Archaeology of Ritual & Viking Religion

Archaeologists working in Europe have it good, really good.  Depending on one’s interests, you can research just about anything.  Paleoanthropologists can work on hominid evolution (i.e., Homo heidelbergensis, H. antecessor, H. neanderthalensis), while their colleagues can study a host of fascinating subjects, including the Upper Paleolithic transition, mesolithic hunter-gatherers, incipient agriculturalists, and the usual smattering of things like megaliths, Romans, and Vikings.  With Europe’s deep history and bountiful record, it can sometimes be difficult to keep up with all the new finds.  Two recent study sites caught my ritually oriented eye.

In the first, reported by Sean Coughlan of the BBC, archaeologists have discovered the oldest house in Britain.  Dated at 8,500 BCE (10,500 years ago for those who are counting), this is a spectacular and highly informative find.  At this time, the ice age had just ended and Britain was still attached to mainland Europe; there was no agriculture — everyone was hunting and gathering.  Foragers are of course nearly always associated with nomadic lifeways, which can make them hard to detect and often renders them archaeologically invisible.

Finding a home-base or house occupied by hunter-gatherers is therefore unusual, and it may tell us something about the transition from foraging to agriculture.  Alternatively, it could indicate that the area was especially rich in resources, at least on a seasonal basis, and this resulted in the construction of more permanent dwellings.

Either way, this is good stuff and several items have been found that speak to ritual activities over a long period of time:

The Star Carr site, inhabited after the last ice age, is believed to have been in use for between 200 and 500 years.  It has been the subject of extensive research and excavation since its discovery in the 1940s – and has yielded items such as the paddle of a boat, arrow tips and masks made from red deer skulls.  There are also antler head-dresses, which could have been used in rituals.

If we were talking simply about nomadic hunter-gatherers, we would usually associate them with shamanist beliefs and activities; in this case however, the semi-sedentary lifestyle may have led to a more elaborate cosmology and ritualism.  The masks made from red deer skulls certainly suggest this and remind one of the sedentary, complex hunter-gatherers (such as the Kwakiutl) who occupied America’s Northwest coast.  As for the antler head-dresses, these were commonly worn by shamans in many parts of the world, including Siberia and the Americas.

In the second study, reported by Kate Ravilious for National Geographic, stone-age celts or axes have repeatedly been found in Viking graves or barrows.

Stone Age Celts or "Thunderstones"

These are Iron Age graves that date from 800 to 1050 CE, but the flint celts — which the archaeologists call “thunderstones” — are much older.  This indicates that Vikings were aware of Stone Age artifacts and collected them.  These stones were curated and transported over long distances, which suggests they were highly valued and symbolically important.

The archaeologists studying these grave goods (which sometimes include smaller flint pebbles that were unworked and could not be used either as tools or for fire starting) characterize the finds with some rather curious language:

Long dismissed as accidental additions to Viking graves, prehistoric “thunderstones” — fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor’s hammerhead — were actually purposely placed as good-luck talismans, archaeologists say.  “It shows that these stones had very special significance and suggests that these people were highly superstitious.”

The prehistoric stones’ “special significance” to Vikings may have derived from legends of Thor, the Norse thunder god said to create lightning with his battle hammer, Mjöllnir.  “Thor’s mission was to protect gods and people against evil and chaos,” he said in a statement. “It was therefore believed that Thor’s rocks protected houses and people.”

Now the new grave survey suggests the rocks were believed to protect souls too, the archaeologists say.  Similar discoveries in United Kingdom graves suggest that Vikings weren’t the only ancient Europeans who saw millennia-old tools as accoutrements for the afterlife.  “I suspect that these people were not so very different from us, and they would have had superstitious folk beliefs.”

There is a weird double standard at work here.  I fail to understand why the archaeologists would refer to these ritually charged grave goods as “good luck talismans” and the Vikings as “superstitious” people who harbored mere “folk beliefs.”

As is well known, the Vikings were supernaturalists with a richly developed pantheon of gods and religious stories known as “myths.”  I have always disliked the term “myth” because it is normative and suggests these were mere stories told for entertainment or learning.  In fact, what we popularly call “myths” constitute the religious beliefs of others.  The same is true of the normative term “pagan,” which was used by Jews and Christians to describe and denigrate the religious beliefs of everyone who did not believe in their particular God.

Norse “mythology” was a full-blown supernatural belief system that constituted what we today call religion.  The Vikings were not “pagan” but believers in the supernatural power of Thor and other deities.

To see how this double standard works, let us suppose that archaeologists working in the Levant reported on the burials and grave goods of early Christians and these goods included ritual items such as crosses.  We would not say the crosses were “talismans” or these people were “superstitious.”  Nor would we characterize the ideas surrounding these symbols as “folk beliefs” or the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a mere “legend.”

We would say the crosses were ritual objects buried with people whose religion was Christianity.  We should characterize these thunderstones and the Vikings’ beliefs in the same way.

All this aside, these kinds of burials — clearly deliberate and including symbolic grave goods — amount to something like an archaeological gold standard for identifying mortuary practices connected to belief in spirits and souls.  This is an important issue for the Middle and Upper Paleolithic burials that many interpret as a sign of proto-religious beliefs.

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2 thoughts on “Archaeology of Ritual & Viking Religion

  1. admin Post author

    I wish I could say but am not familiar enough with Viking mythology to compare it to Christian mythology. It is a great question, however. I suspect — based on JRR Tolkien’s Christian beliefs and the myriad ways in which they mesh with Norse tales — there are many similarities. This would hardly surprise Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, who have always argued for a kind of universal mythology based on archetypes.

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