[This is an article I published 14 years ago. Discussion of the flurry of web interest in the alleged archaeological proof that 50% of Viking warriors were women (there is no such proof by the way) led me to think I should put it up on the blog. Written when I was going through what I call my 'sarcastic phase' (see also 'Movers and shakers...'), it is an article that rather pours scorn on the identification of many late ninth- and earlier tenth-century burials as those of 'Vikings' or Scandinavian settlers. For that reason it has very largely been ignored in Viking archaeology, or just been appended to footnotes with ' for an alternative view, see...' The original publication reference is:
‘The Viking presence in England? The burial evidence reconsidered.’ Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, ed. D.M. Hadley & J. Richards, (Brepols: Turnhout, 2000), pp.259-76. ISBN 2-503-50978-9
The text that follows is the one I have on my computer, which is not necessarily the same as the published version (the bibliography certainly isn't) so, for citation purposes, use that one,]
“...the inferences from the evidence have sometimes been most dubious...”
(Morris, C.D., 1981a:234)
Perhaps the oldest of all uses (or abuses) of the archaeological evidence for the disposal of the early medieval dead has been to map the movement of peoples. Post-Roman cemeteries have long played a central role in the debates surrounding the migration of Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Lombards and Visigoths. This body of excavated material is substantial, but has nonetheless generally been found wanting in answering questions about the settlement of ‘Germanic’ barbarians within the former Roman Empire. The evidence cited of Viking burial in England is, by comparison, minuscule: a handful of graves spread across England north of the Thames (for key studies see Graham-Campbell 1980; Shetelig 1954; Wilson 1968; 1976; Shetelig 1940 is a still useful basic catalogue). The paucity of this evidence has meant that it has occupied a far less prominent position in discussions of Scandinavian settlement in England than, for example, that occupied by the study of place- or field-names, estate structures and so on. This, however, has not prevented attempts to identify the subjects of graves or grave-groups as Scandinavian settlers, or prevented conclusions from being drawn from this material about the nature of Scandinavian settlement. In this paper I should like to reconsider, in necessarily preliminary and provisional form, the evidence adduced of Viking burial in England, from the perspective of someone more used to asking analogous questions of the funerary data of the period 350-700, in the hope that this will provide a fresh perspective on some old problems. The paper’s scope will be the evidence of the burials themselves; above-ground monuments are considered elsewhere in this volume.
Variability in mortuary practice, and its explanation
Burial practice in the first millennium was diverse and dynamic; this point is absolutely fundamental to any understanding of allegedly ‘Viking’ burials in England. In lowland Britain between 1-750 AD, for example, we see the introduction of a Roman cremation custom around the beginning of the millennium; the reintroduction of inhumation in the late Roman period, first with grave-goods, then with such offerings declining in number; then the reintroduction of furnished inhumation with grave-goods of a different type around 400 AD; the introduction of a northern German cremation ritual at about the same time; significant transformations in burial customs around 600, with changes in the patterns of grave-goods deposition; the appearance of lavish burial under barrows, and the gradual disappearance of cremation; the slow demise of grave-goods by the eighth century; the abandonment of old cemeteries and the foundation of new sites around Christian cult-centres. Thus in the first seven and a half centuries of the Christian era there were at least ten changes in methods of placing the dead. To this we should add regional variation and diversity of custom, the use of mausolea or funerary churches, and so on. If we took a pan-European (or even pan-British) perspective on the same period this kaleidoscope of funerary practice would be enhanced still further (Halsall 1995:5-30 for a whistle-stop tour). It is difficult to understand how Hills (1999:22) can recently refer to mortuary practice as an ‘innately conservative element of social practice’, although her view does not seem untypical. Presumably it derives, partly, from the unchanging nature of the archaeologically visible remains of European graves from the adoption of churchyard burial until about 1900. Yet above ground, and in terms of ritual and ceremony, it is clear that burial has continued to be a dynamic field of social expression.
This backdrop of mortuary variability ought immediately to demonstrate the problems with arguments which attribute any divergence from generally assumed ‘norms’ to immigrant ‘peoples’. Variation and change in mortuary behaviour is too great to be explained simply by the movement of people and/or religious change. Before we can understand the meaning of such burials we must ask whether the archaeological evidence itself necessarily demonstrates the intrusion of Scandinavian rites and material culture at all; are the differences between ‘Scandinavian’ and other later Anglo-Saxon burials any greater than many of the other changes within lowland British burial practice? If the answer to either question is negative, are we really letting the archaeological data speak for themselves, or rather hanging on them a convenient, if rather crude, binary polarity based upon a priori notions drawn from (equally unrefined) study of the documentary record?
