Communicating the past through craftsmanship and art: the case of the Viking ship

Sara Ellis Nilsson, Linnæus University (formerly Malmö University)


What is a Viking without a ship?

With that perhaps provocative question, I would like to introduce the topic of this paper: communicating the past through carpentry and art in cultural heritage institutions. Although the main purpose(s) or goals of these organizations vary, museums in particular can be seen as receptacles of past lives. For instance, they contain historical artefacts, and often documents, keys and doorways to the past. In addition, they create and preserve narratives of the past, presenting and interpreting them for their visitors. Among these cultural heritage institutions are those most concerned with maritime cultures and their ships, as well as specific time periods such as the Viking Age, Indeed, in narratives about the Viking age, the ship is often incorporated as an important element. Again, What is a Viking without a ship?

This paper discusses the role of the ship in communicating and interpreting the past, in this case the Viking age, by comparing one museum and one “experience centre”: the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde and the Ribe Viking Centre. The paper is based on my study of a number of museums and centres throughout Scandinavia. These two case studies have been chosen as they are both found in the same country, Denmark, and represent these two approaches to engaging visitors in learning about the Viking Age. Together, they combine several of the themes of the conference at which this paper was originally presented: re-creation and academic methods. Before presenting and discussing the two museums, it is necessary to discuss the multiple roles of the museum, the role of experimental archaeology, and the reason that ships can be seen as cultural objects from which historical narratives can be spun.

Oseberg ship - IMG 9129.jpg
Image 1 – the Oseberg Ship, Oslo. This ship is seen as a “prototype” for many Viking-age ships. It is easily recognizable and often used in historical narratives when presenting the Viking Age (Photo: Wikicommons. By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain)

The Multiple Roles of the Museum

As mentioned, this paper discusses two different types of “museum” or what the public perceives of as museums: the “traditional” museum and the experience centre. What role do these types of cultural heritage institutions play in interpreting and communicating the past?

First, a traditional museum is usually a public institution with a directive, expressing its specific focus and purpose. Traditional museums, however, have many roles in common that might not be specifically articulated in their individual mission statements. In general, museums are instrumental in the interpretation and communication of historical narratives. They provide an authoritative voice, conserve objects/knowledge, and (possibly) provide some form of entertainment to their visitors.

Second, the relative newcomers to the scene are the experience centres. Their role is also found in communication and interpretation, but there is a heavy emphasis on entertainment. They can be described as the “Disney Land” of history.[1] Until recently, many of these centres were viewed with mistrust but are now becoming accepted as mainstream. In some cases, their goals were primarily focused on entertainment and the communication of specific aspects of history, not the entire picture. In experience centres, the consumption of history by visitors is the most important part of the concept. Enabling a visitor to experience history using (nearly) all of their senses is of primary concern. Here, it is important that you are allowed, even encouraged, to put yourself in the shoes of someone in the past. Although they may not think that they have this role, the public and especially their visitors see them as having authority.

In both instances, especially where the experience centres have access to actual finds, there are some common aspects to consider. One of these – important to the current study – is the use of objects as gateways to historical narratives. Using material objects to make history come alive for the interested public includes archaeological finds/objects and their reconstructions. How is this done and on what basis? One of the ways is through re-creations and reconstructions, which allow the public to touch and experience history using all of their senses.

Re-creations and reconstructions are important elements in experiencing history and in what has come to be called the consumption of history (De Groot 2016). They make history come alive and infuse it with a feeling of relevance to the interested public. Added to this is the fact that one of the most important foundations in reconstructing historical objects is found in experimental archaeology. Of course, experimental archaeology can be applied to practically any find. Indeed, a numerous categories of artefacts are the focus of reconstruction work. In my study, I have chosen ships as an artefact category worthy of further study due to their long-term significance in Viking-Age narratives.

Image 2 – Reconstruction in progress in the boatyard: the Gislinge Boat 2016. (Photo: Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde)

The Case for Experimental Archaeology

An integral part in reconstruction work – at least on the scientific or scholarly level – is experimental archaeology. The development of this discipline has been vital to understanding how reconstructions should be done. At this point, it is important to highlight a difference in terminology. Reconstructions are attempts to re-create an actual, sometimes incomplete find; at times, these are inspired by finds but are not attempts to re-create an actual find (here called re-creations). Neither of these is a restoration of an actual find. Experimental archaeology can be concerned with all of these and should always follow certain procedures – if it is to be done correctly. If not, those who subscribe to the following process could deem the reconstruction suspect and not to be trusted in the interpretation of the use or history of a historical item, including its use in the historical period in question.

This process of experimental archaeology, according to Bodil Petersson’s interpretation of Ole Crumlin-Pedersen’s method (Petersson 2003) contains the following principles or steps:

  1. There needs to be an archaeological basis for the reconstruction or copy of a find.
  2. A research strategy needs to be in place. What is the potential for this find? What can a reconstruction or copy tell us about the object in question, its place in the historical narrative, its use in the past, etc.
  3. Original material has to be used. In addition to the material of the actual object, this point includes the tools used to reconstruct the object.
  4. Knowledgeable and competent craftspeople and end-users are needed in order to properly reconstruct the object and then use it!
  5. Results must be published and documented so that they can be tested or attempted again.

As seen, the above principles are based on the scientific method. They also, perhaps inadvertently, require an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach (cf. Petersson 2003). In addition to archaeologists, craft specialists and users of the item are also required in order to come to valid conclusions. Often these are one and the same, however. In the case of this study, experienced boat-builders and sailors are necessary for the successful completion of a project.

As mentioned, the reliance on scientific principles – concrete, replicable steps – and use of material culture creates the assumption that this experimental method is objective and inherently source-critical. However, the goal of pure objectivity is unattainable. The subjective aspects of interpretation and the emotional aspects of reconstruction cannot be avoided. It is impossible to be positivist and deny emotions when humans and interpretation are at the centre of the reconstruction work. Thus, as Petersson also states, it is vital to be aware of the humanistic view inherent in this type of work (2003).

A sense of principles and guidelines are very important in reconstruction, and it seems that most agree that especially points 1, 2, 4, and (to some extent) 5 should be upheld in all forms of reconstruction. However, there is not always consensus about point 3. This principle can create difficulties in terms of the availability of the appropriate material, the cost, and the (in-)experience of the craftsperson. Original material is useful if required to test a certain hypothesis, but it is not always practical. This sense of practicality and willingness to be flexible seems mainly evident at the experience centres. It could be speculated that this approach is also valuable.

As has become clear from my ongoing study, those engaged in reconstruction work all expressed a sense of enjoyment that they experienced in the process of building and creating. Thus, the humanistic element is clearly manifest in reconstruction work. The general consensus was: It might be hard work – but it is lots of fun!

The Ship as a Cultural Object

Throughout history, including during the Viking Age, ships have played an important societal role. Waterways and the ships or boats that travelled them have enabled social communication by providing a foundation of communication and trade networks. In the Viking Age, they were associated with an increase in mobility – imagined or otherwise. The latter ensured access to, sometimes vital, provisions and even luxury goods. In addition to their very important practical functions in the Iron Age, ships were a symbol of power, both secular and religious. The importance of the ship as a symbol could vary however based on local and familial traditions. For instance, in some areas, ship burial was more common, while in others votive offerings of ships in graves was the preferred practice (e.g. Larsson 2007; Westerdahl 2007). Thus, as artefacts ships are imbued with the potential to evoke images of the past and, for this reason, are ideal to use in the concretization of historical narratives.

Ships are a relatively common feature in art from the period, including on the picture stones. These representations show forms of decoration on the ships, such as animal heads. Indeed, many of the ship finds have some form of decoration on them, although most are not as elaborately decorated as the Oseberg (img. 1). In other words, it seems that some sort of decoration was integrated into and important in the construction of most ships. Occasionally that ornamentation is graffiti, which might be identified as an important element in the academic analyses of ship finds. However, as will be discussed, this ornamentation – whether original or later graffiti – is not always thought of as an integral aspect in the reconstruction of the ship. More focus is given to the structure and practical function of the ship – ensuring that the final result is a fully functioning vessel. The question of re-creating ornamentation is often left to last. Why is art separated from the ship-building process? Why does it remain an afterthought? In the next sections, I will discuss the two case studies and explore these questions.

Two Viking Cultural Heritage Institutions and their Ships


Image 3 – The Exhibition Hall and the Skuldelev Wrecks (Photo: Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde)

Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde

The museum which best fits the traditional museum category is the Viking Ship Museum (VSM) in Roskilde. However, it is not only a traditional museum with a permanent exhibition. It is in fact a unique combination of a traditional museum and a “living museum” (Roskilde 2017); the latter is something like an experience centre. In the main hall, built especially for this purpose, the permanent exhibition of the five Skuldelev wrecks is situated. These wrecks were excavated from their resting place as a barrier in Roskilde Fjord, conserved and reassembled in the museum. Iron ribs were used for the missing sections to show the way the boat might have looked. The museum was designed and built so that the visitor feels that they are on the water.

The main purpose of the museum is the interpretation of the Viking Age. An important part of the museum’s purpose and mission is found in its pedagogical activities. There is an especial focus on school-children and pedagogy together with Skoletjenesten. For instance, the permanent exhibition has a section with a “boat” in which children can explore (or play in). Children can also dress-up in Viking clothes and pretend that they are about to embark on a voyage.

Part of the museum’s reconstruction work can be seen in the hall. The weaver sits in one corner and the partially woven sail is always on display. Connections to the scientific method in the form of marine archaeology exhibitions are also found in the main building; however, these are not a part of the main ship hall.

The living museum aspect is found in the small boat harbour and adjoining workshops. Similar to an experience centre, occupations associated with the Viking Age have been placed here. In this case, all of those professions needed in order to make true reconstructions (except for the sail) are found here: a rope maker, a smith, boat builders, and carpenters. These craftspeople are all expected to be true to Viking age techniques by using reconstructed tools in their work – clearly adhering to reconstruction principles 3 and 4.

In the harbour, all of the ships are docked for most of the year, except for the winter when they are taken up on land. A visitor will find reconstructions of the Skuldelev ships in the harbour, but there are also other reconstructions. The boatyard’s mission statement includes reconstructions and care for all clinker-built and historical wooden boats from the Viking Age to more recent models. The Viking Age reconstructions include, for example: Havhingsten (the Sea Stallion) which is a reconstruction of Skuldelev 2, as well as Helge Ask (Skuldelev 5), and Kraka Fyr and Skoldjungen – two different interpretations of Skuldelev 6 (Roskilde 2017).

Image 4 – Havhingsten – The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (reconstruction of Skuldelev 6. Photo: Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde)

How then are these artefacts and their reconstructions used to communicate the past at the VSM?

In the main hall, the exhibit is static with signs and statistics related to the ships, which includes some information explaining the reconstructions found in the harbour and small models of these ships. The visitor is encouraged to read, to observe, or to ponder. There is also the option of going on a guided tour in which the artefacts are given a context. This is done by identifying where, when and how the artefact was made, but a narrative based on the lifetime of the ship AFTER its construction is also provided. Both types of biography are applied interchangeably.

In addition to the re-built ships (and the children’s ship corner), there are two other exhibitions which make use of the ship as an artefact in creating narratives about the past. One features an explanation of the attack on Roskilde and the creation of the barrier further up the fjord. In this case, the afterlife of the ships is in focus. They are used to weave a tale about political power, military tactics, and the rise of the city.

Another way in which the artefacts are used is related to their reconstruction. Reconstructions are built based on the above experimental archaeology principles. Exposing visitors to these and to the process of creating a new artefact (based on an actual, historical find) creates an encounter with a (re-created) past phenomenon and enables historical empathy – in this case for shipbuilding. As a result, visitors are encouraged to participate in and try their hand at all of the activities in the living history section – not unlike visiting an experience centre. Otherwise, this living-history area also provides a passive viewer experience, where visitors can watch the experts at work making rope, smithing, chopping boards, and so on.

As an example of some of the recent work at the museum – in terms of using craftsmanship to communicate history – I would like to mention the Gislinge Boat Project. This project was originally planned to take place from 2015-2016 but is now an open-source project on the museum’s website (Roskilde 2016). The boat find in question is from the 12th century (so not really the Viking age!). However, it can serve as a prime example of one of the ways in which the museum works to engage the public in its ongoing reconstruction activities. In this project, the interested public were invited to join the experts for workshops, for example, to cleave boards, produce nails and rope, and weave the sail. In other words, they contributed to the actual reconstruction of a clinker-built ship. The museum aimed to provide hands-on experience to bring visitors closer to the past. Diagrams and schematics were even made available open-source so that others could also build their own reconstructions. Imagine building your own medieval boat! If you would like to test it, the diagrams are still available. A virtual community has also been created around the project with film and photo updates.

