Britains Viking Graveyard: Channel 4 documentary filming

Last Sunday; 21st of April at 8pm, a Windfall films documentary; Britain’s Viking Graveyard, was aired on Channel 4. This was something I had been involved in during the latter part of 2018. Last night I finally got round to watching the documentary with the family (who were all very excited to be on the telly), and I have to say I enjoyed it. Not many appreciate how brave it is to make a programme which is partly tied to documenting current work, which can always be nerve-wracking and have uncertain outcomes.

My involvement however, was not in the archaeological side this time, but started last summer myself and my friend Mike ran a living history event at Repton. We first met one of the team then, when their camera man came along and shot some footage of our event and Cat and I looking at some artefacts. When the documentary started to take shape, sadly the lovely footage we shot there was no long much use, but we kept in touch with the crew, and later in the year they got back in touch with me and asked if we could provide some reenactors for some scenes they wanted to film. I believed the film crew involved had the right intent and attitude, so we decided to help.


Mike holding the main line to the shore, whilst the crew filmed us

I am lucky in having some great friends in reenactment, one in particular is my friend Mike whom I’ve known for… 20 years? He was the best man at our wedding, and can normally be found behind the scenes, working away with me to get stuff sorted at a lot of events we hold. In this instance, he never made it much into the film largely as he was busy helping with organising people, and had to leave earlier the next day, although you can at least hear him shouting everyone to pull the boat out of the water (appropriate). Nonetheless, late last year was a pretty tough time for me, and I owe him a big thanks for giving me a hand sorting everything out.

After a lot of phone calls, emails, and a site visit by Mike, we managed to assemble a small team of people with excellent late ninth-century early medieval reproduction clothing and items. We largely all do things like this because we all have a passion for educating people on the early medieval period, and we want to help make something good; it can be a very expensive and time-consuming hobby. A big big thank you is due to Emma, Mike, Stuart, Elaine, Matt, Davina, Paddy, Helen, Catherine, and Michael, and the four kids, who turned up in some trying circumstances to make it the success it was. I was also was asked about providing a longship to row on the Trent, which, alas, I could not provide. However, I put them in touch with Roland from Regia Anglorum, an excellent UK living history society, whom, after much head scratching with the film crew, found a way to get one of their vessels; The Bear, and three other crew on the Trent (no mean feat), which we would supplement to help row it and hopefully get them the footage they wanted.


Working our way along to the Trent; I don’t think the vikings had sign posts to show them where to go though!

We spent a nice late morning and afternoon working our way along the Trent whilst being filmed; alas I was pretty unwell at the time having just being diagnosed with a few conditions; two of which meant I was unable to do much to help row, so I was confined to standing in the bow. As is inevitable with filming, we had to do multiple takes, which meant turning round, rowing back, resting, and waiting about for resets and drones, much of which were quite hard to ignore as they flew overhead.


Waiting for a reset; proof that real vikings can get comfy anywhere!

Whilst we were doing this; Mike and half of the team went to the camp site to set up some tents. Whilst we were lucky that it didn’t rain and was quite a nice bright day, it was October, and the wind was incredibly strong, which made some stretches very tough for the rowers, and even worse for those trying to put up tents on the shore. They managed two tents, but the others they were unable to, but set about setting up benches and Davina prepared some food in pretty tough circumstances for when we arrived. The crew with them also filmed some activities around the camp and when we finally arrived; us pulling the boat ashore (which the aid of a passing rowing club crew) and eating.


Reginleif setting up Hnefatafl

After this is was getting pretty dark, so we faced a few hours of pack down and loading, and transport back to our respective accommodation. The next day we had two things planned; the main event would be in a village hall which had been set up for photo and 3-d modelling stills for the graphics used in the documentary, and a small shoot where I would demonstrate casting some of the lead gaming pieces. Myself, Stuart, and Mike were to set up the latter, and when we arrived in the field with the Director Peter it was raining, but we managed to get a tent set up and to prepare everything to film with Professor Mark Horton. We filmed a short scene in the tent with a fire which dried myself out somewhat, but of course, whilst Mike headed back to the hall, Stuart and Peter were stuck in the rain and got utterly drenched. Then we had to pack up and head back ourselves. After all that effort, I was pleased to see a little of that made it into the final documentary, if only for the sake of the several hours in the rain in a wet field!