Further, where the archaeological data do suggest intrusive Scandinavian elements, is this diversity purely to be explained as a passive reflection of historically-attested migration? More rigorous confrontation with these questions should allow the archaeological evidence of burial in ninth- and tenth-century northern England to ask and answer more, and more interesting, questions than simply whether Scandinavian settlers lived in villages with English place-names and why the locals tolerated ‘pagan’ burials in their churchyards.
Telling the Difference (1): Rite
Archaeologically, an intrusive community’s burials should be best revealed by their rite. Whilst acknowledging their potential dynamism and diversity, such rites are nevertheless bound up with mentalité - with ideas of cosmology, broadly defined (Tambiah 1985). They ought, therefore, to be more revealing of the movement of people than the simple distribution of artefact-types. Nonetheless, to be convincing, against the backdrop of change and variation mentioned above, rigorous criteria must be applied. There should be a direct link between the ‘intrusive’ rite and that of the supposed migrants’ homeland; the use of this rite in the ‘homelands’ should occur earlier than, and then overlap chronologically with, its appearance in the ‘host’ country; finally the ‘intrusive’ rite should differ significantly from that of the ‘host country’ (Halsall 1992:198).
The application of this test to ‘Viking Age’ England is muddied above all by the diversity of Scandinavian burial (for introductory accounts in English, see Brøndsted 1960:269-83; Foote & Wilson 1970:406-14; Jones 1984:425-30; Roesdahl 1982:164-71; 1987:156-8; 1993; Shetelig & Falk 1937:277-85). Cremation and inhumation were both employed, as well as chamber- , mound- and ship-burials. The provision of grave-goods varied from one region and period to another. Against this background, links between individual burials in England and the Scandinavian origins of their subjects become correspondingly less simple. Without additional indicators, just about every known western European rite from the first millennium AD could have a Scandinavian near analogy.
All is not lost, however, for we must still consider the English background. By the end of the eighth century, this was rather less diverse. Cremation had ceased to be employed, and grave-goods had also declined, becoming extremely rare in the early eighth century (Geake 1997; Adams 1996 is an exemplary report on the excavation of such a ‘grave-good-less’ site), from which time most native English burials were unfurnished inhumations in churchyards. This presents, at first sight, a promisingly uniform background against which intrusive rites ought to show up clearly.
Given the church’s condemnation of cremation (admittedly rarer than often supposed: Effros 1997:270), and given that this method of disposal of the corpse differs dramatically from the inhumation rite current in the ninth century, and thus may speak for different mentalities from those common in England, the sudden appearance of this rite may well mark the arrival of new people. However, it is very rare in Viking-Age England. The Hesket-in-the-Forest burial (Cumbria; Cowen 1934:174-80; 1948a:73-74; 1967a:31-33; Hall 1995:51-52; Richards 1991:113) has been the subject of some debate, Shetelig (1940:20-21; 1954:88-90) arguing that it was a cremation with Norwegian analogues, and others (Cowan 1967a:32) disputing this (although conceding that rite may have included the cremation of animals). The burial was accompanied by extensive Viking-Age grave-goods, and apparently covered by a carefully constructed mound. Whether or not the subject had been cremated, this was nevertheless an unusual and distinctive early tenth-century burial. It has been suggested that the Claughton Hall burial (Lancs; Richards 1991:113) may have been an urned cremation (Edwards 1970, accepted by Richards et al.1995) but the context, in spite of strenuous efforts to unravel it, seems hopelessly disturbed.
More promising is the enigmatic cemetery of Heath Wood, Ingleby (Derbs; Clarke & Fraser 1946; Clarke, Fraser & Munslow 1948; Hall 1995:51; Posnansky 1956; Richards 1991:114; Richards et al. 1995; Shetelig 1954:77-79, 91). Convincing parallels for the rite used here, sparsely furnished, un-urned cremation under small mounds, have been adduced from early medieval northern Jutland. The few diagnostic objects recovered seem to point to a Viking-Age date even if they may not all be of Scandinavian origin. This represents the clearest evidence in England of what might be called an intrusive Scandinavian cemetery.