What about the artwork or ornamentation on the ships? In the main hall, any discussion on the artwork is made in passing. A discussion of Viking age art is relegated to a series of posters, which present an overview of the Viking Age. There is, of course, an awareness at the museum that these need to be updated.[2] In addition to these posters, there is also, for example, a re-created metal weathervane (as seen on the Havhingsten) on display on the wall with a small text. Ornamentation on the ships is not highlighted however, even though Skuldelev 5 is partially decorated. The same is the case in the harbour: the ship’s function is the primary focus.

Image 5 – Helge Ask (reconstruction of Skuldelev 5. Photo: Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde)

Indeed, ornamentation is often not included in the initial planning of the reconstruction process. Building a sound boat is the primary focus, which is definitely understandable! Art is left to last, but that does not mean it is entirely forgotten by the craftspeople, including the ship-builders. They do ask the following questions: How should we paint the boat? Should we decorate the stems with an animal head (or a windvane)? Indeed, both Helge Ask (img. 5) and Havhingsten (img. 4) have prow decorations, the former with an animal head and tail (only when at sea, fitting with the sagas) and the latter with a golden windvane (Roskilde 2015). Skuldelev 5 has a tendril/vine or a snakehead carved into its side. This ornamentation was in fact reconstructed by painting a copy of the figure on Helge Ask (Roskilde 2015). Moreover, both of these longships have been brightly painted in red and yellow (and blue in the case of Havhingsten). However, this aspect of reconstruction is not represented among the different occupations or trades represented in the workshops. Art is an still an afterthought in the communication of the history surrounding these artefacts.

Image 6 – Working on the Gislinge Project (Photo: Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde)

Ribe Viking Centre (Experience Centre)

Turning now to the other cultural heritage institution: the experience centre. In this case, Ribe Viking Centre (RVC) is a private company that cooperates with local and regional museums, in particular the Museums of Southeast Jutland, Museet Ribes Vikingar, as well as the VSM in Roskilde. In addition, RVC also cooperates with the municipality in terms of their pedagogical work together with Skoletjenesten (roughly “school service”) for pupils in compulsory school, as well as their collaboration with the local “production school” Lustrupholm (Danish: produktionsskolan).[3] Among other things, these young people at the production school participate in construction and re-construction at the site, and work with the public during the summer months (Ribe 2013).[4]

The concept of RVC is founded on a vision of bringing the Viking Age to life. The time period is broad while the geographical scope is narrow: approximately the 700s to the 900s in the Viking age market town of Ribe and on a nearby manor farm on Jutland. Thus, in particular, the RVC aims to “bring to life” the Viking-Age town and surroundings of Ribe (RVC 2017b). The town itself is (and was) situated about 3 km to the north of the experience centre. Visitors to the RVC are given the chance to experience history first hand, to step back in time. When the centre is open to the public, the site is populated by re-enactors and guides (in period clothing). In addition to the regular, daily activities, there are always several, larger reconstruction projects on the go at the centre. Among these projects is boat-building which takes place in the centre’s rudimentary shipyard. There are also several boats floating in the man-made lake (which is meant to represent Ribe’s harbour), docked by the re-constructed harbour (an interpretation of the find from Hedeby, not Ribe!). As at the VSM in Roskilde, the boats are also taken up on land in the winter.

Contrary to the VSM in Roskilde, ships are a part of a much larger whole at the RVC: the re-creation of Ribe in the Viking Age. This re-creation is done by establishing stations or areas run by craft specialists (or religious specialists) who practice their craft and encourage visitors to engage in hands-on activities. The hands-on aspect is a similar technique to that used in Roskilde. In its daily routine, the centre thus also subscribes to experimental archaeology principle 4, but as will be seen, number 3 is not always applied. All of the principles are applied when cooperating on experimental archaeology projects together with, for example, the VSM in Roskilde – as was the case with Gísla (see below).  However, the centre’s main mandate is enabling their visitors to experience the Viking Age, not subscribing to scientific principles.

Image 7 – The ship-builder’s workplace with a view of the hall and the “lake” (Photo by author)

As mentioned, boats feature as one of the crafting-stations at the RVC. Again, the question could be asked: what is a viking without a ship? In re-creating a historical situation, and especially that of a market town, ships are seen as a necessary feature. As mentioned, he RVC contains a (rudimentary) shipyard with a carpenter, although this individual is usually not a boat-building specialist. The two boats by the reconstructed harbour provide a prime example of the flexibility within which this centre works. One of the boats (not pictured) is a reconstruction of a find from Gislinge (Lammefjord) called Gísla. As mentioned it was built together with the VSM in Roskilde, incorporating the five principles of reconstruction within experimental archaeology mentioned above.

Image 8 – ‘Kajs kærling’ docked by the reconstructed harbour with a view of the boat-builder’s workplace (Photo: TripAdvisor)

The other (img. 7) boat, named Kajs kærling, is more representative of how the centre usually works. Kajs kærling is clinker-built but it is not based on a specific find (in contrast to principle 1 above). However, the re-creation is inspired by Viking Age finds and fits into the intended historical context well. Its name contains an inside joke as the word kærling refers to a “hysterical woman”, and connects it to its builder, Kaj.[5] All of the boats constructed in the boat-yard at RVC are built within a limited time-frame, under pressure. Perhaps this inspired the choice of name? This boat has been decorated with grooves and human heads on some of the pins, in addition to having its name on the prow.

In order for the shipyard at RVC to be a hub of activity like the other areas of the centre, a ship needs to be always on the go. Often, as with their other larger (re-)construction projects, there is also a deadline to meet, i.e. when the boat needs to be completed. These constraints lead to a certain pragmatism on the part of the carpenters. Thus, for example, modern tools (hidden from the view of visitors) are used if necessary and planks are sawed not hewn[6]. It is more important to meet the deadline than to follow the principles of reconstruction. In addition to these challenges, the carpenters are required to explain the building process to the visitors, and much of their time during the day is focused on these interactions. Although visitors are welcome to participate in many of the other crafting activities on site, in this case, visitors are not allowed to work on the ship. They do interact with the carpenter by asking questions, as mentioned, or perhaps they are given a tool to hold.

At the RVC, communicating the Viking Age via craftsmanship is clearly import. Art is found in many places – including on the newly (re-)constructed “Ansgar’s Church” – but again, it is not explicitly discussed in relation to ships. The carpenter at RVC insisted that decoration was something that you could make if there was some free time after finishing a boat.[7] The ornamentation that is found on Kajs kaerling was carved during a moment of inspiration and when the carpenters had some spare time. There was no way of knowing if they would decorate the new boat under construction in the harbour, but perhaps if they got ahead of schedule there would be time for inspiration.[8]

At the RVC, as at the VSM in Roskilde, boats are found in their proper, watery context. However, here the lake is man-made and rather small! Despite this fact, if you were not looking to learn more about ships, you could miss them entirely, especially the ones docked in the harbour. It is highly likely that their role in the entire context of the centre would be unclear to the average visitor – before they ask, at least.

Using Objects and Reconstructions in the Communication of History

What, then, is a Viking without a ship? At the two cultural heritage centres presented in this paper, it is apparent that ships are important artefacts, used in the production of narratives about the Viking Age. They are given different prominence of place, of course, based on the institutional mission statement in question.

At the museum featured in this paper, VSM in Roskilde, ships are given a prominent position. This approach is of course due to the purpose of the museum – to display actual ship finds and educate the public about these particular ships. The next step, building a living history component to the museum, and using experimental archaeology and reconstruction in the education of the Viking period, could have been broadened to include more than just ships. However, the museum maintains their focus on the ship as the most important artefact in the interpretation of the Viking Age and its various (common?) occupations.

At the experience centre in this paper, RVC, the shipyard might be tucked away on the other side of the man-made lake from the re-constructed dock, but it is still an important feature. The role of the ship-builder is added to a list of craftspeople that work at the centre, playing a vital role in the interpretation of the Viking Age – one of the pieces of the puzzle. However, this puzzle piece could be missed in the plethora of options available for the visitor. This last point can be directly connected to the fact that the RVC, as with the VSM, encourages visitors to return. You should be able to experience new things on each and every visit.

At both sites, the art of, or carpentry involved in boat-building is separated from the creation of ornamentation. The focus is on creating a sea-worthy craft – something, of course, entirely understandable! The interesting thing here is the separation of the practical and the decorative functions in the presentation of shipbuilding to the public, as well as in the actual planning of the building of a ship. This separation leads to a somewhat disjointed narrative and process of reconstruction. Regarding the ships discussed in this paper, some of the original finds at the VSM in Roskilde do include ornamentation. In turn, two of the reconstructions at the VSM are painted in bright colours and feature prow ornamentation. A visitor can engage the museum interpreters/guides in a conversation about these features if they are curious. In addition, over in Ribe, one of the boats at the RVC is partially decorated. However, at both places, the main narrative is that this particular artefact, the boat or ship, is a practical tool. The focus is on its function in Viking-Age society, and as a working vessel.

The above paper is a work in progress. It discusses just two of the many museums and experience centres throughout Scandinavia that focus on the Viking Age; many of these are included in my ongoing study. In general, based on the observations gathered so far, it appears that a ship/boat is required in order to construct narratives about the Viking Age. Even questions of skilled craftsmanship can be linked to ships. The way in which these diverse cultural heritage centres work with artefacts, and in particular reconstructions, as a means of communicating history is worth exploring further.


Interviews (notes)
Interview with Anne C. Sørensen, Vikingeskibsmuseet, Roskilde, Danmark: 2016-11-17.
Interview with Bjarne Clement, Ribe VikingeCenter, Ribe, Danmark: 2017-08-13.

Selected Sources
Berkhofer, Robert F. 2013. Fashioning History: Current Practices and Principles. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bischoff, Vibeke, Englert, Anton, Nielsen, Søren och Ravn, Morten 2014. ”From Ship-Find to Sea-Going Reconstruction. Experimental Maritime Archeology at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde”, in Jodi Reeves Flores & Roeland Paardekooper (ed.), Experiments Past. Histories of Experimental Archaeology. Leiden: Sidestone Press, pp. 233-247.

Christensen, Arne Emil 1995. ”Ship Graffiti”, in Ole Crumlin-Pedersen & Birgitte Munch Thye (ed.). The Ship as Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia. Papers from an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, May 5-7, 1994. PNM Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology and History, Vol. I. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, pp. 181-185.

De Groot, Jerome 2016. Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. London: Routledge.

Larsson, Gunilla 2007. Ship and Society: Maritime Ideology in Late Iron Age Sweden. Uppsala: Archaeology, Uppsala University.

Le Bon, Liz 1995. ”Graffiti: Symbol and Context”, in Ole Crumlin-Pedersen och Birgitte Munch Thye (ed.). The Ship as Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia. Papers from an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, May 5-7, 1994. PNM Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology and History, Vol. I. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, pp. 172-180.

Legnér, Mattias 2016. “Kulturarvsbruk i väpnade konflikter”, Historisk tidskrift 2016:4, pp. 658-672.

Petersson, Bodil 2003. Föreställningar om det förflutna. Arkeologi och rekonstruktion. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Ribe Viking Centre (RVC) 2017. Vikingebådene, Accessed: 12 July 2017.

Ribe Viking Centre (RVC) 2017b. Historien bag. Levendegørelse av vikingetidens Ribe. Accessed: 15 September 2018.

Ribe Viking Centre (RVC) 2013. Lustrupholm. Accessed: 12 February 2019.   

Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Roskilde) 2017. Experimental archaeology. Accessed: 12 July 2017.

Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Roskilde) 2015. Bådeværftets byggeliste. Accessed: 12 February 2019.

Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Roskilde) 2016. Gislinge Boat Open Source Project. Accessed: 10 September 2018.

Vinner, Max 2001. Vikingeskibsmuseets både. Roskilde: Vikingeskibsmuseet.

Westerdahl, Christer 2007. “Boats Apart. Building and Equipping an Iron-Age and Early-Medieval Ship in Northern Europe”, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Published: 23 October 2007. DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2007.00170.x Accessed: 28 November 2017.


[1] For example, Colonial Williamsburg (a living-history museum in the USA) has often been described as such in reviews. See, for instance:  

[2] Interview with Sørensen 2016-11-17.

[3] Those youths attending a Danish “production school” have, for one reason or another, previously been unable to complete their secondary education. They are all under the age of 25.

[4] Interview with Clement 2017-08-13.

[5] The practice of choosing names when christening boats deserves its own, separate discussion!

[6] In order to be a proper reconstruction, they should be hewn, as is done at the VSM in Roskilde.

[7] The carpenter contributed in part to the Interview with Clement, 2017-08-13.

[8] The boat is now finished but does not appear to have been decorated yet – at least as far as I could see from a quick observations on my last visit to RVC in December 2018.

Challenges for 21st century runologists

Andrea Freund, Institute for Northern Studies, Orkney College, UHI

I am currently doing a PhD in runology, the study of runes. However, it is difficult to study a field that has become so public in a time where everybody can be an expert and yet, some of the loudest voices in the public dialogue can declare that entire countries are “sick” of experts. Where does that leave runologists in the 21st century?