We then arrived back at the hall, where the majority of the group had been shooting their stills and being 3-d modelled. There was a lot of waiting about for people to have their shots taken, but everyone seem to enjoy it, and we were grateful of a hot drink! We did both individual shots we understood were to be composite together later, and a few small group shots.


Still of Stuart, me, Paddy, and Matt (left to right) bearing the dead warrior



Me doing ‘Scary viking with axe’ the silhouette of which I saw quite a lot in the final graphics


My part pose for ‘viking running with implausibly large amounts of cash’


My daughter was so intrigued by the process, she had me and several others pose for photos all around the hall too; watch your backs Windfall!

During my full-time profession as an archaeologist, as well as my part-time reproduction and living history buisiness, the opportunities I most enjoy are when we can try to bring to life the past as accurately as possible, in order to help people envisage what the remains of objects, graves, sites, and buildings would have looked like to those who were there. I have found is often difficult for some to imagine this, and to show them through a reproduction or recreation, be it physcial, image, or words, can be a really powerful thing. Being involved in something like this is a great opportunity to do exactly that, and hopefully the accuracy we all try to bring to our recreations, adds to that experience. When we had done most of our shoots, they brought in an actress to play a female warrior, whom we loaned some equipment to. I then advised on laying her out as the Birka weapon grave, bj581, recently identified as a woman by DNA analysis. This was great fun, and an excellent opportunity to try to visualise what these graves may have looked like to those at the grave side, and I enjoyed describing to the team some of the unusual things that are often found in viking-age furnished graves, and also small details like corpses not having tightly closed mouths like you often see on television.


Laying out bj581 as best we could to reflect the original grave illustration

Through all the reenactments we have been involved in, we have always been keen to include aspect of normal early medieval life; craftspeople, trade, activites based around everyday things like farming, woodwork, spinning, and particularly women and children. To us, this shows a more holistic view of the viking age, something often sadly missing in many things relating to the public perception of ‘vikings’. In a program about the Great Army, particularly with such a minor involvement, I was not over optimistic this would get much time, despite good evidence of whole communities in these Winter camps. I suspected, inevitably, the focus would be on warfare and fighting, but I hoped that we could include the women and children and much as possible. The crew was very welcoming and seemed receptive of this, but I feared it would be no match for a 6 foot, blood spattered, bearded bloke with an axe! However, they shot lots of footage of everyone, and some particularly great portraits of the ladies and children. I was absolutely delighted to see that quite a lot of this made it into the final program, suggesting more at this larger aspect to army camps, and absolutely loved the section near end where they mention the children being born here, with the montage of all our little viking families… absolutely my favourite bit of the whole thing! I wondered whether these scenes, and their potential significance would be noticed, so was very excited to see my friend Professor Judith Jesch spotted just that! (…/britains-viking-grave…)

I enjoyed this aspect of the show particularly, and It hopefully proved you can do things properly, and have it look great, and I think it helped to move the ball a little more towards where I personally think it aught to be, and Windfall aught to be commended for that.

Of course, nothing is without fault, but I think it was a positive, entertaining, and educational show, that I was pleased and priviledged to be involved in it. Of course, this blog was just my experience of being involved in the process, which was a very very small one in the grand scheme of things. The real star and subject was Dr Cat Jarman and her research, who did a fantastic job, and I will continue to watch with interest, and I look forward to her future books and papers! My personal thanks to Cat for pointing them my way, and also for inviting me down to Repton in 2017 to look at the dig, and show the excavators how the gaming pieces are made!

It was also lovely to see Dr Clare Downham and Professor Howard Williams on the show (both of which have given talks at the Saturday evening lectures of the Viking festival at Heysham which I arrange each year; (this years excellent speakers will be announced soon!). Finally my thanks and congratulations to the Windfall team; Peter, Terry, Ian, Rachel, Ben, and the others we met briefly; you were so very welcoming and accommodating to us all, thank you for having us, it must have been a gargantuan effort to put together and you did an awesome job. I hope you enjoyed working with us as much as we did, and well done.

For those who haven’t yet seen it the program is still available here for the next month, and should be released in America on PBS sometime in May:

2 thoughts on “Britains Viking Graveyard: Channel 4 documentary filming

  1. Pingback: Britain’s Viking Graveyard – Going Viking

  2. Pingback: Update Viking Camp at Repton - The Viking Archive

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