22 April 2019

Britain's Viking Graveyard

Viking ship model in Repton. Photo Judith Jesch
This blog started off as a light-hearted romp through some of my interests, mainly to do with Vikings and Scandinavia. I hope it is still mostly light-hearted, but I have come to realise that it is also, and now perhaps primarily, an outlet for some of the knowledge I have amassed over the years. Over the eleven (!) years I have been writing this blog, public interest in the Vikings, though it has always been there, has increased exponentially. In response to this, I have, almost subconsciously, more and more wanted to make sure that each post, however frivolous, is underpinned by that knowledge. The other thing that has changed enormously in the last decade is that academic research is now often consumed directly by people who are not themselves academics ('open access' we call it). Blogs like this may be conduits to that research which means that even a frivolous blog has some responsibilities for how it presents academic research. So I find myself taking that responsibility more and more seriously, but it's not always easy to be both engaging and correct.

Another common outlet for research into the Viking Age is the television programme. There have been noticeably many over the last decade, one or two of which I have even participated in, or at least been interviewed for only to end up on the cutting-room floor. I have on the whole not touched on these in this blog. Television programmes have their own raison d'etre, their own ways of doing things which sometimes serve the academic cause and sometimes undermine it. They have to achieve the tricky balance of edutainment, and operate within the constraints of time, budget, and how far the researchers are really able to read up on and understand the issues. In any case, there is little room for nuance or subtle arguments. For these reasons, it's not easy for an academic to evaluate them, especially from the point of view of the general audience at whom they are aimed, best to leave that to television critics.

So the following is not an evaluation, or a review, but simply my take on the programme Britain's Viking Graveyard, which was on Channel 4 last night and will no doubt sweep its way around the world fairly soon. The programme highlights excavations in and around Repton, in Derbyshire, a place I have taken an interest in since the late 1980s when I visited the excavations then being carried out by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle. Repton and the nearby Viking cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, were one of the excursions we organised for the Thirteenth Viking Congress in Nottingham in 1997 and the Biddles' work featured prominently in the Proceedings of that Congress, published in 2001. More recently, we in Nottingham have followed with great interest the excavations being carried out at Repton by Dr Cat Jarman (of whom much more later), and some of our students have been lucky enough to participate in them, too. As more or less our nearest Viking site, Repton was an important reference point for our AHRC-funded project Bringing Vikings Back to the East Midlands of 2017-18. A legacy of that project is the Vikings in the East Midlands website, which at the moment has too little on Repton, though it does have a great lecture by Cat Jarman. We are still working on this website so no doubt there will be more soon.

But on to last night's programme, which is what I really want to write about. First and foremost let me say I thought it was a really good programme - superior to most other 'Viking' programmes I have seen. There were several reasons for this, I think. Most importantly, there was no star presenter acting dumb and asking questions 'on behalf of the audience', but who inevitably becomes a bit too central to the film and overshadows the story. The voiceover narrator explained what needed to be explained, but luckily there wasn't too much going over old ground about who exactly the Vikings were and when and why. Instead, the bioarchaeologist Dr Cat Jarman was allowed to shine, with her store of knowledge, her enthusiastic personality and her ability to explain things succinctly and clearly. The other academic contributors were also well-chosen. Importantly, much of the programme was presenting real, current research, rather than the clichés that too many Viking programmes fall victim to. (Not that there weren't some clichés, but more on that later). So all in all, my preliminary conclusion is that the programme is A Good Thing and well worth watching. But beware, there are a few spoilers below.

Repton. Photo Judith Jesch
Now comes my own take on the presentation and content of the programme. I will try not to forget that a programme is not an article in an academic journal, and cannot be subjected to the same kind of forensic analysis and criticism, given all the caveats I outlined in the second paragraph above. So this is just a list of things I liked more and other things I liked less, for what it's worth. I hope these comments might be of interest to readers of this blog.

When I first saw the publicity for the programme, there were two things that caused my eyebrows to head north. One was the title and the other was the claim that '[I]t reveals the extraordinary stories of female Viking warriors'. Readers of this blog will understand my trepidation at the second of these in particular. Had Cat really found another female warrior?