To understand modern runology and its challenges, it is essential to look at the history of using runes. After runes had fallen out of use as an everyday writing system in the Scandinavian diaspora and most of Scandinavia except for some remote valleys, learned interest in runes began in the late 16th and early 17th century with Johannes Bureus who attempted in 1611 to reintroduce them as a common writing system in Sweden (Barnes 2012: 133 – 135). In the following period, when Sweden had lost a large part of its earlier Empire, the Vikings were re-discovered and interpreted as glorious ancestors (Molin 2003: 269 – 274; Geisler 2007: 26 – 28). Similar developments happened in Denmark and somewhat later in Norway, too. This even led to polemic arguments between Danish and Swedish scholars in the 17th century about who had invented the runes (Barnes 2012: 194). From the 17th century on, antiquarians recorded the Scandinavian runestones and tried to make sense of their inscriptions. The discovery of 33 inscriptions in the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe, Orkney, resulting in their interpretation by three of the foremost Norse scholars of their time and subsequent publication in 1862, counts as a milestone in the development of runology as an academic discipline (Farrer 1862).

Image 1 – Farrer’s Drawing of Runes

However, antiquarians were not the only ones with an interest in runes in the 19th century. In Germany in the 19th century, for the first time a national conscience arose leading to the so-called Völkische Bewegung. In order to strengthen the sense of German-ness, a national narrative, mythology and symbolism were necessary and these were found in the Vikings, extending to their writing system, namely runes (Schulz 2009: 8-11). The ideological backbone for this movement was delivered by scholars like Gustaf Kossina and Karl Müllenhoff who claimed that Viking mythology could provide clues to true German-ness. They strongly opposed the previously prevalent ex oriente-view and instead focused on promoting a heroic Germanic past. As “proof” they even compiled a Germanic counterpart for the bible, a Germanenbibel, containing parts of the Eddas (Mees 2006: 184-188, Puschner 2001: 92 – 93).

During the National Socialist regime in Germany, the mixture of academic Viking research and racist ideologies intensified. This is exemplary in the persona of Wolfgang Krause, from 1938 director of the library for Nordic Philology at Göttingen university. He was also head of the Zentralstelle für Runenforschung des Ahnenerbe e.V., which constituted a sub-division of the SS, directly subordinated to Heinrich Himmler, and was supposed to deliver a scientific justification for the worldwide dominance of “Aryan” Germans.

In this period, many volumes on Old Norse and Runology were robbed from their original owners by the SS and delivered to the Zentralstelle für Runenforschung (Möbus 2011: 89 – 90). Politically, there was a strong desire to “prove” that runes were the original human writing system, which again was supposed to show that Germanic people had invented writing in connection with an Odinic cult. However, even at the time academics argued against the view that runes were older than the Egyptian hieroglyphs and there was considerable debate on the origin of runic writing, both in Germany and internationally (Philippson 1938: 322 – 326). In Norway, nationalists from the periphery of the national socialist party Nasjonal Samling established various groups before and after the German occupation which tried to create a new, nationalist Norwegian religion based on pre-Christian beliefs. There were a few hundred core activists and a few thousand sympathisers in a very heterogeneous movement. They were, however, united in adopting one symbol for their cause: the Hagal rune (Emberland 2012: 509 – 511).

Increasingly, runes were perceived not as a writing system but as symbols used to express entire concepts and not certain sounds in speech first. Chiefly, the National Socialists used the s-rune to signify “victory” even though the actual rune had most probably never meant that but “sun” instead. Consequently, it appeared on the uniforms of the SS. Another important rune used by the National Socialists was “o” which was interpreted to signify an Aryan heritage and became the emblem for the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt, an SS subdivision with responsibility for “Aryan” settlement in the newly conquered territories of the German Reich. Other prominent runes in National Socialist Germany were “t”, interpreted as “struggle”,” y” interpreted as “life” and “z” on the uniforms of the Hitler Youth (Barnes 2012: 195). An important ideologist at the time was Karl-Maria Wiligut, a nationalist mystic who was engaged by Heinrich Himmler to create a symbol for the SS and came up with the runic iconography. Later during the National Socialist regime, Wiligut published on runes and came up with a new wedding ceremonial for SS officers where he presided as a pagan priest using a stick decorated with runes (O’Donoghue 2007: 112 – 116). This shows just how much the political and esoteric interpretations of runes could overlap during the first half of the 20th century.

On the whole, the different paths interest in runes took over the last two centuries can be (very simplified) classified like this:

Now turning to the current situation in more detail, the results of this split become obvious. One the one side, there is academic runology. In the grand scheme of academia, it is a very small discipline, mostly situated in linguistics departments and undertaken at only few universities, mainly in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK. Recently, some outreach projects have been started, for example the Runecast podcast at Uppsala.

On the other side, there is the political use of runes as hate symbols with the meanings they were attributed in the first half of the 20th century. When he committed his massacre motivated by an extreme racist ideology, first in Oslo, then on Utøya on July 22nd, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik had two runic inscriptions on his main weapons. He wrote Mjölnir, the name of Thor’s hammer in Old Norse mythology, on his Glock 17 gun and Gungnir, the name of Odin’s spear in Old Norse mythology, on his Ruger Mini 14 rifle. According to a report in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, he felt that it was important to draw from mythological Nordic symbols (Kristiansen et al. 2011). This shows how Breivik used runes to embed himself among Old Norse heroes. By naming his weapons after divine weapons from Norse mythology, he attributed a divine significance to his “mission”. That these names were spelled out in runes certainly was no coincidence. Seeing as in right-wing extremist circles, runes have the status of anti-Christian, anti-establishment symbols, they were perfectly suitable for Breivik who saw himself as a warrior fighting the political establishment to save his Germanic nation. Runes were part of a wider political philosophy for him but in contrast to many other cases, the runes in themselves – while politically charged – were not hate symbols. They were merely a writing system that fitted his purposes because it could be interpreted as Germanic.

Somewhere in between these two uses, but often owing more to the interest in runes than to academic runology, is the neo-pagan use of runes. In some cases, runes form part of the practice of a new religious movement. However, within parts of the movement of Germanic neo-Paganism, there are strong nationalist tendencies. Groups such as the Armanen-Orden, going back to the runic esotericism of Guido von List at the beginning of the 20th century, have developed a new religion which freely mixes Germanic myth and racism. As Stefanie von Schnurbein describes: “They are listening to Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries on a hoarse cassette player in front of an altar adorned with runes, Easter eggs, and small bread ornaments, along with a clumsily painted image of the goddess Freya, ostentatiously blue-eyed with wavy blond hair. [The significance of Easter is explained.] And then it comes: fertility not only in general, as a celebration of life reborn in nature, but in the service of the Germanic race” (2015: 149). This shows that for some reconstructionists, runes serve not as a writing system but as symbols of their newly created, neo-Pagan or neo-Germanic belief system. When this system is then used to confirm racist theories, as in the example concerning Germanic fertility, the runes become an integral part and cannot be distinguished from other racist symbols.

Another aspect is that in some cases, German right-wing extremists try to replace Christian symbols with runes or rune-like counterparts. Most prominently, this can be seen in the use of Algiz and inverted Algiz as symbols for life and death, for example in obituaries, or at the sites of lethal accidents, instead of the crucifix (Schuppener 2016: 328 – 329).

In addition, some permissible runes can be used instead of the also prohibited swastika, a fact which even German authorities admit to in their publications: “Die heutige rechtsextremistische Szene hat sich wegen der Runen-Mythologie und aufgrund des Verbots zum Beispiel des Hakenkreuzes auf Runen als sinntragende Zeichen verlegt. Vor allem die Lebensrune, aber auch andere Runen werden gerne als Zeichen für nationalsozialistische Gesinnung verwendet“ [The modern right-wing extremist scene has switched to runes as symbols conveying meaning due to the runic mythology and the prohibition of for instance the swastika. Especially the life rune but also other runes are frequently used as symbols for a national socialist attitude]  (Ministerium für Inneres und Kommunales des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen 2012: 68 – 69).

These are but a few examples of the varying uses and abuses of runes in modern society. The big questionin all of this for academic runologists is: Should they react in any way upon seeing runes used so far form their origins as a writing system? Who has the prerogative of interpretation when it comes to runes?

As Barnes puts it, “the flight from reason that is a prerequisite for holding such beliefs makes people vulnerable to persuasion of many different kinds. It is enough here to consider the more recent fate of “ᛟ”. The rune has been resuscitated as a symbol of white and/or Germanic supremacy, first through association with Óðinn and “the Vikings”, and second by giving it the symbolic value “our inheritance”, “our land” (which, interpreted, means “foreigners, keep out!”)” (Barnes 2012: 196). In fact, this new use of the “odal” rune goes so far that, from the late 1970s, even radical Boers in South Africa, predominantly the Boeremag, started to adopt it as their symbol with the interpretation that it signifies a farmer’s land and patriotism but also prejudice (Schönteich and Boshoff 2003: 70 – 73). The “odal” rune was also prominent in images from Charlottesville, Virginia, where in 2017 white supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched and one counter-protestor was killed. This demonstrates how largely, the symbol has become detached from its origins and does not necessarily have to represent anything related to the Vikings any more at all but rather stands for a much wider concept of general national pride and a defensive stance on perceived inherited rights to land and property.

So how can runologists tackle these challenges? There is no single strategy that will lead to a transformation in the public perception and use of runes. Instead, various factors play into the picture, each of which can contribute one little step at a time.

There are various movements trying to “reclaim” the runes from extremist uses and users. These are mostly grassroots-level, organised online, on social media, and in many, both Neo-Pagans and Viking re-enactors are engaging. Often, there is little academic input but a great interest in learning more about runes. This offers a good opportunity for academics to engage, educate and support.

Image 2 – An example of reclaiming the runes: the symbol for the ‘No Tiw for Nazis’ group

It is also crucial for runologists to offer accessible literature for interested non-academics who do not have a background in philology. A cursory search of “runes” at resulted in, on the first page, eight “runic divination sets”, one set of runic beard-beads, one fantasy novel and six different books on how to use runes for oracles and divination. Only on page three were the first two books by academic runologists, based on research. For somebody with no background in academic literature, it is therefore nearly impossible to find introductory reading material which is not dominated by 19th/20th century runic esotericism. This means academic runologists need to find ways of becoming more approachable for the general public and reclaiming the prerogative of interpretation. In many ways, academia does not necessarily reward this kind of labour, which does not result in peer-reviewed publications. And yet, it is necessary in order to avoid runes becoming purely regarded as right-wing hate symbols or divination tools in public perception.

Image 3 – An example of the esoteric use of runes (CC BY-SA 4.0) Original caption: “Different items with runes in Straubing, Bavaria. – The picture was taken at the September equinox on 22nd September 2017.”

When it comes to the use of runes as hate symbols, personally I think it is crucial to stress the original use of runes, namely a writing system like any other, and not primarily symbolic. The use of “odal” as a symbol for any white supremacist land claim needs to be exposed as the nonsense it is without any base in the medieval use of runes.

As shown above, often the transition from a seemingly apolitical, religious use of runes as integral part of religious practice in neo-paganism to a racially charged use can be fluid. Examples such as the involvement of a runic staff in the wedding ceremonial for SS officers illustrate the point. It is important to remain aware of this when engaging with and discussing modern runic esotericism.

To conclude, I believe that, in the current political situation more than ever, public engagement is crucial for the future of runology. We need to bring the idea of runes primarily as a writing system back to the forefront in order to minimise their abuse, and we need to be visible and approachable for those who are genuinely interested in learning more about runes. If we are not, they will search, and get, their information from others, potentially those with extremist motives.


Barnes, M. P. (2012) Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Emberland, T. (2012) ‘Im Zeichen der Hagal-Rune. „Arteigene“ Religion und nationalsozialistischer Aktivismus in Norwegen‘, in U. Puschner and C. Vollnhals (eds.), Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus. Second Edition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. pp. 509 – 526.

Farrer, J. A. (1862), Notice of Runic inscriptions discovered during recent excavations in the Orkneys made by James Farrer. Edinburgh: Printed for private circulation.

Geisler, U. (2007) ‘Herders “Volksgeist“ och Götiska Förbundet‘, in G. Andersson and U. Geisler (eds.), Myt och Propaganda: Musiken i nazismens tjänst i Sverige och Tyskland Lund: Forum för Levande Historia. pp. 25 – 46.

Kristiansen, A. A. et al. (2011) ‘Breivik drepte med “Thors hammer” og “Odins spyd”‘, Dagbladet. [online]. Available from < > [29 April 2016]

Mees, B. (2006) ‘Germanische Sturmflut: From the Old Norse Twilight to the Fascist New Dawn’, Studia Neophilologica (78:2). pp. 184 – 198.

Ministerium für Inneres und Kommunales des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (2012) Musik – Mode – Markenzeichen: Rechtsextremismus bei Jugendlichen. 6th Edition. Düsseldorf: Ministerium für Inneres und Kommunales des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen.

