July 2014 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)


Archaeology of Portus – a course on Future Learn about the history & archaeology of the main port of Rome.

Total: 1


Hamlet – the BBC production from 2009 with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in it.

Total: 1


On Guard.

Total: 1


Domesday Book – In Our Time episode about the Domesday Book.

Total: 1


Peeling Back the Shadows (SSAE Chesterfield Study Day 12 July 2014) – talk from Chris Naunton about Tutankhamun, and Barry Kemp about Amarna.

“Up the Nile with Amelia” Clive Barham Carter – EEG meeting talk in July.

“Vikings: Life and Legend” Thomas Wililams. Talk at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening on 16 June 2014, given by one of the curators of the Vikings exhibition.

Total: 3



The Birth of Empire: The East India Company – Dan Snow presenting a two part series about the history of the East India Company.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain – Lucy Worsley talking about the Georgian Kings.

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears – a look at how the geography of the USA affected the colonisation and history of the Wild West.

Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

Tigers About the House – series following 2 Sumatran tiger cubs being brought up at a zoo keeper’s house in Australia for the first few months of their lives.

Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

Voyager: To the Final Frontier – one off programme about the Voyager missions, the space probes that were launched in the 1970s and flew past the outer planets of the solar system before heading out into deep space. Interesting both for the data they sent back of the planets, and also just for the fact that 1970s tech was capable of building and launching them.

Total: 10

Hamlet (BBC Production from 2009)

Anna lent us the DVD of the BBC’s 2009 production of Hamlet back when I’d just finished the MOOC I did on the play (post). We finally got round to watching it a few days ago! This is the production that has David Tennant as Hamlet, and Patrick Stewart as Claudius (and the ghost of dead King Hamlet). I think some of the others in the cast as names one would recognise if one knew about Shakespearean actors, but I don’t 🙂 As with many of my film reviews this is a selection of things I liked or that caught my attention rather than a coherent review per se.

I’m not sure I can remember the last time I watched a Shakespeare play or film adaption of one – at school perhaps? Which would make it 25 years ago, or thereabouts, as I dropped English after GCSE. Even despite having read Hamlet a few times during the course I did I still found the language a bit difficult to follow at times – particularly in some of the soliloquies where the meaning had a tendency to vanish in the word salad. Which isn’t helped by some of it being supposed to be nonsensical! Still, even though there were bits of it that I felt we should’ve put subtitles on for (and possibly read the footnotes in my book of the plays) most of it was OK to follow and we got the gist of the rest of it.

I liked the way they dressed the cast. When I was doing the Hamlet course there were quite a lot of other people on the course who got all up in arms about how modern-dress productions were ruining Shakespeare. (A few of the purists also seemed to hate this particular production anyway coz it’s got Doctor Who and Captain Picard in it, and so the “wrong” people were watching it for the “wrong” reasons …) I disagree, because I think if they’d put them all in Elizabethan dress then we wouldn’t’ve had any of the visual cues that the clothing is meant to convey. Whereas it was immediately obvious when people were formally dressed v. informally dressed and who was dressed appropriately or inappropriately for the scene at hand. Which is exactly what the Elizabethan dress would’ve been conveying to the original audiences – we just don’t know how to read that any more.

I also liked the way it was shot, and the use of cameras within the production. The security cameras, and the way they were used to demonstrate the ghost’s ghostliness were particularly neat. And again when Hamlet yanks one off the wall to say “now I’m alone” before one soliloquy – and yet he’s still observed because we’re still watching … That also makes a neat juxtaposition with the play-within-a-play, which they flag up rather nicely with Hamlet filming the play within the play (and the audience) and finally talking direct to camera himself. So you have the cameras that are our way of seeing this production, and then you have the cameras within the world as well.

