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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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

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

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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.

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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! (https://norseandviking.blogspot.com/…/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:

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2017 Update

I’ve had another busy year, with some very exciting projects, but the website is becoming quite difficult to keep up to date with all the current exciting work I am doing. At some point I will have to rebuild it, but for now I just thought I’d write a quick post to let you all know one of the best places you can keep up to date with the work we are doing and current projects and reproduction galleries; our social media.

You can find links to our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on the left, but I would particularly direct you to Instagram to see the various stuff we have been involved in, and to Facebook for a gallery of curated projects here, particularly the museum and Universities handling collections in this album.

We are currently working on a large reproduction handling collection for the AHRC-funded ‘Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands’ project by the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age at the University of Nottingham. This will be completed in the next month, and accompany a large viking exhibition in the Museum of Archaeology at Nottingham Lakeside arts  a series of handling and practical craft workshops.

 

Viking World: Diversity and Change: 2016 Conference

From the 27th June to the 2nd of July, I was privileged to be invited to attend the Viking World Conference 2016, hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Viking-age, at the University of Nottingham.

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As part of my invitation as well as being a full delegate at the plenary conference, I also would be manning a stall before and after lectures, and also during the breaks and lunch hour. This would contain both reproductions of original objects I had made, as well as a small display on some of the experimental and investigative work I had done into craft techniques, and objects use and function.

I have found previously that there is often a reluctance from professionals and academia to engage with a display such as this, particularly as until they spoke to me, most did not know I was also a professional within the field, however, whilst there was still a little of this, my overwhelming impression was that of interest, enthusiasm, and support, from the cast majority of delegates, often from places I was not expecting it.

This is particularly the case from the conferences two organisers; Professor Judith Jesch and Associate Professor Christina Lee, who not only put in an amazing amount of effort to organise and run the conference, but also showed a lot of personal support and interest in the unusual work I do. Both brilliant scholars, and lovely people.

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The programme for the conference was very varied and wide-ranging, with speakers from all over the viking world, from the Americas to Azerbaijan. There are far too many topics to recount here, but you can see from the programme, just how much was covered.

Things that stood out for me particularly were a talk by Charlotta Lindblom from Vejle Museum on the evolving story of the monumental landscape at Jelling; the sheer scale of the monuments was astounding to me. There were also a number of talks dealing with the local level networks of outland management by Andreas Hennius, who put forward the evidence for outland exploitation in the Viking-age, particularly tar pits, but which also got me thinking about other related industries, such as charcoal manufacture, honey and beeswax collection/farming, amongst many others. This notion of a complex and layered landscape exploitation tradition as part of a symbiotic relationship with larger towns and trading centres, made a lot of sense to me, and is a much neglected area of study. Ryan Fosters talk about Shieling naming in Northern Britain,brought out through the use of naming variations, a similar suggestion of a variation in activities and identities.

In addition different talks by Vusala Afandiyeva, Þórir Hraundal, and Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, really brought home the huge influence and activities of the Rus, both down the Rivers of Eastern Europe and modern-day Russia, and in around the Caspian Sea, and a compelling case for a more robust trade route to Asia. It is an aspect of Viking studies I had always been aware of but the scale and significance of it, I think, has really begun to emerge (like the Jelling monument) as far greater than previously appreciated.

A subject very close to home was the talk from Eleanor Rye (from the University of Nottingham) who discussed placename construction in Cumbria and the Wirral, which owe a lot to West Norse influence, which reinforced my observations within my own field of interest; material culture, which I feel shows similar patterns.

Kerstin Näverskölds talk on Shields as objects and symbols, and Leszek Gardeƚas discussion of pendants and amulaic objects in Poland, as symbols of belief and identity, brought home the nuance between a physical and functional object, and its personal significance and symbolism, and also a cautionary tale of how our beliefs and desire can taint identification and understanding of an object.
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I shall have to stop here, completely unfairly, because the temptation is to just run down the list of many outstanding papers given, some of personal pet subjects too, and this blog post would never end. Needless to say, it was an outstanding collection of work and material presented, and enough to overstimulated my brain even now, a week later!
All in all, the conference, perhaps accented for me by the few talks I mentioned, brought home the scale and influence of the viking world, the significance and sophistication of its infrastructures and networks, and social systems, and the vast array of cultural variation and complexity of identities and belief structures. Diversity and Change indeed.

Tullie House Exhibition of the Cumwhitton Viking Graves

Earlier on this year I completed the largest museum reproduction commission I have undertaken to date. The work was outfitting Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery’s permanent new exhibition: Vikings Revealed, containing some of the material from the Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, excavated in 2004. As one of the lead authors on the volume, I spent a good deal of time making reproductions during the analysis phase to understand some the artefacts better, and as such, understood a lot of detail about the objects and their manufacture.

There were a lot of objects required replication, involving a huge variety of craft materials and techniques. For the exhibition a Pattern welded sword with a silver inlaid hilt, a shield, and axe head, and a spear were chosen as reproduction weaponry. In addition, an iron bound maple box, a drinking horn with brass mounts, a pair of tinned spurs, with leathering and buckles, a ringed-pin, a pair of tinned brass buckles and strap ends, and a bone comb, sickle, and shears. Given time constrains, and the complexity and skill required in some of the weaponry, I enlisted the help of two friends; Dave Barnes a Blacksmith from York, and Paul Binns, a well-respected bladesmith. Dave did the axe, spearheads, and some of the ironwork, and Paul constructed the pattern welded blade. I made all the remaining items, and hafted the spearhead, and constructed the horn handle and hilts of the sword, and inlaid it in silver, the latter after some expert help and advice from a friend at Newcastle University.