Molin, T. (2003) Den rätta tidens mått: Göthiska förbundet, fornforskningen och den antikvariska landskapet. Umeå: Institutionen för historiska studier, Umeå Universitet.

 Möbus, F. (2011) ‘Raubgut am Seminar für Deutsche Philologie der Universität Göttingen’, in N. Bartels et al., Bücher unter Verdacht: NS- Raub- und Beutegut an der SUB Göttingen. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. pp. 89 – 96.

O’Donoghue, H. (2007) ‘From Runic Inscriptions to Runic Gymnastics’, in D. Clark and C. Phelpstead, Old Norse made new: Essays on the Post-Medieval Reception of Old Norse Literature and Culture. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. pp. 101 – 118.

Philippson, E. A. (1938) ‘Runenforschung und germanische Religionsgeschichte’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 53 (2). pp. 321 – 332. Puschner, U. (2001) ‘Die Germanenideologie im Kontext der völkischen Weltanschauung‘, Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft (4). pp. 85 – 97.

Schönteich, M. and H. Boshoff (2003) ’Volk’, faith and fatherland: the security threat posed by the white right. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

Schulz, K. (2009) ‘„Sang an Aegir“ – Nordische Mythen um 1900: Eine Einleitung‘, in K. Schulz and F. Heesch (eds.), Edda-Rezeption/Band 1: „Sang an Aegir“. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter. pp. 7 – 12.

Schuppener, G. (2016) ‘Strategische Rückgriffe der extremen Rechten auf Mythen und Symbole’, in S. Braun, A. Geisler and M. Gerster (eds.), Strategien der extremen Rechten. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien. pp. 319 – 343.

von Schnurbein, S. (2015) ’Tales of Reconstruction. Intertwining Germanic neo-

Paganism and Old Norse scholarship’, Critical Research on Religion, 3(2). pp. 148 – 167.

Lombards: Latecomers to the Migration Period. A glimpse into archeological data and a risky trend

Gabriele Zorzi, Associazione La Fara

The first part of this contribution may sound pedantic to those who already are familiar with the Lombard theme, but, I think, due to the subject’s peculiarity, it is not as well known as others. In Italy, attention has only started being paid to Lombard history in the last few decades and, to this day, the Lombard period still suffers from the Roman-centered approach to Italian historiography. In fact, talking about Lombard history in Italy still means discussing “barbarian invasions” and not the “migration period”. We all know the weight words can have in these cases. Despite  this, from the second half of the twentieth century, Lombard studies, in particular the ones focusing on rich grave goods, have had their moments of fame and interest.

In this context, the peculiar provenance of our association, La Fara, was surely something we have benefitted from. Our association in fact, although it has members from several Italian regions, is based in Cividale del Friuli, the capital of the first Lombard dukedom. It was home to one of the oldest and most traditional reigns of Lombardy, and, most importantly, residence of the oldest and richest national archaeological museum on the subject which gave us access to first class sources from the beginning .

Before I start talking about archaeological finds and their relevance to the practice of reconstruction, allow me to take a step back and give some context to these “long-bearded people”. The year of the Lombard arrival in Italy is traditionally recognized as 568 C.E., as described by Paul the Deacon – the same Lombard historian who, in the eighth century, wrote the story of his people and placed their original native land in the (then almost mythical) Skåne. The migration was a relatively late one if compared to the Visigoths in Spain at the beginning of the fifth century and the Franks in Gaul, again in the fifth century. It is closer to what we know about the Bavarians, a population having a tight relationship with Lombards themselves.

Generally identifiable with a Germanic population with an eastern language (although scholars do not always agree on this point), the Lombards were known to the Roman world since the second century, becoming more and more involved in the affairs of the Eastern Roman Empire as time passed. The gradual tightening of their relations with Byzantium meant that the Lombard exercitus (i.e. troops) became part of the Byzantine army during the Greek-Gothic war that took place on Italian soil.

Lombardian relationships with Constantinople must not have been entirely consistent, and even today, analyses of the historiographical sources debate the real motivation of the Lombard descent into Italy and its legitimacy.

What is known is that the Lombard reign in Italy was never seen as legitimate either by the Pope or Byzantium. In 568, the Lombards descended into an Italy that was weakened by 30 years of Greek-Gothic war and the plague. They settled in the area without encountering a significant opposition and without the need of an armed confrontation with the local population.

Conquering the peninsula, although never completed, would keep Lombard kings and dukes busy for the next few decades. However, it seems like the creation of the first Reign in northern Italy did not require a largemilitary effort. The population which arrived in Italy from its last settlement in Pannonia (modern Hungary) brought its own mix of pagan tradition and an in fieri Christianization process, still very far from being completed and described in terms of Arian heresy.

Pre-Christian clothing, especially regarding burials, are now our main source of information regarding the material culture of this population. The grave goods, dated to the end of sixth and the beginning of the seventh century, provide us with plenty of information regarding metal working, textile culture, bone and wood working, eating habits and, along with the most recent DNA studies, a glimpse of what seemed to have been a cultural rupture with the preceding situation of Gothic Italy.

The context I briefly mentioned pushed what remained of the heart of the Roman Empire into a new kind of balance, most like what was already happening in the rest of Europe. In Italian history schoolbooks, this two century period, ending with the Franks beating the Lombards in 774 AD, has become a footnote in history, dismissed in a few lines of text. Despite the fact that it was a founding element for the subsequent political situation in the Peninsula and the foundation of the art commissions known as “Rinascenza Liutprandea” by which Carolingian art would be strongly influenced.

So we are looking at two centuries of deep and sometimes traumatic changes that involved everybody, both the locals and the newcomers.

Although, centuries after , some noble families would still define themselves as “Lombards” or “following the Lombard law”, it is important to note that already at the end of their reign, the Lombards that settled in Italy must have been much different from their close ancestors. An example is the abandoning of Germanic languages for Latin, both in official papers (for example the Rothari Edict (Edictum Rothari) in the seventh century) and possibly in the spoken language since modern Italian only preserves a few Lombard words in its otherwise strictly Neo-Latin structure.

As re-creators we are mostly interested in the first immigrate generation and their first descendants. This focus is due to the Lombard’s still highly relevant tradition of burying their dead with rich grave goods, with the radical change in building techniques and the appearance of housing structures of a more “barbarian” tradition, such as partially interred houses known in field literature as grubenhauser. So, we are facing elements that break preexisting traditions and new techniques that are not going to disappear and will contribute in the formation of a new, fast changing landscape (img. 1).

Image 1 – Necropolis around a “little Capital”, Cividale del Friuli (This and all images by La Fara)

But what are we talking about when we mention Lombard grave goods?

We are talking of elements that can widely vary from grave to grave, as the ethnic make-up of the Gens Langobardorum seems to have done, due to its constant contact with continental Europe’s populations. To make things more manageable, we can simplify and divide grave goods based on gender and social status. Male graves are frequently dominated by the military element: we find swords – usually pattern welded (img. 2), scramasax, spears, shields (some of them heavily decorated), axes, arrows, bow components and, most of all, belt fittings.

Image 2 – Pattern-welded sword

Based on wealth, the number and quality of these elements varies significantly. It also does this based on the time frame. Graves from the late sixth and seventh centuries show differences in decoration style and features. Along with the aforementioned elements, we can also find everyday objects such as fire steels, flint, tweezers, horse-riding related elements, game pieces and glass (img 3).

Image 3 – Finds from the grave of “Gisulfo”

In female graves, we find a large number of belt hangings such as amulets, scissors, some sea shells, amber and glass bead necklaces, and of course radiated head fibulae (img. 4), as well as the famous “S” brooches (img. 5). Bone combs and small knives are common regardless of gender and social status.

Image 4 – Radiated Head Fibula
Image 5 – “S” Brooches

This is, of course, a rough simplification – a glimpse that can help us contextualize the main archaeological sources that we can refer to in the re-creation field. However, there are, of course, cases that do not fit the description. One of the best examples of this is the so-called “Goldsmith’s grave” in Grupignano, which has no military element but just a silver belt buckle and three small anvils (img. 6). These exceptions give us the chance to ponder about living history and storytelling in relation with these peculiar figures that, for now, do not seem to belong in this context.

Image 6 – Silver belt buckle and 3 small anvils

Alongside the single pieces, especially at the end of twentieth century and in the beginning of twenty-first, organic elements that escaped corruption are gaining relevance and becoming irreplaceable reference points. Here, I am talking about wood fragments of sheaths, handles and shields that provide interesting data about what kind of wood was used for each task. For example, when professor Rottoli studied tomb 40 from the “Ferrovia” burial site in Cividale del Friuli (a grave dated to the first quarter of the seventh century that La Fara is currently reconstructing), he identified the woods as willow for the shield, ash for the spear, and alder for the sheath.

Similarly, the textile elements preserved by mineralization in contact with metal components of the belt give us valuable information in terms of fiber (wool or linen) and weave-pattern. In grave 40, for example, we have diamond twill, which you can read about in  Irene Barbina’s blopost.

Having now roughly contextualized the Lombard theme, we can discuss the re-enacting and re-creation aspect.

In Italy, the Lombard and early medieval scene is relatively young. In 2010 when our group was officially founded, there was only one other Lombard group who mostly focused on historical fencing rather than grave recreation. Over the next three years the situation did not change much, but a couple of other groups focusing on fighting had formed. From 2013 to the present day, we have witnessed an explosion and, to my knowledge, there are now more than 15 “Lombard” groups.

Such a quick increase, along with the mistakes every young group is bound to make, creates two dangerous tendencies: 1) mixing recreation and ideology and 2) perhaps more worryingly, the unquestioning involvement of supposed re-creation groups in contexts related to museums or the academy.

I will try to explain myself a little better.

The first of these tendencies does not need much explanation, I think, since I suppose it is a common problem in every re-enacted era and at every latitude. If we want to describe its aspects we can still say that some of the younger groups use cultural identity, antidemocratic and macho ambition to inspire cohesion among the members.

The legitimacy of those theories is not the subject of this discussion, but you can easily imagine how the presence of these ideologized contexts has a negative influence on the quality of the re-creation work and the authenticity of information that reaches the public, as materials and sources are cherry-picked and manipulated in order to support ethnical and spiritual belonging feelings of the groups. Members of the public involved in these groups’ events are usually at risk of being taught historical and archaeological facts that are bent to support, not actual data, but the political wave of the day.

The second of the aforementioned tendencies is, possibly, the most dangerous for the whole scenario and implicitly allows the first to prosper. If in the first 10 years of the twenty-first century entering a museum was almost a utopia for a re-enacting group, the scenario has witnessed in the past few years an inversion powered by trends and the necessity of some institutions to gain visibility in the field.

The beginning of this change in an early medieval context began with a few virtuous cases in which La Fara played a role. Our event, “Anno Domini 568” (img. 7), is organized with the direct involvement of the Cividale National Museum and has been hosted on the museum’s premises for the past 5 events, placing archaologists and recreators side by side with the purpose of bringing Lombard history and archaology to a wider public.

Image 7 – La Fara’s event, “Anno Domini 568”

In this very context we met Marco Valenti (img. 8): an archaeology professor, expert in open-air museums and a re-creator himself who might be the most active and motivated builder of connections between the re-creation world and academia. Valenti is in fact the mind behind the only early medieval open-air museum in Italy: the Archaeodrome in Poggibonsi (img. 9).

Image 8 – Marco Valenti
Image 9 – Italian open-air museum Poggibonsi Archaeodrome

The Archaeodrome is a Carolingian village built just a few steps away from the original site, on which a Lombard village used to exist, by the same archaeologists who dug the site. This makes it an excellent example of how re-creation and communication can be done based on solid academic data.

In the past few years professor Valenti invested in connecting universities and re-creators, for example organizing seminars and editing books about the subject, also with the contribution of La Fara members. At the same time others moved in a similar direction, like Valentino Nizzo, manager of the Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia. Over the past few years, he has tried to create this kind of opportunity and, as museology professor at Udine University, has allowed us to teach alongside Dr Borzacconi, manager of the Cividale National Museum, using our event as an example of museum communication.

Up to this point, the trend seemed positive, strengthened by other similar experiences involving re-enactors of different ages but, as usually happens in Italy, the trend has become popular and in a very short time it became important to involve re-enactors in museum activities in order to increase visibility on media platforms without really evaluating their preparation and suitability for this prestigious context.

I suppose it is clear how responsibilities lie on both sides in this situation. On one side, re-enactors, who are longing to prove themselves worthy of the context, re-invented themselves as re-creators by changing their group’s description (but not their approach to the subject) and proposing their group as a resource for museums and institutions. On the other side, some of these institutions, following the ones that did it first but with greater care and after rigorous evaluations, uncritically opened their doors to groups who had nothing to do with re-creation.

Recently, La Fara was requested to be a part of the opening of a very prestigious international exposition but, while we were invited by one of the scientific managers, a local group that did not even re-create the same era found its way in, by proposing they be “extras” and management approved their participation in the event. The result was an embarrassing jumble of precise recreations, materials from a different age, and fantasy elements.