Plausibly Scandinavian cremation, then, is attested at only one site. Other rites are even less promising. The use of burial mounds may not entirely have died out in later Anglo-Saxon England. The possibly mid- to late Saxon cemetery at Winwick (Cheshire: Freke & Thacker 1990) used a Bronze Age barrow as its focus. Boat burial is unknown in Viking Age England. Richards et al. (1995) suggest the use of wood from ships in the cremations at Ingleby, but the evidence is inconclusive. That apart we have the enigmatic mass burial at Repton (Derbs.: Biddle & Biddle 1992; Biddle et al.1986), interpreted as a burial mound erected over a prestigious founder-burial and filled, as a tribute, with the bodies of members of the Great Army who died in 873-4. This seems unlikely. The evidence for the founder-grave is extremely flimsy: an account by an elderly local, 40 years after the event, of the opening of the mound in the 1680s. Biddle et al. (1986:114) claim that Walker, the local, ‘seems to have had ... a good memory’, yet this good memory does not appear to have run to remembering which side of the church the mound was on (he said the north; it is to the west), and no other element of his story was confirmed by excavation. That the Great Army’s leaders should have excarnated (by boiling perhaps - decomposition would have taken too long in winter) 249 bodies which happened to be lying around (after no recorded battle; 249 dead would imply a total ‘butcher’s bill’ of over 10% of the Great Army, even if numbered in thousands) and then neatly stacked their bones by type around a central burial, in a ritual unknown in Denmark, defies belief. The Repton evidence points more simply to a sort of charnel house (or mound) containing the carefully reburied remains of a previous (largely monastic?) cemetery, some of the burials in which, to judge from unstratified metalwork, may have dated to the 870s. The furnished inhumations in and around the church at Repton are more promising candidates for Scandinavian burials.
Grave-goods in later first-millennium English burials have been enough for most researchers to label the occupant of a grave ‘Viking’ (e.g. Biddle et al. 1986:114). Thus the comment made by C.D. Morris (1981b:77) on a west-east oriented inhumation in Wensley churchyard (N. Yorks) accompanied by grave-goods, the only diagnostic item of which was an Anglo-Saxon sword: ‘The sword ... is Anglo-Saxon; but the burial from which it comes is clearly Viking.’ How, clearly...? Everything about the burial - its location, its basic rite and the material provided - is Anglo-Saxon. Only the provision of grave-goods makes it unusual, and, had we no documentary historical framework into which to shoe-horn this data, it is unlikely that any archaeologist would see it as the burial of a Scandinavian immigrant; there is no prima facie archaeological support for this interpretation. Are grave-goods enough to identify a grave as ‘Viking’?
We should, firstly, not assume that there was complete uniformity in English burial practice. Grave-goods, though extremely rare, were not completely abandoned after c.720, and we are hampered in a full understanding of this by the tendency of English archaeology to draw a line around 850, after which a new grave-goods horizon dependent upon ‘the Vikings’ is held to begin (see, e.g. Geake 1997, esp p.125) - the issue is thereby entirely prejudged. Chronology presents further problems. The material which continues into Geake’s ‘Period 3’ (post-720; for a list of such items see Geake 1997:139, table 6.1) is usually fairly generic, rarely decorated and thus equally rarely susceptible of fine dating. This means that the ‘final abandonment’ of grave-goods may very well have been rather less dramatic than Geake (1997; 1999) supposes. To take one example, the burial accompanied by an undiagnostic knife found at Little Paxton (Cambs; Addyman 1969:64) could easily date to any period from the seventh century to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. More pertinently, it might well affect an unknown (and unknowable) number of ‘early Saxon’ dates automatically assigned to sparsely furnished burials of which only old antiquarian descriptions survive, the finds having been lost.