20160117_212541A group shot of all the objects. From left to right: axe head, iron bound maple box, the shield, shears, buckles and strap ends, spear, spurs, ringed-pin, comb, sickle, and drinking horn.

20160202_202059The Pattern welded sword, with a horn handle, and silver inlaid iron hilt.

Finally I have a few pictures of the objects in the final exhibition, showing them mounted in the display cases. The majority of the objects were mounted within plinths to physically represent the graves, which the designers chose to embody the interred individuals, as their skeletons had degraded leaving nothing but their graves filled with objects.

The iron bound maplewood box on the Grave 1 plinth

The iron-bound maple wood box on the Grave 1 plinth

 

The Buckle and Strap end in the Grave 2 plinth

The Buckle and Strap end in the Grave 2 plinth

 

The comb, sickle, and shears in the Grave 2 plinth

The comb, sickle, and shears in the Grave 2 plinth

 

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The sword mounted in the Grave 3 plinth

 

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The remains of the Grave 3 objects on display

 

The axehead in the Grave 4 plinth

The axe head in the Grave 4 plinth

 

The shield mounted on the wall next to the Grave 2 plinth

The shield mounted on the wall next to the Grave 2 plinth

The drinking horn in the Grave 5 plinth

The drinking horn in the Grave 5 plinth

 

The spurs in the Grave 5 plinth

The spurs in the Grave 5 plinth

 

The spear head mounted on the wall, close to the partial plinth representing the damaged Grave 6

The spear head mounted on the wall, close to the partial plinth representing the damaged Grave 6

 

Last of all, here I am dressed as a 10th century viking, waiting to talk to the press and Tullie House members and VIPs for the open evening! It was a great opportunity to incorporate reproductions into an interpretations scheme, and whilst there is always more you wish you could do, they were a very striking and cost-effective addition to the exhibition.

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2015: Vikings for Schools for The University of Nottingham

2015 was a busy year for me. I got to meet some interesting people and was asked to undertake some interesting commissions throughout the year, the first of which came from the University of Nottingham’s CSVA (Centre for Study of the Viking Age) with an enquiry about some objects for their ‘Vikings for Schools‘ programme. As with most of the commissions I get, I spent some time with them, working out what sort of things they may need, and what they would need them for. As they are working with school children they needed to be very safe, and as robust as possible for frequent handling. In addition, there was a little working out of what sort of things might be useful, or possible, and working out a budget.

In the end we came up with a list of Viking-age objects that I produced and delivered to the University Campus. Quite a lot of the creative and construction process I shared on my Twitter account: @eblueaxe and can still be seen there if you look back at my feed and images. Below are the finished objects; including ice skates, a reproduction of the Lincoln runic comb and case, and the Scar viking boat burial comb, a knife with a wooden carved handle (based on a handle fragment from York), and a ‘carved’ leather scabbard. There was also a blowing horn and strap, four arm-rings based on finds from the Cuerdale and Silverdale hoards, and an early-eleventh century axe with an Ashwood haft and brass punched collar inspired by an example from the River Thames.

Here is a picture of it all together, also including some of the bone Thor’s hammers and glass bead necklaces I made them.

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Last but by no means least, there was the small challenge of making an interpretation of a ships head with a dragon or beast on it. What size to make it, how to prop it up, and what to base it on were somewhat of a challenge as there is very little evidence as to what ship heads may have looked like, and a full size one or three dimensional version would be unwieldy and likely too expensive to produce, but it needed to maintain some of its scale and grandeur to impress the children.

As a result, I decided to make it as a flat oak board that would be detachable from the front of the ship as suggested by some sources. For the design I chose to base it on one of the Gokstad ship burial objects carvings, as whilst it wasn’t a ship head, it was from a ship burial from the period, and was carved on a flat plank like this, and also importantly depicts some form of Horse, or Dragon, or other beast (notoriously viking snakes and dragons can have ears like horses which makes interpretation difficult!). Finally, a simple timber stand was constructed to hold the shiphead up higher and at the angle of the front of the ship.

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Finally here are a couple of pictures of the objects being used in anger, courtesy of the CSVA!

 

Seeing some of our work on display

Over the last 18 months we have a number of commissions from The National Trust, the Dublinia experience in Dublin, private individuals, Television production companies, and other museums and educational organisations. This has included an interesting mix of objects, from bone and antler combs (such as those below on display at Dublinia), tinned copper-alloy belt fittings, and copper-allow cloak pins.

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One of the more unusual items was a bronze age dagger ‘replica artefact’, complete with an aged patina. This was to be used for an archaeological dig exercise for children, to enable a number of school groups to excavate and analyse a mock-up bronze age grave many times.

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It has been an intriguing time, with a variety of interesting and unique challenges, so if you have one of your own please don’t hesitate to get in touch!