Thinking of juxtapositions – Hamlet telling the actors how to act came across very “hypocritically teaching one’s grandma how to suck eggs” after the way Tennant-playing-Hamlet had been chewing up the scenery all the way through! Tho it does highlight one of the oddities of the play (for me) – the gap difference between Hamlet’s stated age (early 30s) and the way his behaviour comes across to me (teenage). I think I preferred the other actors’ performances – in particular the actress playing Gertrude. From reading the play I’m intrigued by Gertrude anyway – and her character does make it obvious how much this play is focussed on Hamlet junior. It’s unclear if Gertrude knew about the murder of Hamlet senior, it’s unclear if she marries Claudius out of love or self-protection (or self-promotion) or as part of the plan, it’s unclear if she knows at the end that the cup she drinks from is poisoned or not. Those are all things that each production and actress has to decide for themselves. And was Hamlet senior really such an all round nice guy and fantastic King and so on and so forth? We know Hamlet junior thinks so but no-one else seems to be all that bothered that he’s gone until he starts walking around as a ghost. You could construct a whole story where actually Hamlet senior was an abusive so-and-so who was also a bad King, and maybe it’s a good thing he’s gone – and Hamlet junior is too blinded by his idolisation of his father to see reality. And maybe you’d have to change how some of the lines of the play were delivered, but I’m not sure you’d have to alter the text.

One thing that struck both J and I is that the pacing feels very different to a modern film (perhaps not to a modern play, I wouldn’t know I haven’t seen one!). The choices Shakespeare made for what to include and what not to include sometimes seem strange. The Fortinbras sub-plot, for instance, feels superfluous to me – it’s set up almost as the A-plot with the as-you-know-Bob speech between Horatio and the guards in Act 1 scene 1, and the prominent mention of it in Act 1 scene 2. And then it just kinda vanishes – in this production there’s really just that one bit nearer the end with the army in the snow and then nothing. And in the rush to the climax there are some odd jumps: Ophelia’s death is off-stage and Laertes goes from pointing a gun at Claudius to plotting & scheming with him off-stage too.

It was fun to watch, tho. Maybe I’ll see if the library has some of the other recent BBC Shakespeare productions – tho I’d want to space them out a bit I think.

In Our Time: The Domesday Book

After a bit of a hiatus J and I once again listened to an In Our Time episode with our Sunday breakfast. As the programme itself is now on hiatus until late September we’re cherry-picking interesting looking recent(ish) episodes we haven’t listened to yet. Today we picked out the one on The Domesday Book from mid-April this year. The Domesday Book is a great survey of the land and land-holdings of England produced in 1086AD for William the Conqueror’s administration. The original manuscript still exists, and was still being referred to until relatively recently. The three experts on the programme were Stephen Baxter (Kings College London), Elisabeth van Houts (University of Cambridge) and David Bates (University of East Anglia).

They started, as always, by giving us some context for the subject at hand. In this case that meant a brief overview of the changes the Norman Conquest had made to the people of England. The Anglo-Saxon England of the 11th Century was one of the richest countries in Western Europe, which made it a tempting target for would-be rulers like the Danes and William the Conqueror. After William won at Hastings he used the rhetoric of legitimacy to establish his new regime, and to dispossess the Anglo-Saxon nobility of their lands. He declared himself to’ve been Edward the Confessor’s legitimate heir, so anyone who fought on the side of Harold was a traitor and thus their lands were forfeit. Although the aristocracy was almost completely replaced the underlying structure of the administration was not – the country was still organised into shires and hundreds within them. This was most efficient for William as it was already a working taxation system.

It’s not known why William decided to conduct this survey. Bates suggested (slightly tongue in cheek?) that one of the inspirations for it might be the biblical story of Augustus Caesar’s survey (which leads to Jesus being born in a stable). It probably served multiple purposes including valuation of everyone’s landholdings for taxation purposes, and for feudal purposes (how many men at arms each lord needed to provide and such like). It’s also important to remember that England was now part of an empire – William also ruled Normandy and had recently conquered Maine in modern day France. The focus of the empire was more on the French side of the channel – England’s role was provider of revenue and other resources. A comprehensive list of what there is to squeeze wealth out of would be useful in that context.

Once decided on it all happened very quickly – this is one of the impressive parts of it, that the 11th Century administration was capable of surveying the entire country and producing a (large) book with a summary of the data within seven months. The starting point for the data collection was the shire & hundred system. Possibly the major tenants (the lords etc) had provided overview details of their holdings as a basis for the detailed survey. The data was collected from each hundred via meetings with the villagers of the villages in the hundred. This was a multi-lingual event, the villagers would speak Anglo-Saxon, the higher levels of society & the clerks and data collectors probably were French speaking and this oral testimony would have then been written down in Latin.