Nevertheless we can list: pins and middle Saxon pottery found in the churchyard cemetery at Sedgeford (Norfolk; Medieval Archaeology 3 , p.298); Ipswich Buttermarket grave 38, with a knife, a buckle and a coin of 790 (Geake 1997:125); the burial of the eighth-century bowl at Ormside (Cumbria; the bowl is Celtic but ‘can only be explained as Viking loot, and from a Viking burial’, although why this should be is left unexplained: Cowen 1948a:75); Harrold (Beds.) grave 3, possibly ninth-century (Eagles & Evison 1970; Geake 1997:125); four burials from Ripon Ladykirk/St Marygate (N. Yorks) containing late Saxon bone combs (Hall & Whyman 1995); graves with developed Stamford Ware, a spear and a coin of Ecgberht of Wessex of 830-35 from Caister-by-Yarmouth (Norfolk; Richards 1991:115); the burial with a seax and a knife from Wicken Fen (Cambs; Richards 1991:116; Evison 1969:341; VCH Cambs I:327); the ninth/tenth-century grave containing a Trewhiddle-style buckle and a penannular brooch from Royston Heath (Cambs; Evison 1969:341; VCH Cambs I:322); the burials at Saffron Walden (Essex; Evison 1969:336-41) may have been accompanied by other generally late Saxon grave-goods in addition to the Scandinavian material to which we shall return. The list could, doubtless, be extended. Centuries of burial in churchyards are certain, furthermore, to result in the removal and destruction of whatever scarce burial goods there may once have been. In this regard it is noteworthy that churchyards contain many Anglo-Saxon sceattas (Morris, R., 1983:61) and other late Anglo-Saxon stray finds ‘with considerable frequency’ (Morris, R., 1983:60, notes to table V). Again, this blurrs any supposed distinctions, chronological or cultural.
The grave-goods in the above catalogue are by no means exclusively items of costume: brooches, dress-pins or buckles. Were this the case the list’s significance would be reduced; it could simply be claimed that a body was occasionally buried dressed, or in a shroud fastened with pins. The list includes not only knives, which argues at least for a slightly more formal or elaborate - certainly deliberate - clothing of the dead for burial, but also objects placed in the grave separately: iron bucket, hone and spear (at Harrold); pottery, combs, coins and vessels. All this means that the custom was not entirely extinct of depositing objects with the dead, in public ritual. Such deposition must have had some significance, and the objects so buried must have had some symbolic value.
A second provisional point may add significantly to the first. The examples above are located entirely north of the Thames, especially in areas which were to fall under Scandinavian rule, notably East Anglia. This point is provisional for I make no claims to have tried to produce an exhaustive catalogue; more detailed work might thus refute the argument. If the distribution is in any way real, it might well show that a custom of - admittedly rare - burial with grave-goods survived in the areas where we are accustomed to look for Viking burial, and where we are used to having Viking burials identified solely by their grave-goods. In this connection it is important to note that there seems to have been a fairly unbroken tradition of accompanied mound burial in Cumbria throughout the pre-Conquest era (O’Sullivan 1996). This adds importantly to the ‘background noise’ of pre- or non-Scandinavian burial in the areas of the Danelaw, and reduces the plausibility of identifying the subjects of burials as Vikings just because of the use of grave-goods. Furnished burial might be read, rather than simply as a passive reflection of Scandinavian origins, as an elaboration on a ritual theme played pianissimo for the previous 150-200 years (Halsall 1998a:335-36 for the metaphor, and an analogy); however, even on the most extreme, ‘Scandinavianist’ estimation, this theme could hardly be claimed to have been played to a deafening crescendo during the Viking period in northern England.
Furnished burial has been assumed to have been Viking mainly because of the supposed paganism of the rite. This idea refuses to die in British archaeology, despite there being no necessary correlation between grave-goods and a particular religion or view of the after-life (Ucko 1969), and in spite of the fact that it has been known, since the appearance of Bailey Young’s (1975) excellent doctoral thesis, nearly a quarter of a century ago, that there is no empirical basis whatsoever, documentary or archaeological, for an opposition between Christianity and grave-goods burial (James 1989:25-26). Graham-Campbell and Batey (1998:143-54) nevertheless talk recently (albeit slightly more cautiously than previous writers) of Viking grave-goods in Scotland as indicative of views of the after-life. Geake (1997; 1999) clings to conversion as partial explanation for the ‘abandonment’ of grave-goods in England, largely on the basis of an opposition between grave-goods and churchyard burial. As implied above, this opposition ought to be nuanced, and explanation is probably better sought in the simple fact that the foundation of churches and churchyard cemeteries took place in England after the deposition of grave-goods had ceased to be common. The decline of the practice in mainland Europe took place at much the same time, and there conversion cannot provide an explanation. We may assume a religious justification of some sort, but we shall never know what was said over a grave as goods were placed in it, and however the practice was explained at the time, it was not the preserve of any particular creed, and no creed articulated any opposition to the general custom. We need look no further than the public deposition in graves of chalices, objects of clear symbolic and religious significance (Wilson & Blunt 1961:88-90; Wilson 1964:54), to drive the argument home. That grave-goods were still used in pagan Scandinavia at this time does not of itself prove the ritual’s paganism. As noted, burial customs varied considerably in the Viking homelands, not least in the provision of grave-goods. This alone ought to demonstrate that the burial of such artefacts must relate to something more than a simple reflection of ‘paganism’. Recent work on Scandinavian archaeology has begun to accept this point (Gräslund 1991:46).