I am not using this as an example for personal purposes but to show how the consequences of this kind of behavior can be deeply negative. The public, unfamiliar with the context, is often unable to tell the difference between the groups and is consequently “educated by sight” and getting the wrong information. Secondly, these “extras” are usually incompetent about history and end up either giving the wrong information or playing the part of the silent mannequin, often making it more difficult for the competent ones to be considered as reliable by the public.

Moving towards the conclusion of this glimpse into the early medieval re-construction context in Italy, I will say that historiography and archaeological sources for this era are rich, stimulating and only partially explored by re-creators. The scene is lively and rapidly evolving, and often gives us the chance to participate in international discussion and exchange. The early middle ages and its Germanic graves are becoming the common thread linking nations and individuals, in how to better approach re-creations and better communicate with the public. However, the combination of potential and the relatively young age of the scene puts it at risk of being manipulated and degraded even in an official context.

I do not believe it is possible to stop these negative tendencies from happening and, on the contrary, I think their chances to manifest are increasing. What I want to believe, though, is that there will be a chance to educate the public, giving the right tools to chose which events are worthy of taking part in and further chances for re-creators and institutions to cooperate as we did in Malmö during the conference and event: Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000.

Textile Reconstruction: a Methodological Approach

Irene Barbina, Associazione La Fara

The following metholodology is based on my personal experience with textile reconstruction with the living-history group “la Fara”, my experience of teaching at the Siena University Summer School, and la Fara’s cooperation with Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Cividale del Friuli, whose support was fundamental for some of the described reconstruction steps. This method can be applied in other contexts, but it is not, obviously, the only possible one. Moreover, new data, new studies, and new necessities strongly influence its development.


The described methodological approach answers the specific, living-history related need to produce garments fulfilling certain conditions. We aim to create a plausible reconstruction, consistent with the data in our possession, and able to visually convey didactically useful information. We often underestimate the value of information given at a glance by the combination of clothing, posture and accessories, and the ability of the beholder (even if they are not “educated”) to memorize the information gathered in that single glance. It is then every re-constructor’s responsibility to avoid inventive solutions and shortcuts, to be influenced by his or her personal taste and to be aware of the distance wrongly given or received information can cover in a relatively short time.

While considering the procedure’s complexity, we must take into account the lack of  intact finds and sources and the resulting necessity to date these items, connecting information in our reach in order to build a plausible image. While doing this, it becomes vital to comply with a series of  “good practices”: beneficial behaviours for an appropriate approach to scientific reconstruction, while avoiding shallow or simplistic solutions.

In my opinion, a key approach is to stick to what can be considered as a plausible choice, endorsing solutions able to satisfy common and everyday needs instead of reconstructing a specific, exceptional find. Unless your goal is to reproduce a specific item for a specific context, the aim of didactical reconstruction is, in fact, to represent an “average”, to give a perception of what was common in a given moment in time and geographical location. For the same reason, it is important to avoid depriving a find of its exceptional nature by producing a large number of copies of said item, “flooding the market” with objects whose uniqueness will therefore be lost. In addition, source handling becomes of the utmost importance. It is proper to be careful, establishing a possible chronological and geographical “range”, keeping it as consistent as possible with the reference background.

Once a satisfying amount of information is gathered, it is important to “tune in” with the right mental approach towards materials and production, focusing on the suitability of practical and technical choices and on the need of treating the materials as precious goods, avoiding waste and being respectful in order to learn as much as possible from the practical reconstruction process. Moreover, we need our approach to be incisive and above all consistent in terms of time, geographical and cultural context, social class and so on. For example, no one, not even nowadays, would wear formal garments while doing heavy chores. We also need to keep in mind the always existing connection between fashion, economy, and historical and social contexts.

An historical garment must be thought of and treated the same way we treat our everyday clothes, and must respond to the same need of comfort, movement range, durability, and so on. While testing a reconstructed kit, we must be able to perform every activity an individual from the represented status would have performed without the garment tearing apart or being a nuisance.

As re-constructors we are forced to ask specific questions about clothing in our reconstructed time, and it is our duty to find answers to those questions without setting aside an element we find uncomfortable to wear. Every reconstruction hypothesis needs then to be tested “in the field”, to identify conceptual and structural faults that will be corrected in the following versions in order to keep getting closer to the originals.

A CASE STUDY – Grave 40, Railway Burial Site, Cividale del Friuli

The one experience that, more than others, allowed me to test the approach described above is the reconstruction of the tunic from grave 40, Railway Burial Site. The starting points of this research are represented by the study of the finds, written sources, and iconography, and the comparison with extant findings consistent in time and space with the one I was going to reproduce (img. 1).

Image 1 – Drawing of the tunic from grave 40, Railway Burial Site, by Damiano Avoledo

The Finds – textile analysis

The burial has been dated to around the mid-seventh century. It contained a remarkable 23 inlay decorated belt elements surrounding the male human’s hips. The materials the belt is made of, the number of its pieces, and their position around the body allow us to gather a series of information about the possible proportions of the garments and its materials and to hypothesize the presence of multiple textile layers around the body. A closer examination of the belt-hanging piece 14-b (img. 2) can give us the following data.

Image 2 – Belt hanging piece with visible stratification of mineralized organic material. Drawing by Damiano Avoledo

The piece shows multiple stratification of organic material (fabric), mineralized on the interior side of the plate, the one facing the body. The position of the textile suggest its being related to a garment worn under the belt, allowing us to rule out a mantle or a shroud.

Further observation made us notice a diamond shaped pattern on the mineralized surface, pointing us towards a class of textiles widely used in the early middle ages: diamond twill (img. 3).

Image 3 – Diamond Twill

Diamond Twill is a variation of “twill”, a weaving pattern featuring relieved diagonal lines in a wide range of variations that can change based on time, area and social status. It is still one of the preferred ways to weave wool.
Other versions of twill weave are known in the Germanic area during the early middle ages. Among them I could mention: herringbone twill, rautenkoeper, rib twill (group of variations showing weave-like patterns), rose twill, spitzkaro (“goose eye”), rippenkoeper and more variations of the aforementioned diamond twill.[1]

Although at the moment an in-depth analysis of the mineralized material is not available, the presence of twill weave and the thread thickness allows us to hypothesize it might have been wool.

The position taken by warp and weft threads in the weave, in fact, brings some threads (always the same ones) up, allowing them to be frictioned and fulled and therefore enhancing the overall insulating power of the garment, making it ideal to be worn over another layer of clothing.

Further visual analysis of the find shows another layer of mineralized material on the bottom right of the plate, yellower in color than the twill (pictured in blue) on which a much finer tabby weave pattern is quite visible. The difference in weave and thickness suggests it belongs to another clothing layer, worn underneath the twill and possibly in contact with the body. The refined weave, the thread diameter and the tightness of the fabric suggests that it might have been a linen tunic, used as an undergarment.

Other factors support the idea of this second garment having been made out of linen. The first is the relatively scarce resistance to friction that makes linen fray easily when rubbed for a long time. When using tabby weave instead of twill the friction is better distributed on the surface, allowing the garment to last longer.[2] Another factor that has to be considered is the insulating abilities of the linen–wool combination, whose employment is widely documented throughout history and allows the wearer to maintain a relative comfort regardless of the weather due to the water absorbing capacity of linen and the insulating ability of wool.

This combination has been tested for years by la Fara and we can personally assure the reader that the overlaying of the two garments is comfortable even during the summer, provided that both garments are worn first thing in the morning so the body can adapt.

The feeling is, of course, different from the one you can get wearing a cotton t-shirt but not much less comfortable, all things considered. I also feel the need to emphasize that, even if in modern times wool is usually associated with cold weather and wintertime, the material itself can be worked into very thin and fine fabrics, such as the ones used for male formal clothing, that can be worn even during the summer.

Written Sources

Historia Langobardrum by Paulus Diaconus offers a pretty specific description of Lombard costume: Vestimenta vero eis erant laxa, maxime linea, qualia Anglosaxones habere solent, ornata insitis latoribus vario colore contextis. What we gather from this description is that the garments were wide, often made out of linen and similar in style to the ones Anglo-Saxons used to wear. They were also ornate, with wide colorful bands, possibly woven into the tunic or in various colors.

There are other elements of the Lombard costume that are mentioned in the book, such as their habit to wear white leg wraps (this apparently being a specific tribal custom), to wear their hair parted down the middle and to shave the back of their heads. As tempting as it is to take this source literally, we must not forget that Paulus lived during the eighth century and did not personally witness the events he wrote about.

Iconographical Sources

It is important to identify the basic criteria for choosing the most appropriate sources. We need sources close to the time, culture and geographical area we are willing to picture, keeping in mind the importance of cultural exchange and influence in the early middle ages.

What I consider to be the closest visual source is the Isola Rizza plate, found near Verona. Its style, technique and choice of portrayed characters suggests it was made in the eastern areas of the Roman Empire. Visual analysis of the details  suggests a date around the end of the Greek–Gothic war (mid-sixth century) and it can be safe to suppose that the two figures depicted on the plate are a Byzantine and what is safely defined as an “eastern German” (probably not a Lombard).

The Germanic warrior wears a tunic which is depicted in excellent detail and very close to the description Paulus would give two centuries later: it has long tight sleeves; it is wide and reaches almost down to the knee. It also has decorative woven bands with the distinctive “lozenge and dot” pattern which seems to have been widely disseminated throughout Europe (and the middle east) at the time.

The woven bands’ position is peculiar and not meaningless, as we proved during the practical phase of the reconstruction. At this stage, though, it is enough to note the position of the bands on the shoulders and especially around the upper arm which will prove to be related to the structural integrity of the tunic as well as its aesthetics.

Another interesting source can be identified in the Rodchis’ seal ring from the Lombard burial site of Trezzo sull’Adda, dated to the seventh century and showing the figure of a bearded man with his hair parted in the middle, the hand lifted in a blessing gesture and a tunic whose decorations match very closely the ones pictured on the Isola Rizza plate (img. 4).

Image 4 – Detail of the Germanic warrior on the Isola Rizza plate

Other sources, as the Stilicho Stone (fifth century), the Tours Bible (sixth century, img. 5) and the later Stuttgarter Psalter (ninth century), picture tunics that are remarkably similar in structure and sometimes decoration to the one depicted in the Isola Rizza plate and so do mosaics from Tunisia  and Israel, giving us a glimpse of the wide geographical distribution of that specific decoration style.

Image 5 – Detail of clothing from the Tours Bible (6th century)

Comparable Findings

When searching for more substantial finds, we still need to follow the aforementioned criteria of time, geography, technical development and culture relation although the scarcity of findings in continental Europe, due to the composition of the soil, forces us to search in a wider time span in order to be able to identify common patterns and solutions.

The most famous example of intact tunic find is, probably, the Thorsberg tunic (img.6), dated to around the second century CE. It has a very simple pattern: a straight bust with a narrow neck opening and long, tight sleeves.

Image 6 – Thorsberg Tunic (2nd century)

Another famous one is the Bernuthsfeld tunic (img. 7), whose exceptional features deserve a more in depth analysis than the one I am going to give for the strict purpose of this article.

Image 7 – Bernuthfeld Tunic (7th century)

The tunic is made joining together 43 pieces of different fabrics but its shape is not different from the ones we already discussed about: it is wide and long, with long and relatively tight sleeves. Its features, along with the fact that it was worn without trousers, makes it somehow link-able to the ones pictured in the rural scenes of Tours Bible.

While trying to define the outline of an high status, seventh-century century Lombard tunic, we must not overlook the influence of Byzantine fashion on Germanic culture and, especially on those members of Lombard elite that might have had taken part in the Greek- Gothic war as Byzantine foederati. A brief look at extant Mediterranean tunics show that they tend to be extremely wide with short and tight sleeves beginning around the elbow and reaching down to the wrist.

This shows an interesting shifting of the shoulder seam which moves away from the joint and down along the arm, allowing the sleeve to be tight without compromising movement range an structural integrity of the tunic itself.
It also gives a possible explanation of the position of the woven bands on the Isola Rizza plate, making them both useful and decorative.

This reconstruction hypothesis has been put to test during the following steps of the experiment.

Actualization Steps

In order to begin the actual production of the tunic, we need to first define its features in detail. We are looking for a long and wide tunic, with a bust to sleeve ratio capable of showing some Byzantine influence, with applied decorative bands (img. 8).

Image 8 – Drawing of the reconstructed tunic by Damiano Avoledo

As mentioned while discussing the original find, the original fabric was (probably) a woolen diamond twill, its “diamonds” ranging from 1.2 cm to 1.5 cm in height. We managed to find a loom-state, undyed and unbleached fabric having almost the exact features of the original.

