to a contemporary monument on the spot (a fascinating object in its own right, as Moen points out). This skeleton is the piece de resistance of the programme, since her grave goods, along with a wound on her forehead interpreted as a battle-scar, are the evidence for her having been a warrior. What I'm interested in is how, in 1900, the archaeologists decided it was a female skeleton? They certainly didn't have the advanced techniques used on the Birka 'warrior'. Given what we're told about Victorian (and later) preconceptions about Viking warriors being all male, what led the 1900 archaeologists to decide the skeleton was female? And do specialists still agree with this assessment? We are not told. We are only told by the presenter that 'not everyone agrees', but we are not told who disagrees, nor are any such people interviewed. Academic discussion is reduced to a one-way monologue by experts on a mission. I was particularly annoyed by the presenter's comment about these '[n]ew discoveries that I really hope will challenge what some people still refuse to believe, that there's evidence out there that not only did elite female viking warriors exist but that they had the skills and the weapons to fight on the battlefield alongside men'. It's not a matter of 'belief', dear TV presenters all, just let us into the secrets of the evidence!

Despite these caveats, there were one or two good bits in the programme. I did quite like the suggestion that the occupant of Bj581 was a high status mounted archer. But does this imply that s/he was a warrior or a leader? Could she have been an aristocratic lady who liked hunting? I can't help but remember the riding and hunting imagery on some of the Manx Viking Age crosses, several of which commemorate women. This needs some more digging, including the implication that burials with horses suggest that the occupants were riders.  Well, yes, people with sufficient wealth probably did ride horses (in the summer), but does this make them a warrior, or a hunter, or could the horses have other meanings? I don't know, just asking for a friend.

The excellent Cat Jarman was also a refreshing interviewee on the programme regarding the female skeletons at Repton. Ignoring the presenter's astonishment ('it's previously been thought that Viking women were left at home' - no, Dr El-Shamahi, see Jesch 1991 and others), Cat made the important point that, yes, 'women were in some way part of moving out of Scandinavia, they weren't just sitting at home, looking after the farm'. But what part they played in this process is certainly multifarious, complex, and still to be discussed.

While these two programmes had some good bits, on the whole they were both mainly designed to reinforce the PR machine that has grown around the Bj581 project. There is one other recent programme which does, however, in my view, begin to really have the more nuanced and important discussions that this topic needs. I'll let that programme have its own blog post, so stay tuned for 'Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II'.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Some Viking Reading


Rune-stick N B496 (early 14thc.) from Bryggens Museum, Bergen. Photo Judith Jesch

It's quite common for various media and/or internet sites to put up a list of suggested book titles for people wanting to learn more about the Vikings. A recent one is this on Medievalists.net entitled 'Which Books About the Vikings Should I Read'? A couple of years ago the Guardian did 'Top Ten Books About Vikings'. I know I'm a bad person for shuddering when I looking at these lists. Well, maybe not quite shuddering, but having mixed feelings about them. The lists often include books which are not about Vikings at all, but are for example modern fiction, or fourth-hand retellings of myths and legends. Such lists often mix books aimed at different audiences without really specifying what kinds of audiences they are aimed at. And, I'm afraid to say, some of the books on those lists are just not very good. I recognise it is not easy to put such lists together - there are so many books about Vikings out there and it is impossible to read them all. It's also quite hard to judge them, precisely because some which are suitable for some audiences are not suitable for other audiences. Some books are written by experts, and some are put together by jobbing writers trying to make a living. Or people who have just discovered the Vikings and are taking you the reader on their rocky journey finding out about them. Or, some of them written by experts having an off day. Or by people who are an expert in something completely different (you'd be surprised how much of that goes on).

So my list of recommended reading might be just as unsatisfactory as those that I turn my nose up at. Nevertheless, I am going to have a go, since those other lists have inspired me to try to do better. Far be it from me to tell you what you 'should read' - the internet is already too full of people telling other people how to think or behave. But I offer my list for a very specific audience: those who genuinely want to learn about Vikings but are still relative beginners. Intelligent and interested beginners. I'm afraid this list is particularly aimed at those who are thinking of making this a fairly serious study, whether in an educational institution or not. I am going to avoid the myriad of coffee table and popular books which in my view provide entertainment rather than instruction, even though some of these are very good. But they're often a one-stop shop - people might read them (or flick through the pics) once and then never think about Vikings again. Other people read as many such books as they can get their hands on but don't really learn very much because these books often just say the same things, re-use the same images, and, in some cases, peddle the same myths. Just because a lot of books say something doesn't mean it's true. You'd be amazed how many 'serious' books by experts get a bit muddled when trying to explain the word 'Viking'.