Dr Roderick Dale face to face with a reconstruction
of the Repton warrior in Derby Museum.
Photo Rob Ounsworth.
Although my first reaction to the title was disapproval ('don't people know the difference between Britain and England anymore?'), it became clear that the title was actually quite carefully chosen, given that one of the arguments made in the programme was that the well-known burial of a warrior and his companion near St Wystan's church in Repton was that of two identifiable Vikings, the father and son Olaf and Eystein, who had died in Scotland and had their bones brought to Repton to be buried. Although I find this kind of identification of individuals unconvincing, I shall reserve judgement until I read the article Cat is promising on this. And certainly the mass burial in the Vicarage garden at Repton does allow for the possibility of bones having been brought there from all over Britain, not just England. Which, if true, makes the title highly appropriate.

As to the female warriors, mercifully it turned out this was mostly just clickbait, a particular kind of hype to get people to watch the programme, unfortunate but not a huge element in the programme. It is true that Cat did fly to Sweden to view the Birka 'warrior woman' with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson. Cat also mooted the possibility that she might find a female warrior at Repton, but no evidence for this was produced beyond the fact, which we knew already, that both women and children had been present at Repton. Even Charlotte admitted that she wasn't sure whether or not her 'baby' had ever actually fought. And Cat's conclusion in the programme, which is in line with current academic thinking, was that the 'Great Heathen Army' at Repton and Torksey was not so much a purely military affair but more of a mobile community. The programme did acknowledge that women often accompanied armies, but did not suggest that they actually fought. The closest it came to suggesting this was when the camera panned along a line of female Viking re-enactors, of whom the last one was armed.

By the way, I did like the way the re-enactors featured included quite a large number of women and children - I think this might be a first for this kind of use of re-enactors in archaeological documentaries about the Vikings. And I'm sure this is partly down to the choice of my excellent friends Einar Blueaxe, Sigurðr and their families and colleagues to do the re-enactments. So in a way it was a shame that this innovative use of women in the programme just HAD to be associated with the so far quite chimerical female Viking warrior.

I was not particularly enamoured of the more clichéd use of snarling hairy guys to represent the violent activities of the Vikings. Not because Vikings weren't violent (as well as many other things) but because of the way they always look like the same hairy snarling guy in all documentaries about Vikings. I'd like to see some snarling Anglo-Saxons next time. Please. Another cliché was the use of images of large numbers of Viking ships. In this case they looked like they were made of papier maché and were all far too influenced by the Oseberg ship, when Gokstad would have been a better model. Not sure about the red-and-white striped sails, either. These graphics were EXECRABLE. (Sorry for the shouting).

But back to women warriors. There was a narratorial comment about the 'shield-maidens' of Norse mythology. Let me just repeat myself, as I have pointed out in quite a lot of lectures recently, there are no shield-maidens in Norse mythology. Any shield-maidens in other genres of Old Norse literature are a learned construct based on the Amazons, who also did not exist. (I really must get my article on this published soon, to stop the rising tide of shield-maidens engulfing serious academic as well as popular discourse). Valkyries yes, shield-maidens no. And it's not just a matter of words, but how we use words and texts in studying the Viking Age. But that's another rant, some time.

For me, the most important and exciting revelation of the programme was the discovery of a potential Viking site at Foremark. This could be extremely important in understanding the process by which the mobile community turned into permanent settlers. I really look forward to further investigations there and what they will come up with. Cat quite rightly mentioned the Scandinavian origins of the place-name, and I think this deserves further consideration, preferably by a specialist. In fact, the programme would have been much better if it had included more onomastics and fewer papier maché Oseberg ships. There is a distressing tendency among television producers (and the world at large) to assume that Vikings are only about archaeology. It distresses me, anyway. Let's bring on the specialists in Old Norse mythology, Old Icelandic poetry and prose, and place-names, whose work underlies some of the statements on which archaeologists build their interpretations. That's my rallying cry.

Overall, then, a few things that rankled. But with the River Trent, skulls and bones, playing-pieces, women, and some great participants, what's not to like? Congratulations to Cat Jarman and the Windfall films team for a programme that both informed and stimulated thought and discussion.