The Gendered Landscape: A discussion on gender, status and power expressed in the Viking Age mortuary landscape

The Gendered Landscape: A discussion on gender, status and power expressed in the Viking Age mortuary landscape

By Marianne Moen

Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2010

Introduction: This dissertation is the result of a long standing interest in the expression of social identities of the past, perhaps more specifically, social identities as translated through gender, and their resulting cultural expressions and material remains.

The overarching subject I wish to explore is the gender structures prevalent in the Late Iron Age in the county of Vestfold, Norway. The Scandinavian Late Iron Age, popularly known as the Viking Age, is often represented as deeply and inherently male, with male aggressiveness as the ideal presented to the public, leaving little room for alternative gender roles in the popular imagination. Gender is one of the basic structuring principles of most societies, and as a social category it must be understood in order to grasp the cultural complexity of a society. I will attempt to show that the gender roles of the Viking Age are perhaps often interpreted and represented too simplistically, and that popular stereotypes fail to take into account the complex multitude of categories, variations and negotiations which one ought to expect from the interpretation of gender. My basic proposition is that if the gender roles of the Viking Age were more complex than what is often believed, this may be reflected in the mortuary landscape and choice of location for burials: if there was sharp gender segregation in terms of social importance, this ought arguably to be reflected in burial customs. If it is not, this may lead towards a re-examination of the traditional gender roles assigned to the Late Iron Age.

In order to approach this subject, I will look at the relative positioning of female graves in the mortuary landscape of the Viking Age, and I have chosen to focus on two different sites in the county now known as Vestfold: Oseberg and Kaupang. The choice of these two sites in particular was dominated by concerns including that they are both well documented, and have received a lot of attention in archaeological research. These considerations make the sites approachable for a student lacking the option of carrying out independent field research, and also amenable for a dissertation which relies on earlier research in order to re-examine established views of the past, as I aim to do here. The sites represent different burial traditions, Oseberg being of a monumental nature in rural surroundings, whilst Kaupang represents a wider selection of graves connected to a busy trading port. However, the assumption that they are comparable as representing some of the same ideology behind the death rituals is defensible. Further, they represent different tiers of social strata, and thus together form a stronger case study than a single-site focus would yield. It is my belief that if the mortuary landscape is to tell us anything of the gender ideologies of the past, this must be observable at more than one site.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oslo

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