What I'm interested in are books that help you engage with the evidence and thereby to think about the process of how we find out about the Viking Age, not just what the 'answers' might be. I'm going for the popular but not the populist. I'm mainly interested in books that have something new to say, have new ways of saying it that make us think, even if they might at some level be 'wrong'. I'm generally very much in favour of thinking. But thinking requires time and commitment, which is why I'm sticking to the more serious end of the market, though you'll see that seriousness can be found in all kinds of places! And yes, I do still, somewhat against the current tide, believe in experts. All I can promise is that, if you read some of the books below, you will be well-equipped to evaluate all the other books about Vikings out there. I have provided some comments to help you identify those you really want to read, just in case you can't get through all of them.

Another word of warning: aficionados will notice that many books that might have made it onto this list are simply not there. There are two possible reasons for this: I might not have read them (I certainly haven't read everything), or I have read them and was not impressed! And I'm not telling which. Other books, while excellent, might be missing because they just are not the kind of book I had in mind for this particular list, which is, I admit, quite personal. I have therefore also avoided books which are too obviously trying to be clever and iconoclastic, or genuinely trying to say something new but which are not well-written or well-argued - life is too short for them.

It's not that easy to find one good book that will tell you everything, or almost everything, you need to know. There's a simple reason for this, which is that Vikings and the Viking Age are complex topics that are not easily reduced even to 300 pages. Also, definitions of what constitutes the Viking Age. or what 'Vikings' really are, do differ, and rightly so. The terms cover a wide variety of people and places over quite a long period of time, and within those places and that time there is a lot of variation. Studying those people, places and times requires a serious commitment to multi-disciplinarity (no, archaeology is not always the only answer, let alone archaeological science), a knowledge of several languages, and the general ability to deal with evidence that is always fragmentary and often elusive. There are really very few geniuses out there who can do this, though quite a few make a noble effort. So what should you read as a general introduction?

Well, if you live in, or have an interest in, Britain or Ireland, you could do worse that start with Jayne Carroll, Stephen Harrison and Gareth Williams, The Vikings in Britain and Ireland (British Museum Press, 2014). What I most like about this book is that the three authors come from different disciplines: Carroll is a philologist and onomast, Harrison an archaeologist and Williams a numismatist and museum curator, so you are in good hands when they evaluate the evidence. There is indeed a good focus on evidence and what it does, or does not, tell us, with some well-chosen illustrations which go beyond the ones that usually appear in such books. It's a good place to start though obviously its coverage is geographically limited..

Having sailed around the northwest European archipelago, you'll probably want to find out more about Scandinavia, where the Vikings came from, next. It's not actually easy, especially if you don't read any Scandinavian languages. Let's hope that by 2025, when the new museum of the Viking Age opens in Oslo, there will be some decent introductions to Viking Age Scandinavia. In the meantime, Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014) is quite a good place to start. It takes a broad view of the Viking Age, focusing on the period as transformational for Scandinavia and largely from a Scandinavian point of view. It starts with a fictional vignette of a Scandinavian chieftain and his followers back home celebrating their successes abroad in both raiding and other activities. The core of the narrative is however closely linked to the primary sources, which it brings to life successfully, while keeping a keen critical sense and often emphasising what the sources do not reveal. The book is thematically organised (with chapters on violence, emigration, ships, trade, etc.) which means the author tends to whiz around different times and places, often without a very clear chronology (a bit surprising in a historian). It's also quite light on the important evidence of archaeology, especially excavated sites, with the historian preferring written sources even when they are post-Viking Age. But the Swedish author does love his rune-stones! In general, it does the job in an engaging way.

Although Winroth's book is well-illustrated, it can usefully be supplemented by the perfect picture book, Steve Ashby and Alison Leonard, Pocket Museum: Vikings (Thames and Hudson, 2018). It is literally like carrying a museum around with you, with nearly 200 artefacts pictured, with brief but useful explanatory texts. A picture book that is also educational.

