Valkyrie and Viking Warrior from Tissø @ National Museum of Denmark

Dead Viking Warriors in Living Memory.

For several years the archaeologist, Anne Pedersen, painstakingly sifted through the reports of excavations of Viking warrior tombs in Denmark. The result is an excellent PhD, now published.

Dead Warriors in Living Memory. A Study of Weapon and Equestrian Burials in Viking-Age Denmark, AD 800 -1000
By Anne Pedersen
Series: Studies in Archaeology & History Vol 20:1 – The Jelling Series.
National Museum, Copenhagen, 2014

REVIEW:

Archaeological excavations of graves from the Viking Age go back several centuries and have led to many exquisite finds, which unfortunately were never properly preserved or reported. However, by sifting through the material and not least the old excavation reports, and do comparative and contextualised studies, much lost may still be retrieved.

Such a tour-de-force represents the work of the archaeologist, Anne Pedersen. In connection with her PhD, she took it upon herself to sift through the archaeological corpus of Warrior-graves in Denmark. Her aim was to better understand, who these men were, buried in their furnished graves together with their weapons, horses, dogs, and sometimes even boats. Now, her PhD has been published in two volumes encompassing a detailed presentation of her finds plus a catalogue, which can be perused by anyone with just a tiny bit more than a superficial interest in the Vikings.

What is a Warrior Grave?

Viking Weapons © National Museum of Denmark
Viking Weapons © National Museum of Denmark

In the Viking Age people were buried in numerous fashions. While some graves were furnished, others were devoid of nearly everything, in all probability witnessing to poverty or low social standing. Most burials were cremations. However, inhumations were also practiced in some regions throughout the Viking Age. Particularly Jutland stands out in this connections. Some of these graves were furnished with a wide selection of weapons, as well as (sometimes) horses and hounds including their harness. Sometimes these men were laid to rest in chambers, which were topped with mounds. In a few – exceptional – cases – the dead warrior, now often called a “king”, was laid to rest in his boat. These richly furnished male graves often corresponded to the graves, in which expensively dressed women have been found, laid to rest in waggons together with their caskets for personal belongings. Both males and females were often buried with combs, tableware as well as occasional other material culture, like gaming boards and pieces. A marked characteristic is that these richly furnished graves became more prevalent in the 10th century and thus coincided with the on-going Christianisation of Scandinavia during this period.

The questions raised by Anne Pedersen are why such ostentatious burials gained this prominence in the 10th century (but not earlier). More precisely, she has also tried to figure out whether particular families were behind the burials as well as what purpose the grandiose funerary investment served. The area under investigation is Denmark and its former provinces in the west and southern parts of present Sweden.

This is a careful study, and readers are therefore treated to a detailed presentation of burial sites, burial types, types of weapons, personal equipment and other furnishings found in the graves. After this introduction, we are treated to a well-argued analysis of the comparative material from the rest of Scandinavia; also a careful chronology is worked out to uncover the composition of the grave goods over time. After having established this overview, there follows a presentation of the political and cultural context of Denmark in the 10th century. Especially, the relations to the Christianised Germany lying south of the border plays a decisive role here. Finally, we get a presentation of the life world of these Viking Warriors, the changes, which took place in the period, and the development of the ostentatiously furnished graves dealt with here.

The Conclusion

In the title of the book, we are promised to learn about the warrior-graves from c. 800 – 1000. Nevertheless, one of the intriguing results of the sifting of the material is, that apart from a few outliers, weapons and riding equipment were poorly attested in the 9th century. Anne Pedersen estimates that the few examples are probably reflections of an earlier practice. From the beginning of the 10th century, more precisely c. 925 CE, deposition of weapons and riding equipment became widespread. This custom continued well into the later half of the 10th century. The Central period was c. 925 – 975 CE. The custom seems to have died out soon after, latest in Northern Jutland. During this time the types of artefacts changed and a relative chronology was possible based on forms and artistic styles. At the high point, furnished graves might come with a full set of arms. Later, the custom seemed to peter out. During this period graves might be fitted with a single weapon, often an axe.

These shifts make it complicated to decide whether there existed a hierarchy between these rich graves. Nevertheless, a pattern seems to be discernible.  The “richest” furnishings (apart from those with boats) are the distinct equestrian burials. The combination of horses, decorated horse furnishings, weapons, constructed chambers, all covered by the occasional mound “strongly suggest that the deceased came from wealthy, high-ranking families or had otherwise acquired the means or right to act as such.” (p. 197) These men were laid to rest mimicking the stories told about them in the Eddic poem of Rígsþula – able-bodied and accomplished in his dealings with weapons, horses, hunting and swimming, owner of mighty halls, organiser of grand feasts, and clever with Runes.

One of the more intriguing facts appears when Anne Pedersen conduct a close reading of the artistic styles, through which she finds that even if some of the buried individuals might not necessarily be related, they had apparently acquired their stuff from the same artist or craftsman. For instance, the horse gear from a grave in Southern Jutland (Thumby Bienebek 37A) and another from Langeland (Stengade I) suggest close relations between the two families; or at least that they shopped in the same place, perhaps Haithabu?

Who were they?

To Anne Pedersen, there is no doubt. Taken together the furnishings in the male weapon graves and the ditto female waggon graves were not intended to help the deceased in their future life. In this context, it is important to note that both Thor’s Hammers and Christian crosses are extremely rare grave-goods. Rather the weapons, the horse and their furnishings as well as the tableware signal active and accomplished warriors able to exercise violent control as well as feeding their retinue. At these banquets, there would be ample opportunity to amuse oneself with skaldic poetry as well as games while surrounded by competent, richly clad women. Anne Pedersen does not say so directly, but these were obviously, “The Earls”, the King’s men, which figure in the skaldic poetry.

It is fascinating that this rich burial fashion seemed to evolve and dominate the landscape at a time when Denmark was on the cusp of being Christianised and politically integrated into the wider world. As social statements, these people did not seem busy with succumbing to the new world, which they were increasingly coming into contact with on other levels than the mere raiding and plundering of the 9th century.

Karen Schousboe

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Anne Pedersen. Born 1955, MA and PhD, prehistoric and medieval archaeology. PhD dissertation:  Vikingetidens grave med våben og hesteudstyr i det gammeldanske område – inventar og datering, idé og hensigt. Since 1997 at the department for Medieval and rennaissance at the Danish National Museum. Head of the Jelling-project.

FEATURED PHOTO:

Valkyrie and Viking Warrior from Tissø @ National Museum of Denmark

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