The tunic was entirely hand sewn with wool thread and a bronze needle compatible with contemporary finds. The sewing techniques and stitches were chosen among the ones documented since the Iron Age: backstitch, overcast stitch and blanket stitch, plus a filler thread. I avoided basting, which might have implied a loss of time and a waste of thread, but kept the fabric in place using a total of four bronze pins. Both pins and needle tended to lose their sharpness, making the use of a sandstone essential for good progress.
The underarm seam was moved down and placed roughly around the biceps.
The tunic body is sewn with backstitch, leaving a seam allowance around 1 cm wide, which was then secured to the fabric of the body with overcast stitch while adding a filler tread to protect it from fraying. This technique allowed me to reduce to a minimum the fabric waste, avoiding the otherwise needed folding of the seam allowance (img. 9).

Image 9 – Filler thread technique

As for the woven bands, I decided to use the same fabric of the tunic, and dye it with walnut husks. Dye choice was mostly related to our group’s resources, having foraged them in the group’s headquarters’ garden. It also allowed me to avoid mordanting the fabric which would have added one more rogue variable I was not comfortable with at the time of this experiment. The result was a deep, warm brown I was satisfied with.

The brown bands were applied to the tunic where I expected the friction or seam tension to be more intense: around the neck, hems, wrists, shoulder and underarm seam placing them flat and sewing them with blanket stitch to avoid fabric bulks. To add more strength to the band seams, I overlayed them with a thin strip, handwoven with linen thread which also worked as an additional decorative element.

The tunic proved to be a sturdy garment, capable of maintaining its structural integrity over a few years of performing everyday, living-history tasks and activities, while the dyed facings kept their brightness in spite of being repeatedly exposed to the sun. We are overall satisfied with the experiment’s results (img. 10).

Image 10 – Version 1 of the reconstructed tunic worn by a re-enactor

A Fancier Version

In 2017 we decided to rise the stakes and to make a richer version of the tunic, basing on newly achieved skills in dyeing and recently gathered information.

For the new tunic, our target was to portray a higher status while keeping the structural characteristics that have proven to be solid during the previous experiment. We based the garments on the same burial, deeming it rich enough for the new version, picking a compatible diamond twill wool from a different seller since the original one was not available anymore.

For the dye process we decided to go as far as my ability would take us and opted for a double dye with weld and woad in order to achieve a bright green.
The dye process took therefore four steps: mordanting (done with alum), preparation of the weld dye bath (slowly cooking the weld stalks in hot water and then filtering it in order to obtain a clear, bright yellow dye bath), weld dye and then woad dye.

For the facings we decided to search for an extant example of a period brocade showing the “lozange and dot” pattern so frequently represented in contemporary iconography. Thanks to the priceless help of Wulfheodenas’ member David Huggins (himself on a quest for a seventh century brocade pattern), we found an almost perfect candidate: the fabric of the St Madelbert Shrine in Liege (Belgium) (img. 11).

Image 11 – Fabric of the St Madelbert Shrine in Liege (Belgium)

The fabric, woven in red and yellow, shows an intricate motif of leaves and flowers and, what is most important to us, the monogram of emperor Heraclius (610 – 640 AD) which places the fabric in the same time-frame of the burial.

The result manages to convey, in my opinion, both the richness of early medieval Germanic textiles and the influence Byzantine fashion might have had on the upper classes in Lombard society. It represents to me a good starting point for further developments in my research in the field.
In the end, one of the most important characteristics of reconstruction and experimental archaeology is their being describable as a “direction”, along which we move without the illusion of an existing destination.

My wish and goal for the next part of this journey is to work closer with the National Archaeological Museum in Cividale del Friuli, with which we have an ongoing formal cooperation, to create a more comprehensive overview of  Friulian Lombard textile findings. Thus, we will gather more valuable information to support further experimentation and to make more data available to scholars and fellow living historians (img. 12).

Image 12 – A re-enactor wearing version 2 of the Lombard, reconstructed tunic

[1]Different sources can show different names, depending on the priority being given to the final look of the fabric instead of the used technique and shaft sequence

[2]This, of course, does not exclude the use of linen twill by people from a higher social status or in different climate conditions.


Re-imagining Medieval Dublin and the role of the Guide in Public History

Laura Fitzachary, Dublin Castle


Fig. 1 – Dublin Castle (image provided by OPW – Dublin Castle)

It is of interest to those who examine the public’s experience with medieval history to acknowledge the role of the tour guide. Their position can generate an interest in medieval history, establish historical authority through the authenticity of their information and deliver it effectively to an audience. This study focuses on working in public history to identify an establishment of historical authority and validity, defined by the interaction of the general public and the guide within a museum setting. Drawing from working as a guide at Dublin Castle, this study attempts to debunk the idea of ‘publish or perish’ and highlights how museum professionals are entrusted with deciding what information is presented to the general public outside of an academic setting. By doing so, the guide must also recognize important developments in the field of medieval history.

Re-imagining Medieval Dublin

The role of the guide ranges from generating an initial interest in history to creating an atmosphere where history becomes more relatable to the visitors. This can be a challenge where in certain cases the subject of medieval history on site must be almost entirely re-imagined. In my case, Dublin Castle is a former Viking settlement which subsequently from 1204 until 1922 served as the seat of English, and later British rule in Ireland. Though currently a remnant of a 17th and 18th century Georgian palace, due to a fire destroying the medieval bastion, only a Viking defence wall remains beneath the foundations of a powder tower.[i] The guide in this case must reveal the layers of the site and educate those visiting on what originally stood. A typical tour at Dublin Castle begins with the medieval section to introduce a visitor to the former Viking settlement that once stood there, and then the later Anglo-Norman castle, designed under a mandate by John I in 1204. With one small cross section of a Viking wall, the guide creates, through their narrative, an image of the former settlement and how it fitted into Viking Dublin as a whole. This area is on show as to a result of extensive archaeological excavations which were carried out at Dublin Castle between 1985 and 1987 in connection with a major rebuilding programme.[ii]  Beneath a rebuilt tax office, visitors are brought down to what is referred to as the Undercroft, in order to show the level of defence an Anglo-Norman structure can offer and to begin the narrative of the site. The pre-castle deposits found from the Hiberno-Norse town were excavated outside the north-west corner of the moat, within the Powder Tower of the castle itself and just inside the adjacent north curtain wall.[iii] According to Manning & Lynch the defensive bank within the Powder Tower is the only in situ Viking-age monument in the city of Dublin which is on display to the public.[iv] The outer face of a north/south stone-face bank was built on the shelving rocky shore of the Poddle Estuary, made of clay, stone and without mortar with a short stretch of post-and-wattle fencing found in front of the southern section of the bank which probably served as a breakwater.[v]

Figure 2 – The Undercroft (image provided by OPW – Dublin Castle)

From this sliver of a bank, the guide generates a sense of the Viking settlement through their narrative, discussing how they lived and how they settled in this area. An insight into pre-Norman Dublin sets a precedence for what is to follow, another 1200 years of history condensed into a 60 to 70-minute tour. By starting in the medieval section, the guide then also stresses the importance of the medieval history of the site in order to talk about later structures. Highlighting the importance of the site’s medieval roots has generated a keen interest in the era. This result has been noted through a continuous hike in visitor numbers with an interest in the field of medieval history at Dublin Castle.[i] I suggest that a continued focus on medieval history be applied at other sites where this compartmentalisation of eras occurs, or where medieval history forms the basis of a site serving a different function today. The role of the guide is then to present a tangible sense of the past, by striking correlations with the site as it is at present.

Historical authority and the authenticity of that history

In order to promote an interest in medieval history, the narrative must be factual. Thus, a problem faced by the guide includes establishing historical authenticity without being based in an academic setting. However, the question is posed, are academic settings based solely in universities and research centres, or can such a setting be produced at a historical site where professionals engage daily with the public and history? This study will propose that the latter is the case, and that a guide can engage with the immediate public and use their position to highlight aspects of medieval history relative to the site. This is not confined to the site itself but allows the guide to discuss the importance of the site in terms of time-frame and location, expanding the net wider to Dublin, Ireland and Europe. The visitors on tour also rely solely on the guides’ information in tandem with any written resources available, thus creating a sense of historical authority for the guide. The academic field surrounding the subject is absolutely not ignored; it forms the basis for narrative and, as noted previously, a lot of narrative at Dublin Castle comes from the publications of the archaeological reports by both Manning and Lynch.

It is also the case that by engaging daily with the public, the guide can retain recurring questions on specific elements of medieval history and incorporate them into their own narrative. This practice in turn creates an authentic tour based on their experience with the public and the public’s interests. This level of authenticity can thrive at a site that does not use a script – like Dublin Castle. This also creates an atmosphere amongst the guides of conducting research, whether that is utilizing that which has already been published in the field or in the case of Dublin Castle, generating their own publications based on primary sources available on site. It is necessary to note that not every site has archaeological reports or letters to hand; however, a publication developed from the site itself and not through a university or research centre can hold just as much merit in the field of medieval history.

Thus another question is posed, is it actually necessary to publish aspects of a tour that are deemed authentic by being new pieces of information? I argue that it is not absolutely necessary to create a plethora of publications whilst working with the public daily. The idea of ‘publish or perish’ is only to validate the role of an historian. However, that can be someone who interprets a site, conducts research and develops public interest in history – in this case medieval history. By reinventing the role of an historian then a guide can be viewed as one; in that 60 to 70-minute tour, they are the figures establishing historical authority. It is not the intention of this study to diminish the importance of publishing as it is absolutely necessary to the field of history. However, by working as a tour guide, enough validity as an historian should be generated to ensure one does not ‘perish’.

The guide as an educator

The role of the tour guide at Dublin Castle is not just restricted to daily tours. This is the result of another restriction: the medieval section within a wider timeline. The guides at Dublin Castle are also museum educators, which is beneficial to a site with no education department. As a museum educator, the guide can focus aspects of their tour into researched and specific tours or workshops to expand on personal interest or from the interests of the general public. These focused tours are made available to the public, educational institutions and other organisations. By creating specialised public events, the guide must also break down the information to not just suit their own interests but to ensure that anyone, at any age, could learn about the site and engage with the information. Thus, the role of educator becomes a bridge between the site and the public. There are two aspects of interacting with the public; selecting information suitable to the audience, and determining how that information is shared.[ii]

This interaction with the public is where the guide as an educator holds an important role on site. As all research is carried out by the guides at Dublin Castle, the deliverance is also based on their ability to communicate and this in turn is also based on the audience. The role of the guide is also to provide a learning experience for any visitor who decided to attend the tour that day.[iii] This role involves not just supplying information about the site but ensuring that the audience understands what is being said. The importance of communicating information is an attribute of an effective tour guide. Thus, the public gains a greater understanding of medieval history by being taught about what has been published in the field, in a way that is more accessible.      

As an example, I have created a workshop focused on Norse mythology, after a request was made by a primary school teacher to incorporate ‘Dublin and the Vikings’ into a workshop geared towards nine year olds.  The result was a Viking raven workshop that introduced the pupils to the initial arrival of the Vikings to Dublin and the subsequent assimilation of some of these Vikings into Irish society. In order to create a level of understanding, I linked Norse assimilation into Irish society with a classroom-like scenario in the present day, by comparing diversity in the classroom to shifts in cultural identity. The correlation created tangibility of the subject and was delivered to a young audience in language they understood. Thus, this method would allow a guide to convert an historian’s (or indeed their own) theories into more accessible pieces of information to be understood by their audience – in this case, 9 year olds

Fig. 3 – A ‘viking’ raven (author’s own image)

The human aspect of the guide and the digital nemesis

Although I have proposed that the benefits of a human guide can generate greater interest in medieval history and maintain it by creating specialized workshops or tours to encourage returning visits, there is a problem facing the tour guide. A guide can identify a visitor’s connection with a site and can provide more focused information of interest, whereas a written or even digital resource produced for mass consumption cannot. Thus, this speaker would also argue that the value of the guide is to observe and promote a connection between interest and the site itself.  However, there is the threat of a ‘virtual’ replacement. The virtual tour guide could provide information but not necessarily gauge the level of understanding amongst the audience or mould any narrative around specific interests or personal links a visitor has with the site. It is worth noting that technology in the museum space is not going to cease, and guides should not necessarily fear the development of the ‘interactive experience’ at museums. Currently, I am incorporating advancements in technology into my narrative by developing a virtual reality tour to enhance audience experience whilst using my own narrative.

As mentioned above, a guide must promote the re-imagining of Dublin Castle when discussing the former Viking site, but of course this is to reflect the ‘ideal tour guide,’ not every guide wants to deliver an eruditely written lecture which they can convert and tailor to specific audiences. There is also the entertainment factor associated with tour guiding. As mentioned previously, to generate interest and hold it depends on the credulity of information and its deliverance. This combination does require some sort of flare stemming from the guide’s own interest in the history they are relaying, in turn educating the audience. Therefore, the entertainment aspect could cause a sense of a lack of validity on the part of the guide. Instead of interpreting this as damaging the guide’s historical authority, it should be reinterpreted as an alternative way of relaying history by promoting the constant relevance of the theoretical development of medieval history. Thus, even the potential to hold historical authority is enough to not ignore the role of the tour guide.


