Vikings Invade Pop Culture With Style!

Greetings once again, gentle readers! Today is a very special invasion brought to us by the Vikings! Or Anglo-Saxons, or Danes, or Geats, whichever you prefer. It has come to my attention that Vikings have once again invaded our popular culture. For those of you who play World of Warcraft, there’s the entire Wrath of the Lich King expansion (The entirety of Northrend, Hodir [Odin], Thorim [Thor], Freya [Freyja…], Loken [Loki], jormungars, vrykul [valkyrie], Hrothgar’s Landing, even a Mimir shows up…) and for those of you who watch HBO’s current hit series True Blood, there’s Eric Northman. There’s also been the continued presence of Norse things in various realms of metal music and fiction, which is never a bad thing.
But as awesome as these things are, today we are going to discuss another, less popularized aspect of Anglo-Saxon life: material culture!! It’s ancient arts and crafts time!

One of the best places to see a very wide range of material goods throughout the course of Anglo-Saxon history is the British Museum in London. If you can manage to tear yourself away from the wonders of the Egyptian Wing or the the Elgin Marbles, take a walk upstairs and you’ll eventually find yourself wandering past Roman goodies (keep a special eye out for some fun artifacts from Arbeia, a fort I dug at in 2005) and you will come upon several rooms full of these amazing metal and gem-encrusted THINGS. This is the Hall of Anglo-Saxon Fabulosity. Most people can generally agree that the people lumped under the label of ‘Viking’ are pretty cool to begin with. People really like to focus on the things like Odin, pillaging, longships and horned helmets. That’s all well and good, but if you take a look at the fancy things they made for themselves and their families, you can really get a sense for just how talented these people were.
Let’s take a look. One of the first things you’ll notice is that there is a whole lot of very, very intricate designs happening on the pieces. Whether it’s wood or metal, the surface appears to be woven. In some cases, it is! In others, it is simply the illusion created by masterful carving. And then there’s the jewelry! Looking at all the personal and ceremonial jewelry is not unlike watching an hour or two of Jewelry TV. The amount and types of gems that decorate Anglo-Saxon jewelry are pretty astounding. If anything, it serves as a visual reminder of just how active and widespread trade was in the ancient world. Folks up north would provide everyone in the Mediterranean with amber and in return they would get all kinds of shiny gems. Rubies, sapphires, amethysts, carnelians, agates, glass…all of it went into their work. As you can see from the pictures, there are some common elements to Anglo-Saxon jewelry. Knotwork, animals and symmetry factor heavily into the designs of most of the pieces on display in the British Museum. Most of these things are representative of beasties and people from the wonderful world of Norse mythology, and some are simply what they appear to be. There are, of course, the more identifiable items such as torques, horned helmets, Lewis Chessmen and goodies that have been excavated at the famous site of Sutton Hoo.

So remember, gentle readers, the next time you find yourself in a long hall listening to the epic tales of Beowulf or the trials of Odin or of how a brave expedition of men set off for a distant land and returned with stories of strange people and sea monsters, remember that they probably did it wearing some fantastic jewelry. If the Vikings have taught us anything, it is that there still is good value in artisan crafts (did you SEE these pictures??) and that it’s never a good idea to have any kind of wager with giants. You will always lose and they may crush you in the process. There are also some secondary lessons about the value of good mead and the importance of a good death in battle so that you may continue your life’s party in Valhalla, but those lessons will come later. Yes, there was a fair amount of pillaging, but life was a bit tougher then and sometimes you ended up on the receiving end of a bit of territorial squabbling. Until next time, I’m off to re-read Beowulf, one of the best stories of all time. Hwæt!

Barbarians and You: Visigoths

Greetings once again, gentle readers! I must apologize AGAIN for the rather noticeable lack of blogging. Being funemployed isn’t all fun and games…and it’s mostly me trying to find things other than being parked in front of a computer all day. However, this is an important blog in which we discuss important things, such as conversations I have with other humans that are so mind boggling that they must be relayed to the public at large. This is one of those such conversations.

Okay. Visigoths. It’s a bit of a random topic, I know, but as far as I’m concerned any of the social groups falling into the category of ‘Barbarian’ are actually lovely people who have gotten a bad rap for a good portion of history? Why is that? Well, mostly because They Who Write The History were usually on the receiving end of some violence or more commonly, they were of an opposing viewpoint on anything from religion to food preparation. Usually it was the religion thing. So it is usually a fair surprise to a lot of people when they find out that these so-called ‘barbarians’ were not the savage cannibal-pagan-baby-stealing-monsters that they got made out to be by the people with the pens and books. In fact, most of the barbarians were…wait for it…Christian! For serious! This fact was usually overlooked due to the fact that they were the ‘wrong’ type of Christian and therefore didn’t count and violence was had. You know, the usual. But I digress.
The Visigoths were the other branch of Goths in Europe, the other being the equally-fun-named Ostrogoths. They did their thing in and around Europe and spent a lot of time in the Iberian Peninsula area, which is where I came into contact with them. Specifically, with a building that they built on a site that I was excavating at. They built a cute little church next to the Roman city of Tiermes and this church served as our rain shelter, lunch area and nap area. It was a great place to nap because the stone it was made of stayed nice and cool and so one could nap in the cool shade and watch the little bats come and go. A lovely place, really. The inside was pretty unassuming since it was a small church, but it had the usual churchly decor and was used regularly by the local folks in the area for their religious needs. Like the rest of Tiermes it was made from the local red stone and it was ornately decorated. Each of the column capitals around the entire building had a different unique decoration, ranging from woven designs to birds to religious scenes. I took pictures of a bunch of them because some were either really cool or really cute. Medieval art can go both ways like that.

This brings me to the actual reason for this post: The conversation I had. I was walking with a group on a pub crawl in Rome and was chatting with one of the many people walking with me. We did the usual polite introduction dance and when I mentioned I was an archaeologist, he of course asked if I had been anywhere cool. So, I launched into my usual List o’ Digs schpiel and when I got to my dig in Spain and mentioned how there was a nice Visigoth church next to my Roman city, he asked, and this is no joke, “Was it all dark and black and stuff?” At this point I remember staring at him like he had just sprouted antennae and replied with a very stern ‘No’. I then proceeded to explain how the church, like the rest of Tiermes, was red because the rocks there were…red. He seemed convinced that Visigoths were actually weird Satan-worshipping demons who built towering black fortresses in which they performed arcane rituals and summoned hellbeasts from the Nether-realms. Did I miss the memo? Is this what most people think about barbarians? I’m pretty sure I kept asking him if he was serious and he proudly proclaimed that he was a ‘Learned Person’ but wouldn’t tell me where he had learned all these fascinating facts about the Germanic peoples. I assured him that the church there was indeed for use in Christian worship (a certain Jesus H. Christ was featured quite prominently above the altar…), told him in the most polite way possible that he had just figured into the dumbest conversation I had ever been part of, and continued walking down the streets of Rome.
So remember, gentle readers, Germanic folks labeled as ‘Barbarians’ were people just like you and me. There were no black obsidian churches, no hellbeasts and certainly no Old Gods involved in their daily activities. They had kings, families, built churches and tried to escape from the Huns just like everyone else did. Not to mention, they were also very skilled craftsmen, lawmakers and had some of the coolest names this side of the Tiber. So there.

Next time: Archaeological FAQs continues! Dr. Jones may make an appearance.