Moving from there to a more specialised archaeological study, I can't resist recommending Steven P. Ashby, A Viking Way of Life (Amberley, 2014). It's a book about - wait for it- combs! And hair! The author does a great job of showing how a simple, everyday object opens up all kinds of meanings in the Viking Age. It starts with the question of how you actually make a comb. First you have to catch your animal whose antler or bone you will use as raw material. And it's not as easy as you think. From these beginnings a complex and fascinating narrative emerges. A book that everyone can relate to, even if you no longer have much hair you probably had some once! The author is not fully reliable when it comes to the literary sources, but he has a good go, and I forgive him for otherwise producing such an exciting book.

While archaeologists occasionally stumble over sagas and poetry, the literary scholars are similarly uncertain when it comes to material culture. Thus, Christopher Abram, Myths of the Pagan North: Gods of the Norsemen (Continuum, 2011) is really quite vague on the material evidence for the pre-Christian beliefs of the Vikings. But he comes into his own discussing the medieval Icelandic literary sources. I particularly liked his emphasis, and detailed analysis, of some skaldic poetry which is almost certainly genuinely from the pagan period. In particular, he moves his gaze away from the fixation with Iceland that the written sources tend to bring, and makes some controversial but stimulating suggestions about religious conflict in tenth- and eleventh-century Norway.

Beliefs, myths and religion are an important aspect of studying the Vikings, so I am also happy to recommend Carolyne Larrington, Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes (Thames and Hudson, 2017). Of all the myriad books about the myths, this one is I think most successful in keeping a balance between retelling the undeniably attractive stories and actually giving the reader a sense of the significance of and relationships between the sources. While this is a book aimed at the general public, Larrington successfully steers her mythological ship with the firm hand of the expert scholar.

While we are on the topic of literature, all study of the Vikings has to grapple with the Icelandic sagas. Scholarship has veered between believing them to be written records of Viking Age oral tradition to discounting them as literature 'because all literature is lies' (direct quote from a senior Norse specialist). Nowadays, saga scholarship often ignores the problem and prefers to study the sagas without considering if, whether, or how they might provide insights into the Viking Age. To me that is the interesting question, which is far from resolved. Since no one has resolved it, the best thing do to is first to get to know this fascinating corpus and the best way of doing that is by reading Margaret Clunies Ross, The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Cambridge UP, 2010). This is the best place to find out what exactly a saga is, how many types there are, and indeed every saga gets at least a mention. But there are also some really useful close readings of extracts which will help the reader develop a good idea of how sagas work. Though Clunies Ross doesn't explicitly see it this way, I also think this is the first step to an understanding of how sagas relate to the Viking Age (the short answer is, in many complicated ways, and it's never straightforward!).

A much-neglected literary topic is the afterlife of the Vikings in medieval English literature. This is expertly presented in Eleanor Parker, The Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England  (I.B. Tauris, 2018). Starting with contemporary poems like The Battle of Maldon, Parker traces how Vikings are presented in a wide range of medieval texts in English and Latin, many of them little-known, even to specialists. She sets out to complicate the narratives of historians past and present for whom the Vikings came 'not to govern but rather to destroy'. She does this by examining how literature and popular traditions told more complex stories of England’s Viking Age, demonstrating both the lasting impact and legacy of, and the regional diversity of English responses to, the people most of the texts figure as ‘Danes’. The very complexity of these divergent responses to England's  Viking past is clear, if indirect, evidence of just how important an impact the Scandinavians had.

It's not possible to study Vikings without some grasp of runes and runic inscriptions and Martin Findell, Runes (British Museum Press, 2014) is the best place to start. Admittedly, Findell has more of a soft spot for the runes of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than the far more copious Scandinavian corpus (unbelievable!). But he gives a nicely pedagogical and well-illustrated account of the significance and study of these absolutely contemporary, if occasionally rather laconic, texts.