After the data was all collected in documents for each shire or collection of shires this was then summarised into the final document (organised feudally by landholder rather than geographically as the original documents were). The Great Domesday Book contains the majority of the country, and was written by a single scribe. There is also the Little Domesday Book which was written by several scribes and covers Suffolk, Norfolk and (I think) Cambridgeshire – this isn’t duplicated in the other book, possibly because it was sufficiently well written and organised to make re-summarising unnecessary. Some large towns (like London and Winchester) are missing – there is space left for those as if the scribe expected to come back to it later. And also most of the north of the country is missing – North Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland and most of Cumberland. This is probably because they weren’t part of the shire & hundred system.

The information recorded in the Great Domesday Book does vary across the country, but generally always includes land ownership and value at three points in the present & recent past. Firstly, the state of affairs on the day of King Edward’s death (in January 1066) – which is intended as the last legitimate point of Anglo-Saxon rule. Secondly what happened to the land after the Conquest in late 1066. And finally who owns the land now, and what it’s worth. This gives a good sense to the historian of what happened in the country after the Norman Conquest. It was also very useful for settling disputes in later centuries about who controlled what land – a bit hard to claim “my ancestors always had” if clearly written down in 1086 was something else.

All three experts were keen to talk about how much more there is recorded in the Domesday Book than just the dry facts of land value and ownership. It’s a great source for the social history of the time, and for stories about individuals. Elisabeth van Hout talked about what we can glean from it about what happened to the women who were widowed in the Norman Conquest. You can see the patterns of marriages (mostly like forced) as a way of conveying land in their names to new Norman lords. At lower levels of society there’s at least one story where the land is in 1086 by a Breton soldier who has it by right of the woman he fell in love with (this is the only time the word “love” is used in the survey – I think she said it was in the Little Domesday Book).

There is also a lot of evidence about the effects of the imposition of the new Norman regime on the country. The Harrying of the North is the best known example of land being laid waste after the Conquest but there are also many other smaller scale examples. Baxter explained that laying waste to the land means the destruction of the property – burning buildings and land, killing livestock, taking away or destroying grain stores. This leaves the people who live off that land with no food, and no way to replace it. In towns this destruction of property was often partly intended to clear land for the new castles and cathedrals that William was building to assert his authority and control his new territory. The entries in the Domesday Book show the reduction caused to property value even a decade or two after the land in question was laid waste.

William the Conqueror probably never saw the completed work – he left England for his lands on the continent with a lot of money raised through taxing the English “as was his custom” (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) in 1086 and never returned (he died in 1087). As I mentioned at the start the Domesday Book was used as a reference in land disputes for many centuries afterwards, even down to relatively modern times. And it was also used in the late Middle Ages by villagers who wanted to prove they had the privileges accorded to a royal manor in 1086. In several cases villagers would club together to buy an excerpt from the Domesday Book which they hoped would demonstrate their status – often they were wrong, but obviously would’ve had to pay anyway.

An interesting programme – I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the Domesday Book since we did a project on it at school in 1986 – it was a country wide thing, generating a new “Domesday Book” 900 years on from the original. I thought it was up online now, but I think that may’ve been transitory which is a shame (although I haven’t searched very hard so I may be wrong).

Monday Link Salad

Huge four winged dinosaur fossils have been found!

Kinda neat – there’s a project to record medieval graffiti in churches.

TV I have set to record last week and this week:

The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain; Tigers About the House; The Birth of Empire: The East India Company

The First Georgians: The Kings Who Made Britain was a series presented by Lucy Worsley which ties into an exhibition at Buckingham Palace this year to mark the 300th anniversary of George I taking the throne. The series (and presumably exhibition?) focussed on Georges I and II who are often overlooked a bit in the rush to get to George III and the madness and loss of the American colonies. As well as the two monarchs Worsley also looked at the other important members of the family during this time – starting with the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was the originally designated heir to Queen Anne. Sophia didn’t live long enough to take the throne, so it was her eldest son George who did. Other members of the royal family discussed were the spouses of the two Georges: Sophia and Caroline; and Frederick Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III).