It has also been argued that the Church promoted an ideology of equality, which shunned demonstrations of worldly status, such as through grave-goods; this would then be a further reason to perceive furnished burials as pagan and Viking (Tarlow 1997:139). The argument is often cited as an example of the deliberate use of ritual to conceal social distinctions (e.g. Carver 1999:8), and is one of the more pernicious myths to have taken root in British funerary archaeology. It seems to stem from a rather ill-thought-through throw-away comment by Ian Hodder (1980:168), in support of the notion that rituals may serve to disguise ‘social reality’ (although that rather begs the question of what ‘reality’ is):
‘And surely Church of England burial in our modern society should convince us of this. In many of our deaths we express an ideal of equality, humility and non-materialism which is blatantly in contrast with the way we live our lives in practice.’
Such is Hodder’s influence within British archaeology that in this regard he seems subsequently to have been elevated from influential theoretician to the status of Father of the Church. Let us set aside the fact that the analogy does not appear to work (think of the funeral of Princess Diana, for instance, or the clear differences in the resources spent by families on funeral ceremony, or the differences in above-ground memorials). The Church has never promoted an ‘obfuscating’ ideology of equality of death, in patristic writing or ecclesiastical legislation. Inequality amongst the community of the dead is expressed through many features, not least spatial organization (e.g. Effros 1996) and post-mortem ritual, even if rarely through the provision of grave-goods (although the deposition of chalices and other objects in later medieval priest graves surely expresses some inequality) and even if the inequalities expressed are not all related to a single dimension of social structure based upon wealth or class. We may thus dismiss this supposed Christian ‘ideological’ opposition to grave-goods.
Although grave-goods were not common in Middle to Late Saxon England, the English were not averse to depositing artefacts in other ritual forms with some frequency; certainly there seems to have been no contradiction between these rituals and Christianity. The first such form is the hoard. Early medieval hoarding is still usually interpreted as the burial, for safety, of treasures which were never later recovered. It would be unnecessarily crass to dispose of this explanation entirely but it is not universally persuasive. Hoards are not uncommon throughout England and, although some (such as Croydon: Brooks & Graham-Campbell 1986) are apparently of Scandinavian composition, many others are clearly of straightforwardly English origin. We should seek a similar range of explanations for Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian hoards in England (and elsewhere). Did all of their owners die before they could retrieve them, and without telling anyone else? Were they all so forgetful that they simply could not remember where they buried their treasures? If so, how many hundreds more retrieved hoards (and how much more wealth) must there have been? Moreover, the frequently lavish composition of the ‘unretrieved’ hoards ought to suggest that the wealthier members of Anglo-Saxon society were particularly forgetful (which would have some implications for the nature of the pre-Conquest aristocracy...). The functional ‘chance loss’ explanation seems, however, particularly implausible in individual instances. The Lilla Howe (N. Yorks) hoard of gold and silver was buried in a mound (Watkin & Mann 1981). Whilst not wishing to deny the alterity of early medieval mentalities, it would seem rather less than sensible to bury treasures for safe-keeping in the top of a large, visible, man-made landscape feature, of a type known to early medieval people often to contain burials and ‘treasure’. The Goldsborough hoard (N. Yorks: admittedly of partly Scandinavian composition) was buried in a church - not the most obvious place to hide wealth from marauders. It seems that we ought to accept the strong possibility of a ritual motive for at least some Viking-Age English hoarding, even if it is impossible to know what that motive was.
