It is with great pleasure I can share my interview with Dr. Marianne Hem Eriksen, Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of Oslo!
Hi Marianne, thank you for taking part in this Norse themed event! I think I can speak on behalf of everyone taking part in saying it’s a pleasure to have someone of your experience and knowledge on board to contribute towards the event with an interview.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Alex, and my pleasure!
Much of the popular interpretation of the Norse peoples are of raiders; of Vikings. TV shows like Vikings have only added to this focus and portrayal. How important do you feel it is for people to learn about Norse culture and society as well as simply focusing on the pillaging, bloodthirsty image constantly pushed on us by films and tv series in particular?
I think it’s important to understand, as you say, that there was a lot more to the Vikings and their worlds than just raiding and pillaging. The people of the Viking Age were seafarers, weavers, crafters, and poets — they cultivated the land, gave birth, and mourned their dead; they had hopes, fears and aspirations, just like all other humans.
However, I am very much of the opinion that we should take the violence of the period seriously, in part to avoid glamourising it. What was the violence about, and how did it resonate in other aspects of life? How did fatalism and the ethos of dying an honourable death socialise people into violence? How was the violence of the Vikings experienced by their victims? I am not very keen on the un-nuanced ‘celebration’ of the Vikings seen in parts of popular culture (and I wouldn’t want to live in the Viking period myself).
What would you say is the most important or enlightening viking archaeological discovery of recent times in your opinion?
I’m going to have to say the aDNA results confirming that the individual buried in Birka Bj 581, with full warrior equipment, was a woman [Link]. This find has generated enormous popular attention and intense scholarly debate. Whether we think she was an active warrior or not (and I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t have been), I think this case has pushed Viking scholars to see nuance and complexity in social identity, in a field where (apologies) we often fall into one-dimensional stereotypes: ‘warrior’, ‘king’, ‘housewife’, and so on. These were fully-fledged people living messy and complex lives, and we should keep an open mind to nuance and complexity in the past, as we know them from our own present.
How did the Norse family household of the middle ages differ from that of a medieval English family, for example?
I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon households, so I won’t go too far into that comparison. An important point here, though, is that we can’t really equate the terms ‘household’ and ‘family’, and particularly not the nuclear family we sometimes take as a universal. Households in the Iron and Viking Ages could be complex and large, consisting of several smaller households, servants or slaves, itinerant craftspeople, guests, animals, and children of various descent. In many ways, daily life not only reflects but actively creates large-scale social order. The interactions and unwritten rules and norms people lived by; who did the toughest labour, who got to eat first, who sat in the high seat in the hall, who slept in the byre with the animals: these “mundane” practices are politics too.
Is the size of a dwelling enough for estimating the standing of the family that lived there; what other elements might you be looking for to tell you more about its inhabitants?
The size of the dwelling is not enough in and by itself to estimate social status or standing — but it may be one of many pieces of a puzzle. The standing of a household is not the only, or necessarily the most interesting question to ask, though. I’m interested in questions such as: What was the atmosphere of a longhouse like? Who built the houses, and who decided when they should be abandoned? How did building materials like wood, stone, and turf demand repairs and rebuilding, and who did the work? What was it like to be a child, a servant, or a slave in the households of Iron and Viking Ages? Why did people dig artefacts,, animal bones, and very rarely, human remains, into hearths, floors, postholes and under walls? Why were some houses covered by burial mounds after they went out of use? Who belonged to the house, and who never really felt at home?
You’ve written articles about findings concerning the way the vikings treated their dead; including keeping infants and skulls in domestic living spaces. Did they keep the skulls and body parts of relatives with them and do you believe this was a form of respect or another sort of ritual?
First, I should point out that these studies are from both the Iron and Viking Ages (so the entire first millennium CE). It’s difficult to know whether these were loved and commemorated individuals of the community, or whether their individual identities were less important, and their bones, and the house, were in focus. These are some of the questions my team and I will try and answer in my new research project (see below)! At minimum I think we need to be open-minded about the Iron and Viking Age populations living in really different worlds from the contemporary west, where the lines between people and objects may have been drawn quite differently.
What would be a more exciting archaeological discovery for you personally – the biggest treasure and weapons hoard ever discovered that makes worldwide news, or a find that sheds light on something totally new in everyday viking life that hasn’t been written about or studied before, that changes the way we see things?
Haha, from the phrasing of the question I think you know the answer! I’m an archaeologist because I am first and foremost interested in people, and how people live with and through, and are indeed made of, the material world. Treasure and hoards are interesting because they tell stories: stories of skills, of aesthetics, of encounters, of connections — of choices, practices, rituals and travels in the past. But the silver or the coins don’t really make my heart beat any quicker in and by themselves. The most striking finds I’ve been part of were children’s shoes from the medieval Oslo harbour — suddenly the past seemed very present.
Tell us about your book, ‘Architecture, Society and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia: Doors, Dwelling and Domestic Space.’ Can the casual history fan find plenty to enjoy here or is this intended for the more experienced historian? For people who might question what we can learn from just a doorway, what would you say to them?
I am of course writing in an academic context, for scholars and students. However, I think an important part of academic work is to make the big ideas clear and open, and I try to do that every day. I hope and believe that there are parts of the book that may open up the Viking Age for any reader with a real interest in the period! (Just don’t expect muscle-clad warrior-men; I’ve left them for the television dramas.)
And, yeah — how can anyone tell anything from ‘just a doorway’? Well, how better to learn about past people than to take something so familiar, that we pass through every day dozens of times to the point where we don’t notice, and look at how it works in a really foreign world where even familiar things worked a bit differently? Doors turn out to be important — they tell us about how people moved through space and interacted with each other, how physical and social space was partitioned into rooms, how the Vikings thought about houses and people, and how they thought about other ‘thresholds’ like the one between the living and the dead. So yes, it’s the most familiar things, the ‘just a doorway’ (or ‘just a baby shoe’ or ‘just a longhouse’) that often have so much to tell us under the surface.
What are you currently working on, can we expect anything new in the works soon?
I feel very chuffed and excited to soon be starting my new European Research Council
project called ‘Body-Politics: Personhood, Sexuality, and Death in the Iron and Viking
Ages’. It seeks to examine how the human body was understood and contested in this period, and especially at understanding the diversity of bodies–not just macho male ones, but female, unfree, infants, elderly people, living, dead and so on. What kinds of bodies did people in the Iron and Viking Ages idealize — and which were more closely related to objects than persons? I’ll be hiring a team to explore these questions in the coming year or two, bringing together scientists, literary scholars, and archaeologists. So stay tuned — there should be a lot to come!
Thankyou very much for your time, Marianne. It’s been a real privilege to interview you for Norsevember!
Marianne Hem Eriksen (PhD 2015) is Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oslo, and a Research Fellow, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia (CUP, 2019). An elected member of the Young Researchers of Norway under the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, she was awarded His Majesty the King’s Gold Medal for Younger Scholars of Excellence in 2016.
When not immersed in the deep past, Marianne enjoys her geeky meta-hobby of reading about academic writing, and running at a (very) leisurely pace.
Picture content © Marianne Hem Eriksen