The Hanoverians were brought in as monarchs of the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament designed to avoid the “disaster” of a Catholic monarch. This of course was fertile ground for conflict – which boiled over in 1715 and 1745 with the Jacobite rebellions. As well as being Protestant they had another advantage – they were a family, with more than one heir already lined up! It was hope this would usher in a period of a stable Protestant monarchy. And it did, in one sense, but they were a pretty dysfunctional family. George I’s wife spent the last 30 years of her life locked up after having an affair, George I and George II did not get on, neither did George II and his son, Frederick. As well as all their disastrous fallings out the family also had some problems with being accepted by the populace of their new country – they were seen as foreigners, and George III was the first of the dynasty to be born in England! Both George I and George II were seen as more interested in Hanover than they were in the UK, Frederick was the first to truly put the UK first – mostly as it would annoy his father.

This was a time of great change in British society, and Worsley’s thesis was that some of this was due the trickle down effect of the Georges’ on the society around them. For instance in George II’s reign the concept of “the opposition” in parliament began to rise. This is because Frederick provided a secondary focus for the politicians – a place in the political system where you could disagree with the King whilst still being loyal to your country.

A good series about a couple of Kings I often overlook at bit, and it has definitely made me want to see the exhibition.

Tigers About the House was something completely different 🙂 Giles Clark is a zookeeper who is in part of the team who look after the Sumatran tigers in a zoo in Australia, and for the first couple of months of the lives of a pair of cubs he was bringing them up at home. The tigers in the zoo aren’t ever going to be reintroduced to the wild, and are handled often by the keepers (and sometimes by the public) so this was a good way to familiarise the cubs with humans while they were young. But it wasn’t in any way domesticating them – it seemed more like the keepers ended up as friends of the tigers (whilst still respecting them). As well as the strand of “ooooh, cute tiger babies” the programme also had a message about conservation. One of the reasons this Australian zoo is so keen to have their tigers handleable, including by the public, is that this encourages people to contribute to conservation funds. Sumatran tigers are being hunted to extinction by poachers in the wild, because their bodies are used in traditional medicines and as luxury goods – there are only a few hundred tigers left in the wild, and they may become extinct in the wild in the next few decades.

A very cute series, which did its job at raising awareness of the tigers plight in the wild.

The Birth of Empire: The East India Company was a two part series presented by Dan Snow looking at the history of the East India Company, and how they accidentally established the British Empire. It was full, as you might expect, of British people behaving poorly towards the Indians. But different phases of the history had different sorts of poor behaviour. Snow split it into two halves for the two episodes – in the first part of the history the Company was wholly independent from the British Government, and wholly concerned with profit. Going to India as a member of the East India Company was a good way to become spectacularly rich – providing you survived the climate and the diseases that came with the climate. It also seemed to have less formalised racism – men who went to India with the Company frequently married or otherwise had relationships with local women, and could take on some of the local customs (including but not limited to polygamy). But profit was the main focus, and this lead to the spectacularly poor management of a famine in Bangladesh (including selling food out of the region in order to make a profit rather than feeding the people) that appalled the public in Britain. The Company was brought under the oversight of Government after this, and the second phase of its history began.

This phase was to see the rise of the civil service and also increasing education of the the Indians. But it also started to move from trade with India to ruling India. In part because the Government oversight was back in London and couldn’t really do much to restrain the ambitions of the men on the ground in India. This era also saw the rise of a much more racist attitude towards the Indians, regarding them as innately inferior. And it was this attitude that lead to increasing tensions between the Indians and the Company – and this boiled over in the Indian Mutiny (otherwise known as India’s First War of Independence) in 1857. There were atrocities on both sides, and public sentiment in Britain was that the Company had been at fault in letting it happen. This was the catalyst for the British Government taking over ruling India and the end of the East India Company.

An interesting series that reminded me (again) how little I know of the history of India – I need to add a book about the subject to my (huge) list of books to read 🙂

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also watched:

Episode 4 and 5 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episode 1 and 2 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

Monday Link Salad

A group of embroiderers have created an ending section to the Bayeux Tapestry.