The second ritual form of deposition is in rivers (as suggested by Wilson 1965:51). This will doubtless still raise eye-brows, as it is difficult to understand the purpose of such deposition or how it could be squared with Christianity. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter remains that river finds are common and ‘functional’ explanations - chance loss or loss in action - are even less convincing than with the hoard-finds. Large numbers of later Anglo-Saxon weapons and other metalwork are known from rivers. The Victoria County History for Cambridgeshire (vol.I:322-8) alone lists finds of three axes, seventeen spears, two swords and three seaxes from fen or river contexts. Cambridgeshire was not the scene of untypically intense fighting (indeed it seems largely to have been bypassed in Edward the Elder’s conquest; Hines 1999:136), and I am unaware of any contemporary source which lists the Gyrwe or other fen-dwellers as unusually clumsy or careless folk. The Thames has produced many weapon-finds. Leaving aside the early eleventh-century arms cache frequently cited as lost during an attack on London Bridge, there is still the Wallingford sword (Evison 1968a), the sword kept in the Tullie House Museum, Carlisle (Evison 1968b), and a seax from Battersea (BM cat. M&LA 57.6-23.2). The river Witham at Lincoln has produced stirrups and a sword (BM cat. M&LA 48.10-21.1 & 58.11-18.8 respectively). And so on; Wilson (1965:50, 52) notes 34 late Anglo-Saxon river-finds of swords to eight finds in graves. Some of these must have resulted from accidental loss; again it would be silly to discount this explanation entirely, but how, exactly, whilst simply walking or riding through the countryside, does one just drop and lose a heavy three-foot iron weapon, sheathed and fastened to a belt? No matter how difficult it is now to understand the purposes of this, surely deliberate, deposition, swords were large, expensive and treasured items, and it defies all credibility to suppose that the pre-Conquest English habitually dropped and lost them by accident whilst crossing streams and rivers, or whilst wandering into bogs, unaccompanied except by their most prized possessions.
Thus, in eighth- to eleventh-century England, independently of Scandinavian influence, the conclusion seems inevitable that the ritual deposition of artefacts was far from uncommon. From the disposal of wealth in hoards or in rivers it is a small step to placing objects in a grave, especially when there was a quiet but persistent ‘background noise’ of furnished inhumation in any case. Against this backdrop the simple fact that a few northern families disposed of their dead by burying them, publicly, with grave-goods, will no longer suffice to categorise those families as Scandinavian settlers. But what if those objects were themselves of Scandinavian origin?
Telling the difference (2): Grave-goods
Some of the grave-goods in the unusual ninth- to tenth-century furnished inhumations are of indubitably Scandinavian type. They do not, however, amount to an enormous corpus. Tortoise brooches have been found at Claughton Hall (Edwards 1970), Bedale (Morris, C.D., 1981b:77; Shetelig 1940:15,19) and Santon Downham (Norfolk; Shetelig 1940:12-13). Other jewellery is less straightforwardly ‘Viking’. Ring-headed pins and thistle brooches belong originally to ‘Celtic’, especially Irish material culture, although both were adopted by the Scandinavians. Neither form is common in burials: one ring-headed pin is known from the Sonning grave (Berks: Evison 1969), the example from Brigham church (Cumbria; Cowan 1934:183; 1948a:74) possibly came from a burial, and an equally uncertain example comes from Eaglesfield (Cumbria: Cowan 1967a; 1967b). I know of no thistle-brooches of certain funerary provenance in England. A burial at Saffron Walden (Evison 1969:337-41) contained pendants of possibly Scandinavian origin, but the other elements of the jewellery were English (Morris, C.D., 1981b:77). The Thor’s Hammer in Repton grave 511 is an item of much clearer Scandinavian symbolism and significance (Biddle & Biddle 1992:40-41).
Finds of weaponry are problematic. Axes are known from Hesket-in-the-Forest, Beacon Hill, Aspatria (Cumbria: Cowen 1948a:74; Richards 1991:114), Kildale (N. Yorks: Morris, C.D., 1981a:235) and Repton (Biddle & Biddle 1992:41; Shetelig 1940:14). Since axes were rarely used as weapons in Anglo-Saxon England before their introduction, under Danish influence, in the eleventh century, it seems reasonable to accept their Scandinavian typological associations.