Words, words, words. For those who are most comfortable with pictures, and for a different kind of thinking, there is nothing better than Dayanna Knight, The Viking Coloring Book (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017). The author is a trained archaeologist and, like many an archaeologist, good at drawing. Except that she is far better than most, being a quite exceptional artist who can bring the Viking world to life in a way that goes far beyond the technical drawings of the average archaeological report, while still being as accurate as it is possible to be. Plus, colouring pictures is a very relaxing thing to do in our stressful world, and you really get inside the Viking mind while doing it.

Disclaimer: It is true that I am personally acquainted with every single author mentioned above, so there may be a wee bit of bias in my choices. But then, I wouldn't be doing my job very well if I didn't know all these great scholars and fabulous communicators, so I hope I can be forgiven. Enjoy!


Saturday, 26 October 2019

Ardnamurchan Vikings

Lighthouse at the Point of
Ardnamurchan
As I have previously pointed out, many of the poetic-sounding names of the shipping forecast have Viking associations, as does the Point of Ardnamurchan, in the inshore waters section. Plus it sounds wonderful, too. So who could resist a little trip up there, especially when someone else was paying and there was a work reason to go? (More information on why exactly I was there will follow in its own good time). So last month I went and it turned out to be easier than I thought - fly to Glasgow, then it's a four-hour drive. Well, easy or easy. The drive is quite something, along Loch Lomond (the bonnie banks don't have room for more than a narrow road with lots of traffic), through Glencoe (stunning), a fun ferry crossing to Ardgour, and then the last thirty-five miles of single-track road, dodging confident locals, hesitant tourists, and a variety of fauna. You can see why the Vikings preferred to arrive by boat.

The Viking grave at Swordle Bay
The main reason for being there was in connection with the Viking grave found at Swordle Bay in the northern side of the Ardnamurchan peninsula a few years ago, which had me pretty excited. It's touted as being the first Viking boat burial found on the mainland of Britain, but that is somehow to see it with our contemporary landlubber eyes. Certainly modern technology makes it easy enough to get there overland, but even a few decades ago that would not have been the case, let alone a millennium ago. Even getting to Swordle by car from the south side of the peninsula involved quite a steep climb over the central ridge. The bay has excellent views of Eigg and Rum and other Hebridean islands - and for all practical purposes it might as well have been an island too. Certainly it was on a main Viking Age transport route.

Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan
The burial is in a stunning location - a great place to spend all eternity. There are many interesting aspects of the grave (it was in all likelihood a man, buried with both weapons and practical items, in a boat) and you can read all about it in this academic publication from a couple of years ago. Or read a shorter presentation on the website of the Ardnamurchan Transitions project of which it is part. Now of course, there is not much to see, only the shape of the burial marked out in stones, and a sense of the site, which looks like an ideal spot for a Viking to settle in. Further archaeological investigations might reveal whether the person buried there also lived there or was just passing through when he decided to take a detour to Valhalla. I have my reasons for thinking the former is more likely. Or at least that there were Vikings living there at the time.

Sanna, a small settlement on the western
end of the peninsula
One of the reasons for thinking this is the small but significant number of place-names on the peninsula that have an Old Norse origin. Swordle Bay itself contains the element svörðr, cognate with English 'sward' (as in 'greensward'), plus dalr 'valley', and it is indeed very lush and green round about. Sanna, now a small settlement on the western end of the peninsula is indeed next to a sandy beach, and if it does come from Sandey 'Sand Island' as it seems to, then there are some small islands in the bay which this could I suppose refer to. The place-names have not been studied in any detail since Angus Henderson in 1915, so there's a job for someone!

Ockle
Many might think there's not much to do on Ardnamurchan, and certainly what we think of as civilisation is thin on the ground at its western end. But for me the landscape and seascape, the lighthouse, the place-names, the burial, were all of great interest. I was also taken by the tiny settlement of Ockle, where the sun came out, enhancing the faded colours of this derelict cottage. I also like old tractors, sheep, cast iron mileposts and many of the other things to be seen there and I know I could amuse myself there for more than the two days I had on this visit.

Strontian
One last little tidbit of information which I had not known until I travelled all the way there was the significance of the village of Strontian. It turns out that this place gave its name to the element strontium, which is key in so much Viking Age research these days, as the bioarchaeologists use isotopes to work out where people came from. If you want to know more about the element, then I recommend the Strontium video from the very fun series of videos about the periodic table made by my amazing colleague Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff.

Just goes to show how educational following the Vikings can be!