TV I’m recording this week:

How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears

How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears was a three part series that looked at how the geography of North America affected the westward movement of the USA. Mears was concentrating on the 19th Century, which is when most of the westward expansion took place. Each episode looked at a different aspect of the landscape. We started with mountains, both the eastern Appalachians and the two great western ranges (the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada). All of these provided resources for the USA during the 19th Century – including wood from the Appalachians, fur from the Rockies and gold from the Sierra Nevada. But in the west this terrain was also a death trap – to get to the west as a settler you could only cross the mountains when the weather was good enough for the passes to be open. One of the places he visited was where the Donner Party were forced to spend the winter when they were caught by bad weather in the mountains on the way to California.

The second episode was about the Great Plains – which used to be the home of the buffalo before the settlers came and killed them all. That episode looked both at how difficult it was for the people who settled in the plains, and at how difficult it was to cross as you made your way west in your wagon. This is also the landscape of the cowboy – driving vast herds of cattle for days across the plains to be sold. And the third episode was about the deserts in the south west of the USA. Even today 2000 people a year die trying to cross the Sonoran desert in Arizona (mostly trying to cross from Mexico into the USA), these are not forgiving regions. Some of the things Mears talked about in this programme were the difficulties the army faced trying to set up outposts in the south west USA, and also the lawless towns that grew up during the gold rush.

As well as talking about the difficulties and opportunities that the new settlers faced on the westward journey Mears also spent quite a lot of each episode talking to the Native American people whose ancestors had lived in those landscapes for generations before the Europeans turned up. He talked to them about the various traditions and skills they had which were suited to whichever environment they lived in. And he also made sure to cover the various atrocities committed during the westward push of the USA including the displacement by force of the native peoples.

It was an interesting series which focused on the two things that always strike me when watching programmes about the history of the USA – how much bigger the landscape is than what we have in Britain and how recent all the history is!

Other TV watched over the last two weeks:

Episodes 1 and 2 of The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain – Lucy Worsley talking about the Georgian Kings.

Episodes 2 and 3 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episodes 1 and 2 of Tigers About the House – series following 2 Sumatran tiger cubs being brought up at a zoo keeper’s house in Australia for the first few months of their lives.

Voyager: To the Final Frontier – one off programme about the Voyager missions, the space probes that were launched in the 1970s and flew past the outer planets of the solar system before heading out into deep space. Interesting both for the data they sent back of the planets, and also just for the fact that 1970s tech was capable of building and launching them.

Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome (Course on Future Learn)

The third course I’ve done on Future Learn was about archaeology & the Roman port Portus. And sadly I found it a bit disappointing. The course was run by Southampton University, whose archaeology department are one of the partners in the excavation of the site at Portus. Portus is in Italy, near Rome & to the west of it. From the 1st Century AD it was the main port serving the city of Rome, remaining in use until the 7th Century. Since then the coastline of Italy has changed and the whole site is now inland. Portus was one of the sites that featured in Rome’s Lost Empire which we watched over a year ago (post) and that’s part of what drew me to this course.

Over the first 5 of the 6 weeks that the course ran they had three strands of information. One of these was following the development of Portus from its foundation by Claudius in the 1st Century AD through to its use by the Ostrogothic rulers of Rome after the Western Roman Empire had fallen. The second strand was putting the port in context with the wider Roman (and post-Roman) world – looking not only at things like what sorts of goods & from where passed through the port but also at what was going on in historical terms at the time. The third strand was about archaeological methods – ranging from really basic stuff covered on any archaeology documentary, through to descriptions of cutting edge techniques. The final week was intended to pull the whole thing together and to get us involved with actual work going on right then at the site. It had a section where you could ask them to photograph things on site or answer questions about particular things. And the assignment was to look at some actual data & try and draw some conclusions.

As I said at the beginning I was rather disappointed, and in fact I never finished the final week. In part this was because it didn’t feel like it was pitched at people like me. I found the way the material was presented somewhat patronising on more than one occasion, and over all I felt they were interacting with us as pupils rather than as fellow adults (if that makes sense). This is in contrast to the other Future Learn courses I’ve done (or am doing) – the two Shakespeare ones and the English literature one I’m currently doing have managed to present technical terminology and explain details of their subject without resorting to phrases like “Well, I seem to be using a lot of big words in this one!”. I’d hesitate to say that to a primary school child for fear of offending them, let alone to a large group of adults.