The same cannot be said of other weapons. Swords are difficult to typologise, date and assign origins. The general type of long, two-edged slashing sword remained more or less constant throughout the early medieval period, meaning that, unless decorated, swords are datable with difficulty. Furthermore, the potentially decorated and datable components of a sword - hilt, guard, pommel, blade, scabbbard - may be associated with each other in different combinations over time through repair and modification; for decorative typologies, a sword does not constitute a ‘sealed context’. Nevertheless, the swords from the Wensley, Camphill (N. Yorks: Shetelig 1940:15, 17) and Santon Downham (Shetelig 1940:13) burials are uncontroversially Anglo-Saxon, and that from the Whitbarrow Scar grave (Cumbria) looks like another of the same type (Hutton 1901:93 & facing plate). Even the sword from Ingleby mound 1 is reckoned to have been of English manufacture (Clarke & Fraser 1946:10-11; Shetelig 1954:78) Others have been assigned a Scandinavian provenance purely because they have a straight guard, whereas ‘typical’ late Anglo-Saxon guards are curved downwards (Petersen 1919, Type L), but most are in fact fairly undiagnostic, as at Kildale and Eaglesfield (Cowen 1948b, 1967b). The straight guard was common across western Europe and survived in England until at least the eighth century and perhaps into the ninth (Wilson 1965:49). ‘English swords of other forms [than Petersen Type L] are difficult to affix in a typological series’ (Wilson 1964:63). It seems very likely that straight-guarded swords could have remained common in northern England into the Viking period, especially if their popularity was reinforced by the use of similar swords brought from Scandinavia and elsewhere by settlers. The Ormside sword was thought (Cowen 1934:170) to represent a local school of manufacture, and the sword from Sonning (accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon knife and a ‘Celtic’ ring-headed pin: Evison 1969) seems to have a plain, straight-guarded hilt fitted to a possibly English inlaid blade. Without decoration, it seems extremely hazardous to assign plain functional hilts of the very common western European Petersen Types H, I and M to ‘Vikings’. Even the animal art on the lost Reading sword might be of Carolingian origin (Shetelig 1940:12; 1954:79-80). Spearheads are yet more problematic; most seem to be of standard ‘Carolingian’ or ‘late Saxon’ types.
All in all, then, very little of the material from the furnished burials of ninth- to tenth-century northern England may be assigned a Scandinavian origin. Whilst I must admit that the argument that the more successful a Viking was, the more non-Viking objects he would have in his grave has a certain attraction, the positivist in me yearns for an explanation which emerges more directly from patterns in the available material.
The Meanings of Distinction
Clearly, this evidence cannot be read as a straightforward reflection of Scandinavian settlement. For one thing, the bodycount would reduce the Micel Here almost to ‘Magnificent Seven’ proportions with which, I imagine, even Peter Sawyer would quibble. Where are the other Scandinavian settlers? Either they were buried in archaeologically invisible fashion, such as by being set adrift in blazing boats (in what archaeologists might call burial of ‘Typ Kirk Douglas’) or they felt no need to distinguish themselves from the natives in matters of death and burial. Blanket (and bland) reference to rapid assimilation or christianization provides no explanation. There is nothing non-Christian about these furnished inhumations, which are largely not very different from most other graves; many, moreover, are in churchyards. Except for the Ingleby cremations and, perhaps, Repton grave 511 (in a church but accompanied by a Thor’s Hammer) this evidence cannot, thus, even be used to study the impact of Christianity, or pagan-Christian relations (even in Hadley’s cautious formulation, 1996:89-90).
We need to ask that fundamental, but hardly ever posed, question: why did people bury their dead like this? Passive reflection of either religion and geographical origins (calling the latter ‘ethnicity’ dignifies usual explanations with more subtlety than they deserve) does not explain it. Nor will a blanket explanation of ‘grave-goods’ suffice; many different types of grave-goods burial exist. Let us, then, review the evidence. We have a few graves, seemingly all of adults, and mostly (apparently) of adult males, accompanied by not particularly lavish grave-goods. Hesket-in-the-Forest probably has the most elaborate assemblage, followed by Beacon Hill, Kildale, and Repton 511. None of the latter would stand out in a sixth-century context, or compare to the Manx (Bersu & Wilson 1966) or Scottish (Graham-Campbell & Batey 1998:113-42) Viking burials, and we have no large communal cemetery with grave-goods, like Kilmainham (Eire: Bøe 1940:11-65). Both contrasts impact crucially on our understanding. The date of the English graves is difficult to establish but they seem generally to fall within a generation or so either side of 900 AD.
We must consider the grave as the focus for ritual and the transmission of information: as a text (Halsall 1998a). We need to address the audience of such texts and their temporal dimension - for how long could they be ‘read’. Another obvious, but often overlooked, point is that grave-goods ritual is transient - ‘here and now’; once the grave is filled in the display is no longer visible. To be meaningful, therefore, it needs an audience present at the funeral. In that regard it is no surprise that several of these burials are to be found in or by churches. As has been very clearly demonstrated by Frederick Paxton (1990) the early medieval funeral mass aimed to unify a community around the dead and the grieving family. Christian ritual took place from the death-bed to the graveside, and there were doubtless secular rituals such as feasting as well (Bullough 1981:188, 199). North of the Thames, in the decades around 900, some families used these communal assemblies to display and bury with the deceased symbols of local standing, power and wealth: weaponry most notably (probably for its violent symbolism - Halsall 1998b:3-4 - but on occasion perhaps also to symbolise hunting, a quintessentially aristocratic pastime which also demonstrates leadership), but also riding equipment (again the aristocratic symbolism is clear), elaborate costume, and occasionally other items too, a sickle at Hesket-in-the-Forest (symbolic of control of the harvest?) and a set of balances (representing authority over ‘weights and measures’?) at Kildale. The public display of symbols of power during lavish public funerary ritual, especially if accompanied by feasting (the giving of food was one of the major foci of the socially-embedded early medieval economy), suggests that the death of these adults caused stress in the web of local power-relationships: tension which had to be eased by the use of ritual.
