Buried with Honour and Stoned to Death? The Ambivalence of Viking Age Magic in the Light of Archaeology
By Leszek Gardeła
Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Vol.4 (2009)
Introduction: In 1981 Danish archaeologists revealed a remarkable Viking Age grave mound in the village of Gerdrup. It was located on a beach ridge near what was once an old arm of the Roskilde fjord and inside they found skeletal re- mains of a man and a woman. The man’s legs were positioned in a very peculiar way, but the treatment of the woman’s corpse was even more striking – her remains were crushed with two large boulders: one placed on the chest and the other on her right leg. A few years later another puzzling burial was excavated in the island of Langeland (Denmark) at the Viking Age cemetery in Bogøvei. The remains of a man were lying prone in a shallow grave with two stones placed on his body, one on his left hip and the other partly covering his left arm and back. At least ten other graves in which the dead were buried in a similar manner – namely crushed or held down with stones – are known from Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Most of them are located in Denmark, but there are also some examples from Sweden and Iceland.
Who were these people and why were they treated in such a manner? Do their graves demonstrate a negative attitude to the deceased shared by those responsible for the burial? Can we interpret such graves as those of individuals who were considered a dangerous threat to their societies? Were they thieves, murderers, sexual offenders or agents of magic executed for malevolent deeds? Or maybe they just were ordinary people, decent and hardworking, but nonetheless someone had decided that they should be seen otherwise? Can archaeological interpretations reveal the past identities as they really were or can they only reveal how the dead may have been remembered by their contemporaries? How are Viking Age death rituals of the past interpreted and reconstructed today? These and other questions shall be explored in this paper.