I found the material in the course itself felt somewhat repetitive, and thus a bit shallow. I think that was an artifact of the way it was presented rather than actually being the case. Most sections had both a short video and a short article, with a lot of overlap in the material but some unique pieces of information in each. So to get all the information you had to watch the video and read the article, hence the feeling of repetition. Some videos were better than others – the ones where one of the educators was talking to camera on their own were the best. The ones where a student was conducting a very staged feeling interview with the educator in question were the worst – it was a good idea, I just think they failed to pull it off.

On the positive side they did give a lot of links to further information in each section. I confess I rarely followed them, because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged with the course. There were also extra “Advanced” sections where they explained some techniques in more detail, and some of those were the more interesting parts of the course.

Overall, a rather disappointing experience. I was too put off by the tone and the feeling of repetition to ever really get properly into the subject matter.

“Vikings: Life and Legend” Thomas Williams (Lecture at British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 16/6/2014)

The most recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening was in mid-June, just before the Vikings exhibition finished. As part of the evening they had a lecture from the Project Curator, Thomas Williams. As we’d already seen the exhibition twice (post) and seen the Vikings Live film they did (post) I was more expecting to get another perspective on the exhibition rather than anything completely new, and this was the case. So I’m just going to pick out a small handful of things that particularly struck me about his talk, rather than try & recap it.

Williams was a very entertaining speaker. He opened with a drawing of stereotypical (mythical) Vikings – men on a boat, complete with horns on helmets, double headed axes, and overly muscled blonde men wearing “barbarian” outfits (fur loin cloths & cloaks). He then spent a little while explaining how pretty much everything in that was wrong, except the fact they were on the sea (but even the shape of the boat was wrong)! So one of the jumping off points for the exhibition is that it was to present an overview of what we really know about the Vikings. This is a much harder task than it had been thirty-something years ago when the last British Museum exhibition about Vikings was held – scholarship has moved on a lot since then. One of the things Williams pointed out over & over during his talk was how recently many of the items on display had been discovered. The other jumping off point for the exhibition was Roskilde 6, the ship that was the centrepiece – another relatively recent discovery (in 1997). So the exhibition was centred around what the ships were used for – in particular the interactions of the Vikings with other surrounding cultures, as traders, as settlers and of course as raiders.

As well as pointing out the many new discoveries on show in the exhibition Williams also talked about how new work has lead to re-evaluation of older finds. One of the big changes is in the evaluation of the position & status of women in the Viking culture. One aspect of this that’s very revealing about previous archaeologists’ assumptions is that early excavations of Viking burials seemed to show a distinct gender imbalance with many more men than women. On later more detailed analysis of the bones it turns out there’s about a 50:50 split of men:women, the thing that confused the first excavators is that a not insignificant number of women were buried with swords. He said it isn’t certain if these women used the swords, or if the swords were in their graves as in indication of high status.

Women also played a role in the religious/magical life of the communities. High status female burials sometimes contain decorated iron rods, which are now identified with the iron staffs that female Viking shamans were said to carry. The evidence for what exactly these women did and what part they played in their communities is fragmentary but is similar to what is known of shamanic practices in the nomadic peoples who live(d) along the northern edge of Scandinavia & Russia etc. Williams also talked about how what we think we know about Norse mythology might not be the whole story. Most of what we know is what was written down post-conversion to Christianity, and there are all sorts of obvious ways that might be biased – both from people distancing themselves from the “old bad religion”, and from people trying to make their ancestors’ beliefs not look too “wrong” by the new standards. One thing Williams speculated about was whether the attitude to women in the medieval church (i.e. temptresses, sin starting with Eve & the apple) meant that some of the powers associated with women in Norse mythology got merged in with more “acceptable” male deities. The object that he used to illustrate this idea is a small statue of what might be Odin with his two ravens sitting on either side of his throne. But the figure is dressed in female clothes. Williams was suggesting, I think, that maybe it’s a feminised Odin to reflect the feminine nature of the shamanic powers (represented by the ravens), or not Odin at all but a female deity or shaman who was later merged in the written down mythology with Odin.

A very entertaining talk – glad we went to see it.