Friday, February 05, 2010

Vikings and Death

In the Viking Age people were buried in many different sort of places. Did the ancient Scandinavians chose a particular place for burial or were the burial sites randomly selected? Had the choice anything to do with ideas of the afterlife?

Archaeologist Eva Thäte will deliver a lecture about vikings and death at the University of Stavanger in Norway next week. She will explain that Viking Age burial rites are very diverse as were people’s choices of places for burial grounds. In the Late Iron Age (AD 500-1000), people in Scandinavia buried their deceased on high ground, in ancient burial mounds, in houses, close to water sites and near roads or boundaries.

The archaeologist is a Visiting Research Associate from the University of Chester in England, and a well-known face at the Museum of Archaeology, where she’s doing further research on the theme Vikings and Death, more specific on the costume of boat graves.

"The diversity of the evidence poses the question of why the ancient Scandinavians chose a particular place for burial or if the burial sites were just randomly selected. Whilst the custom of re-using ancient monuments for the dead may have had to do with hereditary rights to property in the first place, the historical sources show that the placing of cemeteries elsewhere in the landscape matches ideas of the afterlife," says Thäte.

A comparison with modern studies on near-death-experiences demonstrates that the aforementioned landscape features match archetypes with a liminal meaning. The theory is put forward that people chose sites that covered as many of these topographical features as possible in order to be prepared for the transition to the otherworld.

Dr. Thäte's current research project is The Boat on the Hill. Topography, symbolism and new interpretations of boat burials in Viking Age Scandinavia.

She says, "One of the most significant objects linked to the Vikings is the boat - and not least in the Viking-Age burial rite. The boat was an important symbol in pre-Christian Scandinavia that designated the transition from life to death.

"No detailed research on boat burials has been done for the last 30 to 40 years and new evidence from recent excavations in Rogaland (Norway) - a region where boat burial was common practice - demands a re-assessment of outdated results and statements."

Her lastest article is "Barrows, Roads and Ridges: Or Where to Bury the Dead? The Choice of Burial Grounds in Late Iron-Age Scandinavia," in Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Heinrich Härke, from Exeter University Press.