Although digital recreations of the site are available online, I argue for the benefit of being walked through a heritage site. The guide recreates the past through their ability to hold interest, provide historical authenticity and strike some tangibility of a past when little visual reminders remain. The guides at Dublin Castle are also all museum educators, designing their own scripts and developing a setting which encourages new research to support any claim of authenticity. The responsibility to educate visitors and provide site interpretation is also challenged daily with a varied audience and a diverse general public. The guide must consider who is visiting and strike a balance between accommodating local, national and international visitors and bridging any gap between an interest in public history and an understanding of it.

In conclusion, the guide can provide historical authenticity and generate the words,

‘You know I never knew that, and I’ve lived down the road all my life.’

By interacting with local, national, international, elementary, high school and university level visitors the ‘general public’ net could not be any wider. By generating their own historical authority, the guide’s role is not to solely catch interest in medieval history but to promote and develop it. The role of the guide should be representative of and more interactive with the experts in the field of Irish medieval history as they maintain an authority of their own. By being the front line in a museum setting they are the border between information and the public whilst having knowledge of their questions and interests. Thus, it is important when discussing public history that the guide’s role must be considered.


[i] As museum educators, the guides as Dublin Castle record the amount of people in attendance of any specialised tours or workshops in order to determine interest in the subject of medieval history.

[ii] Laura Fitzachary, “Working in Public Archaeology.” Trowel, Volume XVI (2015): 84.

[iii] Ibid., 84.

[i] “History |Dublin Castle,” Dublin Castle, Last modified October 30, 2018,

[ii] Ann Lynch & Conleth Manning, “Excavations at Dublin Castle, 1985-7,” in Medieval Dublin II, ed. Seán Duffy (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), 169.

[iii] Ibid., 172.

[iv] Ibid., 202.

[v] Ibid., 182.


Fitzachary, Laura. “Working in Public Archaeology.” Trowel, Volume XVI. (2015): 83-87.

Lynch, A., Manning, C. “Excavations at Dublin Castle, 1985-7.” In Medieval Dublin II, edited by Seán Duffy, 169-205. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001.

“History |Dublin Castle.” Dublin Castle, Last modified October 30, 2018.

Hyper-masculinity vs Viking warrior women: pop culture Vikings and gender

Dr Simon Trafford, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
Twitter: @SimonJPTrafford

On 8 September 2017, a short article with the title ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’ was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, authored by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and a number of other scholars. It brought DNA analysis to bear upon a skeleton dating from the C10th and found in 1877 at the famous site at Birka, in east-central Sweden not far outside Stockholm. Richly furnished with goods including eastern-style apparel, weapons, gaming pieces and two horses, the grave was interpreted on its discovery as that of a high-status male, but subsequent osteological examination in the 1970s and in 2016 had strongly suggested that the skeletal material was female; the new analysis conducted by Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues confirmed on genetic grounds that the human tissue recovered from the grave was indeed biologically female.

Noting accounts of shield-maidens and female warriors in saga and early Scandinavian literature, the article asserted that the new scientific results showed that ‘the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior’ and that it suggested ‘that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres’ (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. 2017, 858). A press release published at the same time as the article was picked up by various news outlets, and the story soon started to appear in traditional print media. But far more dramatically, though, it also exploded virally across the internet, with a rash of articles appearing in many outlets not normally much concerned with archaeology.

Popular engagement with the ‘Viking warrior women’ story is a topic of interest in its own right that reveals a lot about the relationship of scholarship and the online public realm in the age of social media and viral culture. In a fascinating series of blog posts commencing very soon after the story broke, Prof Howard Williams, an archaeologist at the University of Chester, started to catalogue reactions, exploring both the popular appeal of the Viking warrior women story and the ways in which it found expression. A number of reasons for the enormous interest in the story were clear: firstly, it was about Vikings, perennial favourites who – unusually for medieval historical figures – have a clearly defined image in popular culture, an image, which, furthermore, embraces both men and women. Secondly, the popularity of the story rested in part on a well-established and popular media trope in which new scientific evidence is seen to provide a clear and comprehensible answer to a question that has long been debated by humanities scholars but has proved intractable or insoluble. In this case the new scientific evidence in question was DNA testing, already firmly established as a firm media favourite and cure-all, apparently able to provide accurate and near-miraculous answers across a range of fields, from identification of perpetrators of crime to establishing familial connections to clarifying large-scale historical questions of population dynamics and migration. Thirdly, the idea of warrior women performs the distinctive feat of appealing simultaneously to heterosexual male fantasies of liberated Amazons and to feminist aspirations of finding powerful women in past societies.

Also very notable in the online coverage were consistent themes in the way in which the story was presented. In practically every case, an allusion was made to received impressions of the Vikings and/or of warrior women from televisual culture, which generally also allowed the use of an eye-catching picture. Most frequently depicted was Lagertha, one of the central characters from the History Channel drama Vikings, but others – such as Xena, Warrior Princess or Daenerys Targaryen (from Game of Thrones) were also cited, regardless of the fact that neither of them are in any way presented as Vikings.

Figure 1 – The Independent, 8 September 2017
Figure 2 – The Huffington Post, 11 September 2017
Figure 3 – Refinery 29, 10 September 2017

Reaction from scholars to the story and to the popular interest in it was mixed but before very long, some powerful criticisms had been brought to bear, notably from Prof Judith Jesch of the University of Nottingham here and here and, a little later, as we have seen, from Howard Williams. While recognising the interest of the research and welcoming the considerable attention and enthusiasm that it had attracted, a number of problems were noted. The arguments are numerous and sometimes quite complex, but summarising ruthlessly, these points were central:

 (1) That the authors of the article had been too dismissive of previous scholarship and in particular had not given proper weight to the specific cultural context in which descriptions of ‘warrior women’ had occurred.

(2) That questions existed over whether the grave was actually a complete intact sealed context and whether material had been removed from it or inserted into it before excavation or mis-labelled or lost after excavation.

(3) That insufficient credit had been given for existing studies of gender fluidity in the early medieval world, including gendered grave-goods apparently ‘mis-matched’ to the occupant.

(4) That the automatic equation of interred weapons with a ‘warrior identity’ for the buried person ignored 30 years of mortuary archaeology which had comprehensively rejected the static signalling of societal roles by burial ritual.

In sum the academic critics asserted that the Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. article had been far too bold and reductive in stating definitively that Bj581 was the burial of a high-ranking warrior woman without recognising the uncertainty involved or the possibility of many other interpretations of what had been found. As Howard Williams said: ‘We might suggest that rather than a ‘female warrior’ we see a distinctive, complex social and political identity, perhaps relating to multiple individuals living and dead as well as mythological ideas, materialised in this rich burial’.

Discussion continues on the subject: in particular there was further debate at the Weaving War conference in Oslo this past December in which both Hedenstierna-Jonson and Jesch participated. Here, though, I want to think more about what the episode says about links between medieval scholarship and popular culture, and, in particular, how contemporary debates about gender powered the spectacular virality of the story. I want, in particular, to examine what is really a very simple proposition – that the huge popularity of the Vikings, in combination with the extreme hypermasculinity of the traditional Viking image has fed a hunger for female roles and involvement ever since their first emergence as a part of popular culture, but that this has been given particular impetus in recent times by a number of special circumstances.

Viking Hypermasculinity

Firstly then, to Viking men. The case for the hyper-masculinity of popular Vikings is one that requires no special pleading at all, for it is abundantly clear and constantly re-iterated in books, films, television, advertisements, cartoons, and a panoply of other media. A standard set of behaviours is attributed to Vikings across the broad range of popular culture:

  • Violence, especially focused in raids,
  • Restless energy and a taste for adventure,
  • Barbarousness and indeed outright coarseness,
  • hearty appetites for food, drink and women.

These correspond very closely with stereotypically masculine behaviours in western culture. But what differentiates the Vikings of popular culture is that they carry them to absurd extremes: they are the most violent, the most barbarous, the most hearty – and thus – according to some codings of masculinity – the most emphatically, if not rebarbatively, manly. This, it seems fair to say, is a key part of their appeal. They offer a way of enjoying behaviours and attitudes that may sometimes seem tempting – who hasn’t at times found the thought of bloody slaughter with a large axe a pleasingly direct approach to conflict resolution? – but that are completely incompatible with any form of decent modern society in which anyone would actually want to live. But because the Vikings are safely all dead and live in a distant past, there is no need to deal with any of the negative consequences.

They also – extremely importantly– have an appearance that crystallises and advertises that manliness; easy recognition of the Vikings is crucial to their iconic function in popular culture. They are almost always portrayed as tall, strong, mightily muscled and frequently depicted wielding weapons. Often, but not always, they are bristlingly bearded. Generally they are in unnecessarily small outfits which both illustrate their masculine indifference to the cold and highlight their impressive physiques. The formula is constantly repeated across a range of cultural forms, be it in TV series like Vikings or in the hyper-masculine appearance of Amon Amarth (the world’s leading Viking Metal band) or even on the covers of Viking romance novels.

Figure 4 – Rollo in Vikings (History Channel)
Figure 5 – Amon Amarth
Figure 6 – Front cover of The Very Virile Viking by Sandra Hill

Right from the very beginning of popular cultural interest in the vikings, though, there has also been a response and a resistance to this and a desire to find a place for women in this brutish and testosterone-laden world.

The warrior woman

Of course, the idea of the Viking warrior women comes, as Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. noted, from the medieval sources themselves, with references to them in both saga material and, famously, in Saxo Grammaticus’s early C13th History of the Danes. Some female warriors, namely the Valkyries, are out-and-out supernatural beings, but others seem to be humans – although the differences between the two frequently blur and both have contributed to modern ideas of Viking warrior women. They have sisters, obviously, in classical Amazons and it is likely that descriptions of the warrior women of the north have been influenced by classical parallels. From the very start it seems likely that men have been amongst the most avid proponents and consumers of the idea: then as now, the tough barbarian liberated female is a romantic and sexual fantasy for many men.

From these origins in the medieval sources, warrior women, Valkyries and shield maidens were very easily transmitted to modern imaginings of the Viking Age: they are notably present from the start of popular culture’s engagement with the Vikings, appearing, for instance in the highly romanticised artwork of the Norwegian painter Pieter Nicolai Arbo as far back as 1869.

Figure 7 – Pieter Nicolai Arbo, The Valkyrie

But the Valkyries were popularised above all by Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the 1870s, the costumes for which have had a massive influence on the look of the popular female Viking right down to the present.

Figure 8 – Costume from Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

These Valkyries are definitely supernatural, but human women who were also warriors also appear early. Helga, the heroine of the novel The Thrall of Leif the Lucky by the Swedish-American author Ottilie Liljencrantz and first published in 1902, is both beautiful and a hearty tomboy, laughing and adventuring and fighting alongside the rest.

Figure 9 – Helga, from The Thrall of Leif the Lucky by O. Liljencrantz, 1902

Helga’s attractions seem indeed to have been potent, as The Thrall of Leif the Lucky became one of Hollywood’s early stabs at a Viking film, The Viking (1928), although Helga’s outfit seems to have taken a distinctly Wagnerian turn in the transition from page to screen.

Figure 10 – Helga, from The Viking (1928)

Female vikings reappear in Roger Corman’s 1957 The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent but these are singularly useless Viking women, incompetent fighters and sailors and largely there to run around on screen wearing leather bikinis.

Figure 11 – Poster for the film ‘Viking Women and the Sea Serpent’ (1957)

But though the shieldmaiden has been there from the beginning, there has been a considerable change in all of this over the last few years or so, as a result of two separate but intertwined developments:

1) A drive (originally within academia, but more recently popular among feminist activists outside the universities) to restore women to all periods of history and reclaim the male-dominated narrative.

2) The development of the female hero in American (and thus global) popular culture from the 1960s/1970s onwards, in such shows as Wonder Woman, The Avengers, Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman. From the 1990s onwards, the female hero became even more popular in comics, TV and films such as Xena, Warrior Princess, The Fifth Element, or Jessica Jones. The most conspicuous examples at the moment are, of course, Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and Lagertha in Vikings. Both splendidly and joyously meme-able, they provide a familiar cultural idiom by which even such rarefied oddities as Birka grave Bj581 can be articulated and interpreted to a wider audience.

Figure 12 – ‘Always be Lagertha’: meme featuring Lagertha from Vikings
Figure 13 – ‘Maybe it’s the blood of my enemies’: meme featuring Lagertha from Vikings


It’s been argued very briefly here that the hypermasculine identity of the popular Viking has always fed the desire for a female equivalent. That women should colonise the most emphatically male of cultures is, of course, exceptionally pleasing, but it is the result of a perfect storm of factors that have created a large and diverse but highly appreciative audience for competent, sexy, deadly Viking warrior women. Meme culture, the eternally-popular Vikings, warrior women, feminism, the debunking narrative – they have all combined to make this sensation. But there is a particular irony that with pressing issues of gender equality currently playing out in the public square, the Vikings have become good to think with; and this is because of, rather than despite, their traditional hypermasculinity.