A context for such local tensions around 900 is not difficult to find: changes in the patterns of political power in the north at that time, intimately, if not entirely, bound up with the creation of the Scandinavian Danelaw earldoms and the kingdom of York. This was a period of significant social change. Estate structures may have been modified or renegotiated (Hadley 1996), and fairly dramatic urban development took place (Hall 1989; Clarke & Ambrosiani 1991:90-106 and refs.) which must also have impacted upon rural power and society. In this setting it is not surprising to see the occasional use of funerary ritual to maintain - particularly, perhaps, to succeed to - local power. Nor is it surprising that some of the material used should be Scandinavian or have Scandinavian referents; the new political powers were Scandinavian, authority could be well displayed by demonstrating connection with them, and the local and regional identities forged in this period probably hinged on links with the ‘Danes’. The use of material culture to create such situational ‘ethnicities’, even (perhaps especially) where the people involved did not originate from the geographical areas identified as the ‘homeland’ of the gens, is well attested in the early medieval west (Pohl 1998). The fictive nature of such identities is possibly underlined by the use of material which, if anything, is of Hiberno-Norse origin. Some of those buried in these graves may indeed have been of Scandinavian origin; the purpose of this article has not been to deny that, but rather to show that the archaeological evidence does not, of itself, necessarily reveal Scandinavian settlement.
But these graves are few and far between, and the rite does not seem to have been used for more than a generation or two, usually only one within a particular site. This suggests that this tension, generally, represented a momentary crisis soon weathered. This would contrast with Kilmainham where, in a new immigrant urban community, we might expect more intense and lasting competition between families for local status. In comparison with other early medieval contexts, Viking-Age and earlier, the English grave-goods are not especially lavish, revealing, in my interpretation, that there were other means of establishing local authority, by reference to established sources of power. On the peripheries, away from such sources of power, social competition manifested by grave-goods is often more intense (e.g. on the northern edges of the Merovingian world). This further suggests that the crisis around 900 was not that cataclysmic. It, perhaps, also helps us to understand why Viking burial in Scotland and the Isles is so much more lavish and dramatic. The argument might, furthermore, go some way towards explaining the greater concentration of these burials in Cumbria, a political twilight-zone where there may have been a tradition of mound burial. Unlike grave-goods, burial mounds attempt to create a permanently readable ‘text’, perhaps aimed at a wider community. Here, competition for local authority and its maintenance may have required greater use of funerary display.
Finally, this interpretation has a bearing on Ingleby. This, as stated, is the only clearly intrusive Danish pagan cemetery. This community cremated its dead and buried them under mounds on a ridge. Whether or not this was part of a specific ‘dialogue’ with the Repton burials (Richards et al. 1995), it was part of a dialogue with someone, and the location of Ingleby, close to the Anglo-Danish frontier is precisely the context one would expect for such an unusual ritual display of difference. The cemetery’s fairly early date also suggests that the creation of this frontier led, briefly, to heightened awareness of new differences (Kershaw, this volume). Beyond Ingleby, the scattered furnished inhumations graves of later ninth-/early tenth-century England tell us little about the actual settlement of Scandinavian immigrants in England (which is not to deny that such settlement took place). They have little bearing on Christian-pagan relationships and even less on the rather tired and uninteresting debates about the numbers of settlers. However, they do have the potential to yield interesting information on the social and political context of the Scandinavian settlement and on some of the local tensions produced, at least in part, by cultures in contact.
I am grateful to Dr Dawn Hadley for helpful initial bibliographical orientation, and to her and Dr Julian Richards for their editorial patience. I am also very grateful to Dr Bonnie Effros for numerous very interesting and useful references and discussions of early medieval burial practice.
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Kristiania is the place of publication; the Skrifter utgit... surely counts as publisher? It’s a serial.