Dr Simon Trafford

Medievalist Temporalities

Stefan Nyzell, Malmö University

Just as my title indicates, I will discuss two things:

1. Medievalism,


2. Temporality.

Medievalism is the field of study in which I am currently conducting a research project – on the re-creation of medieval pasts in the present. What I study is such things as:

  • historical re-enactment, living history and historical role-playing;
  • depicting medieval pasts;
  • medieval pasts (note the plural) in the present.

As can be seen, the study in itself is very much about temporality, i.e. the theoretical aspects of time. I am a historian and as I see it, it is the job of a historian to do just this, to think deeply about the aspects of human life in and over time, and to think about time itself. Something we perhaps, as a professional community, tend to do less often than we should.

When I turned the focus of my research – which has been primarily in the field of contentious politics studies – into the field of medievalism it has led me to think much longer and harder about time itself. One real inspiration in my research has been the American scholar William Sewell. He has stated – quite correctly I think – that what really defines history as an academic field is its dedication to temporality (Sewell 2005: 2-6). At the same time, however, Sewell asserts that they (that is we historians) tend to do this without giving the theoretical concept of time much real attention. We work with time without giving it much thought.

Once again, I think Sewell is quite correct. Historians are trained from early on in their studies to analyse continuations and changes over time. But NOT to think about and theorize time itself. Most academic studies of temporality I have read have been done in fields such as sociology, cultural studies, or literary studies. Sewell, for example, is a sociologist. However, I think that we (once again the “we” here is for we historians) could really benefit from giving this much more attention. So here we go!

First, though, we need to go back to the concept of medievalism. Louise D’Arcens defines medievalism as:

…the reception, interpretation or re-creation of the European Middle Ages in post-medieval cultures (D’Arcens 2016: 1).

While Medieval Studies takes on the the Middle Ages (the time period between 500 and 1500), in itself medievalism is primarily interested in HOW the middle ages have been depicted in the 500 years since it ended. D’Arcens goes on to say that there are two fundamental ways to study the Middle Ages:

1. the found middle ages, i.e. the actual traces from the middle ages, sources, artefacts, etc.

2.  and the created middle ages that…

…are imaginative in their impulse and founded on the ideas of ’the medieval’ as conceptual rather than a historical category (D’Arcens 2016: 1).

Another scholar in the field, Leslie Workman, has expressed this idea as follows:

‘Medievalism is the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages’ (as quoted in Sturtevant 2018: 2)

Ideas of the medieval have been created and recreated many times over. The two most influential of these ideas in the post medieval era has been that of the:

1. grotesque middle ages,

and the…

2. romantic middle ages.

The first is an idea from the renaissance, i.e. the time period just after the middle ages, which wanted to see itself as the ancient time reborn, discarding the time period in between as a dark and barbaric era. This has had consequences. As medievalist David Matthews says:

the Middle Ages had to serve as the barbarous ‘other’, the dark age from which the reformation had liberated a newly renascent culture (Matthews 2015: 3).

The second idea, that of the Romantic Middle Ages, is the child of the early nineteenth century, from which we have the notion of the middle ages as a time of primarily heroic knight and beautiful ladies. There are more competing ideas, but these are the two most influential.

A mix of these ideas can be seen in most pop-culture depictions of the Middle Ages. From Ivanhoe to Game of Thrones, these are examples which include it all.

So this is my current field of study – to look into these competing and shifting ideas of the Middle Ages and the many ways in which they have been interpreted, be it novels, plays, TV-series, movies, festivals, or whatnot. As you can see the Middle Ages is NOT something entirely stable as to WHAT it is.

What, then, about WHEN it is?

Well I have just stated that the Middle Ages is the era between 500 and 1500. But I do not think that it is as simple as that. Indeed some scholars within the field of medievalism have argued that the WHEN in the Middle Ages is not something entirely stable either. In theorizing time, historians most traditionally have worked with two basic concepts for conducting research:

1. We stop time and go deep into a specific context. This is called the synchronic view.


2. We see continuations or changes over time. This is called the diachronic view.

What the cultural turn since the 1990s has taught us is that, in both the synchronic and the diachronic views, we ALWAYS also have the present-day view looking back in time. Thus, it frames HOW and WHAT we see.

This is very much the medievalist’s work-mode. That is, the HOW and WHAT, and even WHEN, looking back into the past tend to be a result of the constantly shifting present. Thus, the Middle Ages is indeed something different in the view of the 1820s, 1880s, 1920s, 1980s … and even in the view of 2018.

Here I want to end with a theoretical aspect of time that has been advocated by the American literary scholar (note not a historian) and medievalist, Carolyn Dinshaw, that is inspiring my own work just now. In her When is now? Dinshaw argues for the asynchronic view…. stating that:

Time is lived; it is full of attachments and desires, histories and futures; it is not a hollow form […] that is the same always” (Dinshaw 2012: 4).

She defines the asynchronic as: “different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now”. (Dinshaw 2012: 5). This is more or less what Raphael Samuel said in his Theaters of Memory from 1994), stating that history:

is a social form of knowledge […] drawing not only on real-life experience but also on memory and myth, fantasy and desire (Samuel 2012: x).

I think this is I key concept here – our desires about the past. When talking to re-enactors this seems to be very important. In fact, many of them agree that one of the most desirable moments as a re-enactor is when the past and the present (if only for a short moment, even the blink of an eye) seem to be as one.

To really be there.

The presence of the past in the now.

So can the Middle Ages really be now?

Yes, it seems so.

And even in the future.

Indeed many visions of the Middle Ages do indeed put it in the future, as a vision of some kind of utopia, or as a vision of horrors to come. (See for example: Wollenberg 2018). Here, once again we see both the romantic and the grotesque Middle Ages as visions in the present for the future.


D’Arcens, Louise, “Introduction: Medievalism – Scope and Complexity”, in D’Arcens, Louise (ed.), The Cambridge companion to medievalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, How soon is now? Medieval texts, amateur readers, and the queerness of time, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012.

Matthews, Medievalism: a Critical History, Boydell and Brewer Limited, 2015.

Sewell, William H, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

Samuel, Raphael, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso Books, London, 2012.

Sturtevant, Paul B., The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism, London, 2018.

Wollenberg, Daniel, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics, Arc Medieval Press, 2018.

Reflections on Public Medievalism

Plenary speaker, Jane Malcolm-Davies, University of Copenhagen

The delight of this conference was that all the presentations were pleasant, passionate, and powerful. The emphasis of the programme was on public history and the recreation of the past. We heard a lot of different reflections on medieval material and how it is reconstructed by or presented to the public. Over the two days, there were stimulating ideas about public history, guiding, interpreting the past in general, and re-creating, constructing and imagining the medieval past in particular.

The programme began with Paul Sturtevant talking about his experiences of “Making Medieval History Powerful and Meaningful without Losing your Soul (or Mind) in the Chaotic Contemporary Public Square” followed by Jane Malcolm-Davies (me) presenting “Character or caricature? Evidence for the educational impact of costumed interpretation at heritage sites”.

My personal passion in life is the arrangement of data to discover new knowledge. Data doesn’t have to be quantitative and shown in a graph (the way I presented it in my keynote) or powerfully anecdotal to illustrate principles as in Paul’s key note presentation. But for data to be influential it needs to be available for analysis.

Everyone who presented over the course of the conference had collected data. It was all very interesting and enjoyable to hear about. But how can we analyse what was presented through the conference to create new knowledge?

We need a research methodology which would allow us to gather all the experiences we have heard reported here and a framework for analysing them. Is it possible for us to formulate a theoretical framework against which we can study public history (if there isn’t one already)?

Many of the presentations directly referred or indirectly alluded to intangible aspects of the past as inspired by the study or presentation of an item or a range of items (for example, Paul Mortimer’s exploration of eye imagery on weapons, armour and ornaments from the 6th and 7th centuries in northern Europe, and Peter Johnsson’s reflections on swords). And this extends to objects and experiences produced more recently than during the medieval period such as reconstructed Viking ships (Sara Ellis Nilsson), the creation of Old Norse Worlds in comics (Martin Lund), or the recreation of Lombard life (Gabriele Zorzi).

As an interdisciplinary team, the conference participants have the imagination to move the interpretation of items to the interpretation of ideas. And since we don’t know for certain what the ideas of the past were (we offer only one interpretation of the past rather than The One True Interpretation, as Hannes Napierala said about “constructing a reconstruction” of buildings in southern Germany), we can explicitly empower the visitor to a heritage site or the user of history to make their own interpretations too. Mari Wickerts talked about encouraging school children to do this in the context of field archaeology and recreating Viking burials from Skändla. But might this be dangerous?

Paul Sturtevant showed us horrible examples of what happens when people make their own interpretations of the medieval past for political ends. Runes are suffering the same fate as Andrea Freund, who also explained how visitors to Orkney are “engaging with the past indiscriminately”. So here then is a need for visitors’ empowerment to be facilitated by expert tour guides who interact and inter-react with visitors by understanding where they are coming from – geographically, culturally, and philosophically as Laura Fitzachary outlined.

So – our new theoretical framework would include something about the use of source materials and how they are extrapolated by joining the dots (as Irene Barbina explained she did in her reconstruction of Lombard dress) or by stitching images together (as Carolina Ask does in her 3D photographic modelling), and the process of dating (discussed by Thomas Småberg with his example of the Long Viking Age), and the link between items and ideas.

We could have a catalogue of these criteria against which we classify examples of public history – and one of the most important criteria would be the treatment of gender, which Simon Trafford suggested is embodied by warrior women or portrayed as hyper-masculinity in pop culture.

We might also consider how the archaeological and historical material complements rather than conflicts with visitors’ experience of asynchrony, the presence of the past in the present, as Stefan Nyzell discussed as Medievalist temporalities.

Thanks to Sofia Winge’s guided tour, we were all able to consider the challenge of presenting the medieval past on our visit to Uppåkra.

The conference organisers are to be congratulated for bringing together speakers with interlocking themes and providing the perfect atmosphere for them to reflect on each other’s contributions.

Opening remarks on the conference, Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000

The conference’s opening remarks, on the conference theme and the role of the Department of Society, Culture and Identity in this field, were given by Stefan Nyzell and Thomas Småberg, Malmö University.

Stefan Nyzell:
This is an important conference!

In the late nineteenth century, when history became a formalized discipline within academia, borders were drawn between the professionals – and with this, I mean the professionally trained historians within academia – and those in the public field outside academia that nevertheless were closely engaged with history in one way or another.

These borders are still there.

In his Theaters of Memory, from 1994 Raphael Samuel, argued that:

history is not a prerogative of the historian […]. It is, rather, a social form of knowledge […] drawing not only on real-life experience but also on memory and myth, fantasy and desire.
(Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso Books, London, 2012, p. x)

History is so much more than the academic discipline!
At the same time, I do have a great love for the academic discipline! I am after all a historian by profession.

What I do think is that it is important to engage in discussions across the borders of academia and the public fields of history. I think people from both sides of the border can learn from each other. As medievalist, Richard Utz has stated in his Medievalism A Manifesto, from 2017,

It is important for the academics to ”reconnect with the general public that has allowed us to become, since the late nineteenth century, a rather exclusive clan of specialists communicating mostly with each other.”
(Utz, Medievalism a Manifesto, Arc Humanities Press, Kalamazoo and Bradford, 2017, p. ix)

We, the organizers of this conference, have a similar agenda. Our purpose is to address these boundaries between public history and academia – and to make them into border crossings.

Thus, at this conference, we have gathered a lot of people from both sides of the border – and taken together a huge amount of knowledge about the Middle Ages, that I for one can’t wait to learn more about!


Thomas Småberg:

On behalf of the organizers, I would like to welcome you all to our conference entitled Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000 hosted by Malmö University in cooperation with Uppåkra Archaeological Centre and financed by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

At the department of Society, Culture and Identity at Malmö University, we have worked on critical cultural heritage for some years now. We have, for instance, an online course focusing on cultural heritage pedagogy in which our partners, which include museums all over Skåne and a few international institutions and scholars as well, are invited to give guest lectures and seminars. We also work closely with museums in Skåne on their educational programs and their upcoming exhibitions. We have also compiled a few research reports for Region Skåne on cultural heritage pedagogy. Together with a select group of universities, we were also invited to give a course for cultural heritage educators by the organization Sweden Museums. 

On the academic side of things, we decided a few years ago to launch a series of workshops, seminars, and conferences to bolster cooperation between actors in the cultural heritage sector such as reenactors, museum educators, and researchers. The first two were held in Swedish and the topics mostly focused on Scandinavian fields of research. The first, held in 2015, involved a broad chronology and was entitled Cultural heritage and historical reenactment. The second workshop was held in 2017 on the topic  Recreated Viking Age: Public archaeology and scientific pedagogy. This year, we are hosting our first international conference in the series: three days of interesting presentations and good discussions.